Saturday, February 6, 2010

This Week Not Such a Fairytale for Taylor Swift

Before I begin, let me preface with a little "journalistic integrity" business (as a blogger I'm not sure I need to hold myself to quite the same standard, but I do in one way or another report or relay a good deal of factual/news-y information on this blog and would like to maintain a certain credibility): it is my intention to try to suppress as much schadenfreude as possible on this post. I am, however, only human, so I make no promises.

As you are probably aware, the week began on quite a high note for twenty-year-old country crossover star Taylor Swift. Her latest single "Today Was a Fairytale," from the soundtrack to the upcoming Garry Marshall ensemble romantic comedy Valentine's Day (in which Swift also costars) had debuted last week at #2 on the Hot 100, breaking the first-week download record for a female artist and briefly reaching the top download spot on iTunes. Then on Sunday, Swift won four of the eight Grammy Awards for which she received nominations, including something of a surprise win for her blockbuster album Fearless as Album of the Year, managing to overcome the Grammy tradition of bestowing that award on whichever nominee is oldest (see recent triumphs by minor albums by the likes of Steely Dan, Herbie Hancock and, posthumously, Ray Charles), in this case the Dave Mathews Band, as well as beating out solid contenders Lady Gaga, Beyonce (who nevertheless broke the record for Grammys won at one ceremony by taking home six trophies), and the Black Eyed Peas.

The night wasn't a complete victory for the oh so insistently lovable singer, however, and there her problems began. In her poorly conceived duet performance with legend Stevie Nicks, both singers struggled, Swift more noticeably so with a delivery Entertainment Weekly diplomatically described as "pitchy" (think Adam Lambert at the AMAs late last year). The weak performance stood out perhaps more than it might have had the rest of the live acts of the night not been as consistently solid as they were: Lady Gaga and Elton John's opener was at once thrilling and touching; Beyonce's intriguing song choice (Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know..." wait, didn't that make an appearance just a few months back when Britney Spears shocked the world by singing something live (and unannounced) at several of her concerts?), Green Day being Green Day, the Black Eyed Peas coasting through inoffensively, the Michael Jackson tribute that actually didn't end up sucking, and of course Grammy snubbee Pink bringing the house down with her acrobatic, beautiful rendition of the largely unfamiliar ballad "Glitter in the Air" all made Swift and Nicks' offering look even weaker by comparison.

Swift and Nicks at the 2010 Grammy Awards

To make matters worse, the CEO of Swift's label Big Machine Records, Scott Borchetta, lashed back at the understandable criticism of the performance that ensued over the following couple of days, saying among other things, "This is not 'American Idol.' This is not a competition of getting up and seeing who can sing the highest note. This is about a true artist and writer and communicator. It's not about that technically perfect performance." The label chief's petulantly defensive response may have been intended to neutralize criticism but instead, predictably, had rather the opposite effect of escalating what started as a minor snarkfest with a .likely lifespan of two or three days tops into an argument, and the only thing bloggers love more than one-off bits of snark is a good fight.

One particular blogger with an especially high name recognition, namely Grammy winner and the very first American Idol champion Kelly Clarkson, applied her trademark colloquial meets analytical writing style to a delightfully snide rebuttal on her own blog to Borchetta's rather unwise choice of antagonistic comparison. "We not only hit the high notes, you forgot to mention we generally hit the ‘right’ notes as well," she wrote after admonishing the exec for his Idol diss, closing with some entirely correct and appropriate advice: that "instead of lashing out at other artists (that in your ‘humble’ opinion lack true artistry), you should simply take a breath and realize that sometimes things won’t go according to plan or work out and that’s okay." The post is a solid win on the side of maturity in the music business, and with the exception of the oh-so-subtle "right notes" dig did not at all criticize Swift or her performance - rather the opposite, in fact; however, the confrontation-loving blogosphere teemed with headlines such as Billboard.com's leader "Kelly Clarkson Fires Back at Taylor Swift," a misleading statement to be sure but only those who actually read the article would know it.

How aware Swift herself might be of the minor tonality tempest muddying the wake of her big victory night is, of course, debatable. Tangible things like sales figures, however, are of course more difficult to wave away as insignificant. While the new Billboard data released on Thursday was from the week leading up to the Grammys (therefore not yet including any post-Grammy telecast numbers), Swift had seen several tracks enjoying an awards buildup boost on the charts, and Fearless had inhabited the top ten on the Billboard 200 albums chart for many long weeks. On Thursday's chart, however, Fearless had dropped to #13 in its 64th week of release - in itself hardly something to sneeze at, but compared with the 10% sales increase Lady Gaga's debut album The Fame enjoyed in its 65th week to hold the number 3 spot it was an uncharacteristic slump. Over on the Hot 100, "Today Was a Fairytale," which all but disappeared from the iTunes download chart early this week, dropped like a stone from number 2 to number 22, and other singles stalled or slipped down the chart as well.

The very hot debut of fellow country act Lady Antebellum's sophomore album Need You Now this week and the chart staying power historically common among country musicians could easily make the threesome into the new Taylor Swift (who was after all sort of the new Carrie Underwood, who was herself the new LeeAnn Rimes, who was once the new Shania Twain...and so forth) and render the 20 year old's services to country music's coffers no longer required. It remains to be seen in next Thursday's charts whether Swift will enjoy a Grammy bounce this week or whether Fearless and its progeny have finally reached their sell-by date and, as all music does some time or another, begin their steady decline towards their eventual drop off of the charts entirely. Of course, if she plays this wisely, that will be about the time her next album drops and we see whether this precocious Pollyanna has the goods to prove herself as more than just a one trick pony. Until then, I know at least one pop music devotee/blogger who would not mind in the slightest if Taylor Swift happened to vanish for a while - at least long enough for the pop scene to reboot before she presents her next musical project.

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