Ever since Taylor Swift left the Nashville labels and stopped allowing herself to be billed as a Country artist, Nashville has been desperately scrambling to find a replacement for what had been their primary cash cow. Now, Swift was never really a Country artist in any real sense, and, apart from perhaps her first album, never really pretended to be, but she was pigeonholed as Country due to getting her start in the Nashville music scene and was classified as such by the billboard charts. She was also by far and away the biggest “Country” artist of her time, if not of all time, so when she officially switched over to pure Pop music, it was a tremendous blow to the Nashville machine.
The most successful attempt they’ve made to replace her so far was with Kelsea Ballerini, which should tell you something about their success rate right there. Granted, Ballerini is a decent enough little Pop-Country starlet, but she’s sure as Hell no Taylor Swift. Her songs, apart from the appalling “XO” (which is basically a female version of Sam Hunt’s “Ex To See”, terrible pun and all), are pleasant enough, but they’re superficial, lacking the soul and honesty of Swift’s work.
Compare her song “Underage” to Swift’s very similar “Fifteen”. Both are about looking back on the naivete of one’s teenage years with a mix of nostalgia, amusement and regret, and “Underage” arguably goes to “darker” and more “serious” places than “Fifteen” does. But it’s written entirely in generalities, whereas “Fifteen” is full of very specific details drawn from Swift’s own life, making feel far more real and emotionally resonant. It tells you something when the thing that everyone seems to like best about Ballerini’s debut album is the production.
Probably the only other attempt to achieve any real artistic success at all is the duo of Maddie and Tae. In contrast to Ballerini, who released a terrible debut single but followed it up with a decent first album, Maddie and Tae’s first single was absolutely brilliant. Called “Girl in a Country Song”, it was a well-deserved satirical takedown of the appallingly sexist Bro-Country that dominated the Country genre at the time, laced with scornful references to a plethora of actual Bro-Country hits.
But when their actual debut album finally arrived, it became clear that these two had absolutely nothing to contribute beyond that one song. The rest of the album was a mix of pleasant but undistinguished genre exercises like “Fly”, and mildly embarrassing novelty tracks like “Shut Up and Fish”. It wasn’t exactly awful, but it was disappointingly forgettable for a duo that had seemed to have actual promise.
Finally, there is by far the worst of these attempts—the intolerable scourge of Country-Pop known as RaeLynn. This singer started out as a contestant on the Reality TV talent show The Voice (and pathetically enough, might be the biggest new star that show has ever produced), where she attached herself to Pop-Country bore Blake Shelton, who was serving as one of the show’s judges. Shelton eventually managed to land her a record deal, and after providing barely-discernible background vocals on Shelton’s horrendous “Boys Round Here”, she released an EP, entitled Me, and immediately gained the worst kind of fame one can possibly achieve: internet notoriety.
She would eventually release a full album, WildHorse, but by that time everyone had forgotten she existed, so no-one really noticed. But people noticed Me, mainly because of a song entitled “God Made Girls”. This song became briefly legendary on the internet for being both offensive to women and unbelievably stupid, and even now it’s the only thing anyone still remembers her for.
The rest of the EP wasn’t much better (neither was the album, come to that); indeed, “God Made Girls” wasn’t even the worst song on it. “Kissin’ Frogs” is just as idiotic as its title makes it sound, and “Boyfriend” is possibly the least likable “Take-Your-Boyfriend” song ever recorded, an impressive achievement given that that field also includes Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” and Cher Lloyd’s “Want U Back”.
It doesn’t help that Raelynn’s voice is one of the most unpleasant sounds known to man…frankly, she kind of sounds like a frog herself. This is odd, because usually people who get famous through Reality TV voice competitions, whatever their other faults as artists, are almost guaranteed to be at least passable singers (you don’t generally get a Miley Cyrus out of the American Idol system, is what I’m saying). In any case, if you are even willing count her as Country, RaeLynn is the worst act to debut in the genre since Justin Moore. To the extent that she’s remembered at all, it’s as a vague recollection of an internet punchline from 2014, and to be perfectly frank, that’s all she deserves.
The basic reason they’ve been so unsuccessful at trying to replace Taylor Swift, beyond the obvious fact that you don’t exactly find an immortal musical genius on every street corner, is that they don’t seem to understand what made her great, or even what made her popular. The thing that originally made Taylor Swift a star was her songwriting prowess. She can sing capably enough, but she’s not a vocal powerhouse like Kelly Clarkson, and she is gorgeous, but there are a lot of girls out there just as pretty who aren’t the biggest music star in the world.
But Nashville seems to have no interest in grooming another songwriting prodigy to take her place—they genuinely seem to believe that Swift was successful merely because she was an attractive blonde girl who sang about teen-relatable issues. So they’ve drafted an entire corp of pretty young blonde singers and tried to have professional songwriters write pastiche Taylor Swift songs for them to sing.
This might at least have been effective as a stop-gap measure if the songwriters in question had remotely understood Swift’s songwriting style, but what we generally get is bland ersatz Taylor Swift with none of the qualities that actually made her songs interesting. Then again, they apparently let RaeLynn do a fair amount of her own songwriting, so I suppose I can see why they might be leery about committing to another singer-songwriter. But that’s the only way they’re going to find another star on Swift’s level. Granted, even that is a long shot, but given the current state of the Country music industry, it would definitely be worth the effort if, again, they had the slightest clue how to actually do it.