Why Does Taylor Swift Win Awards?

Posted by on Feb 1, 2010 | Comments (5)

Dad: “Maybe when you have time you can explain to me why Taylor Swift wins Grammy Awards.”

Me: “Yes, I can do that. As long as you explain to me why she still makes that patently fake ‘surprised’ look every time she wins, after a solid year of winning every award in sight.”

The short version is that the Grammys are run by horny old white men. Mostly.

The longer version involves some dissection of her appeal, which starts with the basics (pretty) and trickles down to the more esoteric (girl actually writes her own songs). No viewer alien to the nominees context last night would have heard Taylor’s flat singing and predicted her to win over Lady Gaga, who stole the show, but I’ll bet there’s a substantial handful of Grammy voters who know she writes her own tunes.

It’s a big deal in country music, writing your own songs. Country music is the last popular music in America that relies heavily on a concentrated Brill-Building-style stable of songwriters, which is why much of it is predictable and sounds like “hit” material. (I sometimes wish rappers used songwriters, just as an experiment. I also wish rappers did covers of other rapper’s songs. Will explore this sometime in the future.) So for Taylor Swift to come out and write her own songs rocks that tradition and brings it back to a purer, more authentic Nashville that the average Grammy voter wishes once existed.

“Authenticity” is big up on Taylor Swift’s requirements—check the reaction again: the blank stare, the open mouth, the cupping palm—and she makes sure that all the hella fake-ass things about her don’t overshadow it. Plus, universal appeal, duh. Her songs are the kinds of songs that old people wish their kids would write, and that kinds of songs that make young people think, I could have written that. They are not shitty songs, keep in mind.

Does that explain it?

I can get behind Taylor Swift and all—there’s far worse role models for teenage girls to have, and far lousier pop music—but my vision is always stained by the Young Girls in Nashville Who Write Their Own Songs War of 2006. Pretty much it was Taylor Swift vs. Miranda Lambert, and Taylor won because she’s skinnier and younger and skinnier and blonder and skinnier and writes pop-country songs instead of country-country songs. (“Famous in a Small Town.” Watch that shit!) With silver medal in tow, Miranda Lambert has laid low, opening for Kenny Chesney and recording John Prine and friggin’ Fred Eaglesmith songs. (“Time to Get a Gun.” Watch that shit!) Still regret missing her headline the small indoor theater at Konocti.

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  1. Sara Bir
    February 2, 2010

    I love Nashville songwriters. The old ones, at least, like up to 1982 or so. Brill Building, too. Even if a lot of that stuff is cliched and vapid. Maybe I love it because it is.

    But why should a musician have to generate most of their own material to be taken seriously? No one bagged on minstrels for singing folksongs as old as the hills. No one knocks Pete Seeger for singing old folksongs, which he likewise did not write (though yes, he does write songs.) We are fickle people.

    In the pop world, I guess a producer has stepped into the role that a songwriter would have played traditionally–that is, they oftentimes write the songs themselves now, don’t they? Huh.

  2. Profile photo of Gabe Meline
    Gabe Meline
    February 2, 2010

    “But why should a musician have to generate most of their own material to be taken seriously?”

    They don’t, necessarily. Singers both in and out of Nashville rely on songwriters and manage to become huge stars. It’s just that “she writes her own songs” works on the same level as “it’s based on a true story”—as a little bonus that encourages respect. Writing your own songs in and of itself is no sure ticket to acclaim. No one watching a shitty movie is going to suddenly think it’s good when they find out it’s based on a true story, but someone watching a good movie might be intrigued further. (See Frank Sinatra’s “I’m a Fool to Want You,” the only song he ever took part in writing, and the circumstances surrounding his tumultous relationship with Ava Gardner.)

    You’re right, producers are the new songwriters. And now, back to work. (Gretchen says hi!)

  3. WhiskeyChick
    February 6, 2010

    Excellent piece, and I agree that writing their own songs does lend an artist that extra nod of respect. Not to say that tenure, and general fan appeal can’t top it… look at George Strait for example. His very first writing credit on his own CD was only this last year with the release of “Twang”.

    Gabe, if you’re ever looking for a place to guest post, let me know. I like your style!

  4. jen
    February 9, 2010

    better question “why should there be awards?”

  5. Colby Duran
    April 17, 2010

    She is a totally amazing singer. I collect all of her songs.


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