The Truth About Music

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Has Country Become the Dominant Genre Within Pop?

Fall Out Boy's moment in the pop spotlight was short lived

Every few years, music as we know it shifts. It is fascinating to follow these transitions and grow as a listener each time. During the early ’90s, grunge took a prominent roll in pop music with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The mid ’90s saw a transition into punk rock as bands such as Green Day became the focal point of the pop spotlight. The late ’90s saw the focus move to boy (and girl) bands. These artists were true duplicates of the type of music people new and loved in the ’80s.

Entering the new century, there was yet another cosmic shift in pop music. Much of this decade (00-09) was dominated by emo and alternative rock. Bands like Fall Out Boy, Panic at the Disco and My Chemical Romance made huge names for themselves in a really short period of time. The last part of this decade was dominated by a few artists with a newly found genre I have coined ‘party rock.’ These artists made fun, upbeat music that was likable and easy on the ears. Although Lady Gaga can be found at the center of the genre, artists such as Cascada, The Black Eyed Peas and Outkast all chipped in to make this music great.

Now we beging a new decade. The ’90s are gone and the ’00s, still fresh in our minds have been moved out of the way by the ’10s. Although it seems weird to write that down, there is a cosmic shift happening in pop music right under our noses. For the first time in a long time, country music has become the dominant genre of pop. The evidence is striking on all levels of pop music.

Taylor Swift has become the new American pop star

We can start at no better place than the teen pop star. Although Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers have enjoyed huge success of late, no young star is more decorated than Taylor Swift. Swift’s move into the mainstream of America has showered her with AMA Artist of the Year and Album of the Year at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards. Winning that second award is less about the award, and more about who she beat for it. She beat out the reigning genres (party rock) queen, Lady Gaga, and the overarching pop music queen, Beyonce (who became one of the most decorated musicians of all time at that same show). She also beat rockers Dave Matthews Band and Kings of Leon.

Regardless of what her ‘people’ say, she is a full fledged pop star. Her country roots are still in tact and no doubt she will continue writing about her angst as a young girl growing up in Nashville (and in her younger years, Pennsylvania), but her image has changed. She is no longer idolized solely by the southern states. She is the poster child for America. This image of poster child has been seen before. When grunge dominated pop in the early ’90s, posters of Kurt Kobain lined the walls of American households. When the boy band craze hit, Justin Timberlake and company joined Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on the walls. Now, in this new time for pop music, Swifts picture will take the place of Beyonce and Lady Gaga as she becomes America’s hottest pop star.

Of course there is more to this story than just a young pop sensation. You have to look beyond that and to the roots of this transition. Many will say that the swing began a few years ago when at the time, a veteran country band became mainstream sensations with the release of 2005′s “Feels Like Today.” With that album, Rascal Flatts became a huge sensation, going multi-platinum on a number of singles and becoming more mainstream. Over the past five years, we have seen this happen again and again. Carrie Underwood became the first true country singer to leave “American Idol” and she has become one of the biggest names in music in a very short amount of time.

Finally we get to the new guys on the block. In order for a genre to take over in the pop world, there needs to be something on its way into

After winning "American Idol" in 2005 Carrie Underwood became one of the biggest stars the show had produced

the station. Just like when the Fall Out Boy  hit it big, there were a number of bands right behind them ready to jump on board. Today, country music stars are popping up all over the place. Two of the most exciting artists among country’s up and comings are Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band (honored as Best New Artist at the 52nd Grammy Awards). Both of these groups have expereinced huge success since releasing debut singles and although neither will achieve the mainstream success of Taylor Swift, both acts are impressive and will be around during this dominant period of time for country music.

Of course there are bands we’ve left out of this mix completely. Brad Paisley has had a huge influence in this transition over the past few years and you could make the argument that the Dixie Chicks started the party when they took home the Grammy for Album of the Year at the 2007 Grammy Awards.

