- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The biggest news in country music over the past week has been the latest Taylor Swift breakup. Hang on, this one is serious.

Miss Swift, who is far-and-away THE biggest-selling recording artist in country (of any genre, actually), is parting ways with longtime publicist Paula Erickson.

The Nashville-based publicist has supported the superstar since 2007, and has seen the 24-year-old singer-songwriter through everything — from Kanye West’s 2009 MTV Awards dis (“I’ma let you finish, but Beyonc had one of the best videos of all time!”) to the string of multiplatinum albums to the ill-fated parade of celebrity boyfriends. (They survived Jake Gyllenhaal and John Mayer together, people.)

Everything Miss Swift does is potentially big news in Nashville. Since the 2006 release of her self-titled debut album, the Pennsylvania native has sold 26 million albums and 75 million downloads, making her the No. 1 digital singles artist. She’s had 31 Top 40 country singles, including 13 that hit No. 1.

She sells out arenas, she hosts “Saturday Night Live,” she dates movie stars and dances in the aisles at every awards show on TV. She’s young and vibrant, and she’s made country relevant in ways the industry couldn’t have imagined before she came along.

So you understand, the country music industry loves Taylor Swift. But now it’s worried she’s about to break up with Nashville.

Miss Swift has a much-anticipated album due out later this year. It’s been kept under wraps, but there is a lot of nervous speculation among country music executives.

After the huge success of her pop and dance tracks (“Knew You Were Trouble” incorporates dubstep, of all things) on 2012’s “Red,” some are worried that Nashville’s biggest star is ready to go pop. Or electronica. Or reggae. Whatever, she just doesn’t sound all that country anymore.

That’s why all the attention on the split with her publicist.

Is Miss Swift dumping the old team to facilitate a cleaner break with her country-sweetheart image? Is she about to go full-metal Gaga?

It’s the kind of scenario that gives Nashville business types nightmares.

But, truth be told, it ought to bother you if you’re a fan of country music, too. The idea of country radio without Miss Swift — or at least someone like her — is a little disconcerting.

She may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but consider this: Every time a Taylor Swift song gets spun on country radio, that’s one less opportunity for the latest cookie-cutter “bro-country” product to get played.

If you want to know what country music without Miss Swift sounds like, just listen to the Top 10 this month (and last month and the month before): Far too many formulaic songs churned out on some endless Nashville music assembly line: Truck song, beer song, “Margaritaville” ripoff. Truck song, beer song, “Margaritaville” ripoff. Over and over again.

Without Miss Swift, country’s already AndroGel-warped landscape gets even more ‘roided up. Which is fine, apparently, with a lot of fans — these derivative tracks are selling huge numbers and turning previously unknown acts into stadium-filling attractions.

But the repetition and overall cynicism of this dumbed-down approach to creating product — not music, product — has me punching the scan button pretty often these days.

There was some good news this week from one of Nashville’s female acts who presumably could fill a Taylor Swift vacuum.

Miranda Lambert announced on “Good Morning America” Monday that her fifth studio album, “Platinum,” will be released on June 3.

According to Rolling Stone, the new album has the twang the Texas diva’s fans have come to expect but also strays into the pop territory that Miss Swift has found so fruitful. The magazine described the title track as “hook-packed, Taylor Swiftian pop.”

The album’s first single, the country-flavored “Automatic,” has been hovering around the country Top 10, but if Miss Lambert’s previous albums are any guide, look for the follow-up singles to make more noise.

Last year’s strange and wonderful “Mama’s Broken Heart” was the fourth single off Miss Lambert’s 2011 release, “Four the Record,” and the offbeat song sold well more than a million copies, earning her a Grammy nomination.

It also helped launch Miss Lambert into contention for “Entertainer of the Year” at next month’s American Country Music Awards. She’ll be up against three male singers who have been on top of their game in the last year — George Strait, Luke Bryan and Miss Lambert’s husband, Blake Shelton.

The other woman joining her in the traditionally male-dominated category: Taylor Swift.

Miss Lambert has been announced as a performer on the April 6 broadcast, but curiously, no word yet on whether Miss Swift will take the stage.

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