In 1958, Johnny Cash released the song “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” the story of a pretty small-town girl who won Hollywood fame but gave it all up for the boy next door. In 2009 -- on Wednesday night, actually, in Nashville, at the annual Country Music Assn. Awards ceremony -- Taylor Swift updated and obliterated that story line.
The 19-year-old songwriter and universe-shifting star won in four categories, beating out mainstays such as Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban to claim country music for youth, femininity and pop. She also performed two numbers and was the subject of much running humor throughout the program, which found its spark whenever one of country’s current batch of New Non-Traditionalists took the stage.
Swift started things out with a version of “Forever and Always” that was glitzy and high-concept -- and off-tune, a consistent characteristic of Swift’s live outings that gave the lie to her one undeserved triumph, for best female vocalist. The prize should have gone to Carrie Underwood, country’s most powerful young singer and the evening’s co-host with Brad Paisley.
Struggling for her notes but not showing any concern about it, Swift made a flurry of arena-rock moves, shaking her long, gold tresses as if she were Robert Plant and sliding down a shiny pole in what seemed like a defiant nod toward her friend Miley Cyrus, who took guff for similar gyrations on this year’s Teen Choice Awards. By the end of this production number, she owned the night. And she kept on owning it, right down to her tearful acceptance of the Entertainer of the Year prize, which she shared with her touring band and her fans, “and the shirts you made yourselves.”
In a flash, it seemed, country had transformed from the mellow ol’ boys club of Chesney and Urban to a girls’ army led by Swift and her sign-waving devotees, who sang along in a (clearly staged, but still effective) campfire version of her coming-of-age ballad, “Fifteen.” But Swift isn’t forging country’s new future alone.
Beyond Swift’s presence and performances, which thoroughly dominated the night, others found ways to throw off the spark of change. Darius Rucker, who’d already broken down doors as a black soft-rock star with Hootie & the Blowfish in the mid-1990s, took a supremely sloppy, crowd-hugging run through his hit “Alright,” then gave the most ecstatic speech of the night as best new artist -- he’s the first African American to win in that category.
The impeccable Paisley played a sparkly blue guitar and sang his ode to tech-inspired liberalism, “Welcome to the Future.” Underwood apparently borrowed a cut-away gown and some dance moves from Katy Perry for a version of “Cowboy Casanova” that reminded us this quintessential country bombshell is a genre-buster too. And both Reba McEntire and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland delivered gorgeous vocal performances that stood as a welcome and a challenge to Swift: a welcome for her emotionality and feminine insight, and a challenge for her to find a singing voice that can take her into adulthood.
At the spectrum’s other end, the rough-hewn neo-classicist Jamey Johnson (who, unfortunately, was saddled with Kid Rock as a duet partner) and the luminescent country rocker Miranda Lambert showed, with steady performances of great songs, that traditions don’t have to be smashed into new shapes -- they can be tenderly modified as well.
Paisley exemplifies that approach; Underwood, reading from the night’s script, noted that her co-host “honors our past and points the way to our future at the same time.” The country music establishment is clearly hoping that change will come on these careful terms. Honoring an outsider like Song of the Year winner Johnson, who isn’t slick like Chesney and Urban but at least isn’t a teenager or a former alternative-rock star, was one way of lighting that more comfortable path.
This is Nashville, though, where elders are honored and customs are preserved. As always, George Strait performed and was cheered, the camera dwelled on ladies swooning at Urban (including his wife Nicole Kidman, of course), and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, standing for married bliss, held hands as they walked onstage to give Swift her final award.
The kid’s big win might be just one step in her important rise, but for her, it was also a seal of parental approval. Beaming toward her dad, seated in the audience, Swift said through tears, “I will never forget this moment, because in this moment, everything I ever wanted has just happened to me.”
The teenage queen had arrived at her homecoming, and without even meaning to do it, started a whole new game.