Any way you spin it, country music is here to stay, for now. These trends only tend to last about three to four years and if you believe as I do, the trend started about a year ago. This dosen’t leave much time left for Swfit and the gang. The artists need to understand these trends. Their job in the next few years is to make great music and build a fan base. Once their success in the mainstream dies down, they will still have long, successful careers as long as they use their brief time in the spotlight to make people care about them, something that many artists fail to do.

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22 Legacy Comments

  • Comment by katy posted February 02, 2010 at 16:11

    Ugh. So many things wrong with this article.

    1. Taylor Swift did not grow up in Nashville. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania on a Christmas tree farm and moved to Nashville to pursue her country music career. She spent three years in Nashville before releasing her s/t. Get your facts straight!

    2. You neglect to mention that Swift won the Grammys for Best Country Album, Best Country Song, and Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Consider that Swift won more Grammys for Country than for the mainstream genre. If you hold the belief that the Grammys and other related award shows are the be all, end all of determining genre, wouldn’t these wins place her in the Country genre? Be advised she also won Entertainer of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Music Video of the Year at the 2009 Country Music Awards.

    3. Country music on mainstream radio stations has been around a lot longer than you claim. Take into consideration Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes or Faith Hill. They are all country artists with songs on the mainstream radio station way before Taylor Swift. Even Kid Rock released country music in the past few years. How about Darius Rucker, formerly of the Hootie and the Blowfish, going country?

    4. Country is, and never will be, a sub-genre of pop. It is an established genre all on it’s on. Even if country music “leaves” the top hits radio station, the genre will never die. Country music IS the epitome of American music. Country artists will continue to make country music. If the songs get picked up by the top twenty, so be it.

    5. A country/bluegrass album (Raising Sand, Allison Krauss & Robert Plant) won album of the year at last year’s Grammys. There isn’t a “shift” toward country. Country has always existed as an extremely popular form of music.

    Let the fighting begin! :)

  • Comment by Jeremy posted February 02, 2010 at 16:35

    I think while country music may not be a sub genre of pop and while Swift won all of those genre awards, Swift is becoming more and more of a pop artist the more her hit songs get played on the radio. While there are plenty of other country music stars, she is clearly at the pinnacle right now.

  • Comment by Harris posted February 02, 2010 at 16:36

    I suppose I can respond to your comments individually as you laid them out:

    1. She did part of her growing up in Nashville and part in PA. The article has been corrected to show both, but it is not incorrect to say that she writes about Nashville in her songs (she does).

    2. Of course she won in the country categories. If she didn’t I would be terrified. That alone does not show she is not a pop star. She also won the artist of the year at the American Music Awards. Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Eminem and Kings of Leon were the other nominees. Seems like a pop category to me. Also, her win over Beyonce at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards is a huge indication that she has moved into pop stardom.

    3. As far as radio goes, I’m not making the claim that it’s never been on radio before. Quite the opposite is true. What I am saying is that it is more prevalent than ever. It’s country stars competing against country stars on the top pop charts. Country is a dominant genre on top 40 stations right now, more so than ever.

    4. It is an established genre, and many people within the “true genre” will most likely abandon artist like Swift as they become huge pop stars. It is not a sub-genre of pop, it is it’s own unique genre that will continue to exist.

    5. Finally, there is a shift, you saw so many bands (including Plant and Krauss) make a name for themselves in the pop spotlight over the past few years. Country, a once popular genre in very specific demographics, has become popular with the entire country (minus Jon). With that type of popularity, some artists have to take the reigns, abandoning their country roots and becoming America’s next pop princess!!

  • Comment by Greg posted February 02, 2010 at 16:48

    Harris you ever look at the charts in the ’90s; do you wanna know who dominated them? Garth Brooks. I regret that i know this and that i was raised on him *shake fist in anger* but its sadly true. Country is the most popular form of music in the country and it has been for a long time.

    Labeling it as pop is completely different, i tend to believe that pop music isn’t really a genre its just music that is popular. If you look at your point #2 none of those artists sound alike in any aspect. Dont give me the “hook” defense either, all music has it.

