In his essay “Here is New York,” E.B. White claims the most important kind of New Yorker is the one who moves to the city from elsewhere, the “settler” who knows he belongs in New York. Here my personal biases get in the way; I have a hard time not awarding the “best New Yorker” distinction to suburban girls who live for Metro North, but that is neither here nor there, since what I really want to talk to you about is Gwyneth Paltrow and Taylor Swift.
I am beginning to believe that White’s principle can apply to music. It’s possible that the best country musicians out there are the ones who were not brought up in the genre, but developed an independent passion for it. However, such artists achieve the White standard of authenticity only when they have done their homework and bring some of their own backgrounds to the table. Paltrow, therefore, does not get to be a “settler” of country music, at least not yet.
Paltrow’s performance of “Country Strong” at last week’s Country Music Awards was not without merit. She showcased a surprisingly strong, if slightly nervous, singing voice. The problem is that the song was written for a movie. Songs written for movies take up precious dialogue time, so when it comes to that scene where the protagonist is going for a long drive and staring pensively at the passing scenery, the accompanying music needs to bash the audience over the head with a message, something like “it’s hard out there for a pimp.” Or a wrestler. Or, in this case, a beautiful, blonde junkie who wants to make it big on Music Row. There’s nothing of the actual Paltrow in there. Her interaction with country music is limited to playing a role. Within the moving to New York analogy, Paltrow is like the college kid who interns in the city for the summer: eager not to look like a tourist, but never sets foot in an outer borough. (No, Williamsburg doesn’t count.) She’s well-meaning and interested, but has only a superficial attachment and needs to devote time to further exploration. If Paltrow wants to launch a career in country music, and she has kept quiet as to whether or not she does, I would recommend that she take a few pointers from Swift.
I am of the belief that Swift’s success as a country artist is very much a function of the fact that she is not from the depths of the country scene. She’s from Berks County, Pa. Not New England, but not the Bible Belt. It was passion, not convenience, that steered Swift to country music. Her wildly successful new album “Mine” reflects exhaustive study of the entire genre, not just one particular musical influence. The banjo action, harmonies and humor in “Mean” scream Dixie Chicks, while the mournful “Back to December,” with its intensely rhythmic chorus, has a feel that’s generally reserved for male artists. It wouldn’t shock me if Rascal Flatts wanted to cover it in the near future.
Swift’s music has become such a crossover behemoth because she has dutifully learned what makes good country music and has infused that with herself. Her songs don’t need to be remixed for pop releases because Swift unapologetically hops back and forth between techniques. Could her albums be a little less personal catharsis and a little more thought? Probably. But she’ll get older and her songs will get smarter. She brings to country music what the settlers bring to New York: passion for what’s already there and ability to influence it with her own background.
A supplement added after seeing this week’s “Glee” (I can never watch it when it actually airs.): Gwyneth needn’t worry about growing as a country artist. She should just keep kicking ass at hip hop and show tunes.