There are 16 tracks on Taylor Swift’s fourth album Red, and only maybe one or two of them sound much like “country music.” This isn’t exactly new for Swift. She’s been gradually moving away from her genre since she was still a teenager, as if the plan all along was to transition from country stardom to just straight-up, no-modifier-necessary superstar. This sort of thing happens all the time with R&B, rap and rock musicians, but it’s very rare in country. Even commercial juggernauts like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks never quite blended in with the rest of their pop contemporaries.
Swift already ascended to pop royalty alongside Gaga, Rihanna and Katy before Red was written, so the record isn’t so much an attempt to crossover so much as it about cementing her status and further broadening her reach. She does it all without compromising her voice and persona, too, so even when she tosses in a bit of watered-down dubstep on “I Knew You Were Trouble” or apes U2 on the excellent opener “State of Grace,” there’s always at least a vague trace of country in it somewhere.
Red coheres because Swift has become a larger than life pop character, and she embraces it in her songs. The weird tension at the heart of her music is that she’s able to write very specifically about her experiences as a celebrity and open up about her relationships with extremely famous men, but do it in a way that’s highly relatable. Swift’s lyrics highlight the banal aspects of love and dating, and in doing so, demystify herself and her celeb boyfriends. So, as it turns out, Jake Gyllenhaal is really no better than the guys you know at your school, and John Mayer…well, he’s probably way worse. As for her, she generally comes off as the ultimate prissy straight-A popular girl, but there are a moments in “22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” where she seems genuinely insecure about her music not being cool and “indie” enough for the hipsters.
That insecurity might be part of the reason why Red covers so much musical ground – she clearly wants to prove herself as a versatile songwriter, and maybe win some cool points while she’s at it. Nothing on the album reads as “cool,” per se, but in the context of pop and country, she’s nudging towards being a little “alternative.” And, given that she’s only 22, this makes a lot more sense than prematurely aiming for a fully adult sound.
The most pleasant surprise of Red isn’t that she can pull off a rock song – she’s basically done that with “Mine,” “Sparks Fly” and “You Belong With Me” in the past – but that her squeaky-clean persona lends itself very well to twee. The perky, ultra-girly “Stay Stay Stay” is one of the best tracks, even if it starts off sounding a lot like one of those infuriatingly cutesy jingles that pop up between tracks on Spotify. It’s only a matter of time before YouTube is clogged with solo ukulele covers of it, and that’s only right. If Swift hadn’t become a star as a teenager, it’s pretty easy to imagine that be one of those girls, strumming and mugging and politely reminding you to subscribe to her channel.