  • Comment by Edmund posted February 02, 2010 at 16:50

    You are all forgetting two important facts.

    Fact A) Taylor Swift is a talentless hack who does not belong in the same category as true country stars like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, and *GASP* Garth Brooks.

    Fact B) Taylor Swift is physically beautiful, so she therefore gets preferential treatment at awards shows.

  • Comment by Harris posted February 02, 2010 at 16:52

    Greg, I’ve looked at the charts. Unfortunately, is screwing up right now and I can’t quote them. I’m pretty sure that although there are a few country artists in the “top selling artists of the decade,” they are mostly not country. You might not say the same thing at the end of this decade…

    Also, pop is exactly what you defined. It is whatever is popular. Therefore country is currently the dominant genre within pop, and its queen, Taylor Swift is the pop princess…

  • Comment by Harris posted February 02, 2010 at 17:04

    ALSO!! When did this turn into a conversation about album sales? I’m talking about popularity. Not the type of popularity you get from charts, the type you get from using your head and looking at award shows. I firmly believe that between the VMA’s, AMA’s and Grammys you get a great yearly perspective on what is popular. Right now, that is country, through and through…

  • Comment by Greg posted February 02, 2010 at 17:13

    popularity is judged by sales, quality is supposed to be judged by awards. Notice, The Jonas brothers are a POPULAR band because they have good sales, they’re not a GOOD band because they haven’t won any awards (and because they are just god awful).

  • Comment by katy posted February 02, 2010 at 18:07

    The problem is that you seem to frame country music within the realm of this greater entity you call pop music. If you honestly believe that pop music as a genre is only what is popular at a specific moment then you need to acknowledge that pop is really not a genre at all. The term “pop” becomes a measurement of popularity, not musical style. I always thought genre=musical style.

  • Comment by jon posted February 02, 2010 at 18:17

    harris this article is retarded. country is country, pop is pop. “you belong with me” is a pop song which is why she won. everything else on her album is country. and katy pop is a genre. its hard to explain but there is a lot of music that can’t be categorized so its pop like “bad romance” how would you describe that? a dark love song?? no its pop. so harris like i said there is no point to this article. Swift is a country artist. she happened to make a really catchy pop song that may or may not have country elements to it but thats about it. there is no sub genres, there is definitely no merging of genres.

  • Comment by katy posted February 02, 2010 at 18:24


    Is there any proof to back up the statement that country was only popular in specific demographics? I think it’s ridiculous to believe that only people who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line listen to country music. That’s like saying that only people who live near a beach like reggae.

    Why do you believe that someone needs to abandon their roots, which made them popular in the first place, to remain popular? Wouldn’t that just be a foolish career/business move? To stop doing what made you rich/famous/popular?

    Taylor Swift is a country star. She is a popular country star. She is not a pop star.

    Miley Cyrus is a perfect example of the difference between a contemporary pop star and a popular country star. She was born and raised in Tennessee to Billy Ray Cyrus (arguably one of the most famous country stars). Miley could EASILY be a country singer. Instead, she became a pop singer/icon through her Hannah Montana persona, and (more importantly) they style of her music. Compare the s/t & Fearless to Breakout & The Time of Our Lives….Welcome to the difference between country stardom and pop stardom.

  • Comment by katy posted February 02, 2010 at 18:27

    Jon, I know that pop is a genre. Harris is just not articulating himself well in regards to defining pop as a genre. He’s like “pop is anything that’s popular.” That’s why I wrote that….to destroy his logic. ;)

  • Comment by jon posted February 02, 2010 at 18:31

    i know lol i was just making sure that there is a clear distinction between pop and country.

  • Comment by jon posted February 02, 2010 at 18:35

    also katy, statistically country really only is popular below the mason dixie line. thats not to say that no one above that line likes/listens to country, but there simply isnt radio play of country above that line, so those people are subjected to listening to it on their ipod or on sat radio. which may or may not impact the statistics, but im sure market research has been done and shown that their simply isnt enough of a market for it up here so therefore its not played, but there are country fans up here for sure.

