Over the course of the four minutes it took for her to sing the anthemic Change at last weekend’s Academy of Country Music Awards, Taylor Swift sailed over the crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, trotted into the audience so she could make her way to the stage, aerobicised with a decidedly non-gospel choir and fell back first into the arms of some well versed stage hands to make her exit in one of the most antiseptic examples of crowd surfing ever broadcast.
And what did she get for her trouble? Nada. Out of four major nominations (Entertainer, Female Vocalist, Song and Video of the Year), the singer who has sold in excess of 10 million albums in a little over three years, went home empty handed.
The ceremony was a curious, though not entirely unexpected new chapter in the amazing flight of a star singer just barely out of her teens. Less than three months earlier, Swift won as many trophies at the Grammy Awards as she lost at the ACMs, including honors for Album of the Year. The morning after the Grammys, though, all anyone could talk about was her pitch deficient performance alongside Stevie Nicks.
Four months before that was the now-infamous MTV Video Music Awards broadcast where Swift was thrust into an unplanned duet with Kanye West, who appropriated the microphone when the country singer was accepting an award for her You Belong With Me video. The whole mess prompted an appropriate outpouring of support for Swift. After all, the incident was viewed, not improperly, along the lines of a wicked adult stealing presents from a child at her birthday party.
Swift got a jab back at Kanye-zilla when she hosted Saturday Night Live in November. But for the most part, she addressed the incident as coolly as she has the triumphs of her young career. In short, there is much to admire about Swift. It’s just that little of it has to do with actual music.
Addressing stardom with a maturity that goes light years beyond teen-dom, presenting an eagerness to tackle entertainment possibilities that extend to comedic and dramatic acting and, most of all, maintaining a level of personal dignity when many young artists – especially females – are encouraged to act out every growing sexual impulse in public a la Britney Spears… these are attributes of a commercial artist with an eye to a long career. Within the honestly G-rated boundaries she has set up for herself, there is no reason to think that career won’t prosper further. But it will likely do so outside of Nashville circles.
Was the cold shoulder exhibited by the ACMs an indication of what contemporary country thinks of Swift these days? Perhaps. Of course, for a country awards ceremony to turn judgmental when it’s staged each year in Las Vegas creates a bit of a double standard. But then commercial country these days is so entangled in pop cosmetics that its very heritage has been shed. There isn’t likely to be much of a traditional Nashville turn in Swift’s future, save for possibly cutting a hardcore country album as a one-off project. And that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. For starters, she just doesn’t have the pipes for it.
Admittedly, the ACM ceremony was a step up from the performance nosedive at the Grammys. Still, the fact remains that for all of the likeability, possibility and bankability Swift commands, she remains, at best, a mediocre singer. But that matters not a whit to her considerable fanbase. When an artist sells out Rupp Arena at the bat of an eye, as Taylor did when tickets for her Thursday concert there went on sale in December (additional seats for the Rupp concert were made available last week), you can bet fans care little about the critical limitations of an artist. With Swift, they like the look, the songs (most of which Swift has co-written and co-produced), the whole amiable presentation.
Kids like her because they so readily associate with her youth. Parents like her because she is so thoroughly non-threatening. It’s a safe bet, though, that Swift, even at her young age, possesses a greater level of shrewdness about where her own career is going than anyone – her biggest fans or her sharpest critics – suspects.
That’s something the ACMs missed entirely this year. As far as country music is concerned, Swift has grown up and moved on. The rest of the entertainment world now sits before her.
Taylor Swift, Kellie Pickler and Gloriana perform at 7 p.m. April 29 at Rupp Arena. Ticket tickets: $26.00, $50.50, $60.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-8000.