  • Comment by Ben posted February 03, 2010 at 11:20

    how about making a contest about this question and giving cd’s to imaginary people who didn’t post the answers for the contest…when it should have gone to Ben!

  • Comment by Harris posted February 03, 2010 at 15:48

    Just so you all know, while this argument is taking place, Lady Antebellum’s album went to #1 on the US Pop Charts:

    Read it and weep.

  • Comment by Joe posted February 04, 2010 at 13:26

    Let me briefly chime in…

    A) While I completely disagree with Harris about the notion that country has become dominant within pop (crusty argument over genre of pop vs. what is pop(ular) today), country music is VERY VERY VERY popular at the present moment. I think we can all agree on that.

    B) Jon, what is this Mason-Dixon line bull crap?? Have you ever heard of Country Fest at Gillette Stadium (held every summer up here in New England). Country is HUGE up in Boston. Look, I’m not going to compare it to the following down south, but we can’t get wrapped up in the bubble that surrounds NYC. Yes, nobody in NYC (or surrounding areas) listens to country, but that’s not true for every region above the M-D line.

    C) Katy, I applaud you for your claims (and I agree with some of them), especially when you throw out the facts about T-Swizzy. But let’s be real here. You Belong With Me is not a country song, it’s a pop song. She may be a “popular country star” for her other work, but this song (and Love Story) put her on the map. And they aren’t country songs. I, you, and Taylor herself would still consider her a country artist, but she’s winning a bunch of these awards because of her popularity, which is largely based on songs that aren’t country. She’s also continuing to win the country awards because many members of the country music community want to claim her as their own. After all, it’s only promoting their influence and stake in today’s world of music, as well.

    Taylor (and her entourage) has done a beautiful job with keeping her relevant and respected in the country music community as well as growing her popularity among the masses. The masses love her. Country music loves her. She will continue to be a star on both platforms for years to come.

    On a side note, the critics should quit hating on the lovely lady. I agree, not the most vocally talented. But, that shouldn’t be news to anyone. She has never been a great live vocalist (she’s better in concert; gets nervous at awards shows) and most likely never will. I’ll be the first to admit she isn’t worthy of any award in the vocalist category, whether it be at the Grammys or CMAs. But Entertainer of the Year? Album of the Year? What is the criteria for these awards anyways? Look, she writes nearly every one of her songs, has the ability to connect with a large group of people in this country, and is an enthusiastic and exciting performer at her shows.

    If you want to waste your time, complain about the academies that hand out the awards. It’s not worth complaining about Swift because you can’t blame her for winning these awards. The critics probably should just decide to get used to her, because she’s going to be around for a long time.

  • Comment by Joe posted February 04, 2010 at 13:28

    For Part B) I meant country is huge up here in NEW ENGLAND, not the city of Boston.

  • Comment by Harris posted February 04, 2010 at 14:30

    Thanks for the comment Joe. I think the important thing to remember is that my argument was that country is huge. It is bigger now than it has ever been. That’s what I mean when I say it is the “Dominant genre within pop.” I know you said you disagree with my argument, but at the same time you agreed with it a few paragraphs down. Thanks again though for the well thought out comment!!

  • Comment by Joe posted February 04, 2010 at 14:48

    Haha, where did I agree with it????? I just said that Taylor herself had a few pop hits, not that country was a genre within pop. She, specifically, moved more towards the pop genre recently. But I did not agree with the idea that country is the dominant “sub-genre” if you will in pop today. Let’s agree: POP AND COUNTRY ARE DIFFERENT!!!

    T SWIFT IS EPIC!!!!!!!

  • Comment by The Hayes posted February 04, 2010 at 21:47

    If Taylor Swift is Country, so is Kelly Clarkson. Same songs!

  • Comment by Buy Dress posted February 16, 2011 at 01:44

    Lol,I love MJ! He was the most talented to ever do it! We will never ever have someone like him! RIP to the GREATEST!