When Kacey Musgraves first released her major label debut ‘Same Trailer Different Park’ back in March 2013, it wasn’t long before I began hearing people compare her to Taylor Swift. The comparisons have continued as Kacey supposedly beat previous favorite Taylor to win Best Country Album at this year’s Grammys, and even though Taylor has officially gone pop now (even she said so herself), their names often remain in the same sentence when mentioned in the press. Now, I know there is plenty of awful press out there that doesn’t know what it’s talking about (for example, a quick Google resulted in a gossip site referring to Kacey as a “teenage country singer”… dated this year. She’s 26, and actually older than 24-year-old Taylor, even though the site referred to Kacey as younger), but these comparisons have occurred enough to get under my skin. Just what makes them so similar?
To throw Ms. Musgraves in the same breath as Ms. Swift is terribly reductive and not at all in mind of what they represent. When Taylor first came on the scene in 2006, freshly 16 years old and penning sweet, sprightly country pop songs about ex-boyfriends and current ones, she was a darling of sorts, a sweet little blonde whose innocence did not hinder her ability to craft great hooks and turns of phrase. As she released ‘Fearless’ and then in turn ‘Speak Now’, she grew ever closer towards pop, featuring bigger production, catchier choruses and less of the twang and folksy simplicity remembered from previous years (‘Mean’ excepted). As ‘Red’ hit stores, along came a grown Swift with descending necklines, pop super-producer collaborators, use of drum loops and dubstep, and an increasing set of high-profile relationships to fuel anticipation for subjects of songs; indeed, as she had grown, so had her list of targets, and it was often made explicitly clear that her lyrics were about real people and real situations. At times, it was harsh, and arguably uncalled for. Although she had technically matured as a songwriter, she was still visiting the same childish topics, and her upcoming album ‘1989’ is no exception. While ‘Shake It Off’ is about sticking out on your own and just having fun, the content has dumbed down dramatically for the pop sphere, and reports of a diss track named ‘Bad Blood’ from the new record (also rumoured to be directed at fellow popstar Katy Perry) does not exactly do her any favors for how people perceive maturity levels as an artist.
Kacey Musgraves, meanwhile, hit radio with the musically gentle, serene (and far more country) song ‘Merry Go Round’, a track which muses on the disappointing but comfortable, cyclical nature of small town life. It didn’t hit listeners full in the face like many of Taylor’s tracks have done, but rather allowed them to come play in her little world and explore the at once glaringly honest, sometimes depressing ideas behind it. It exploded because it touched a nerve rarely tackled with such poetic nuance. Second single ‘Blowin’ Smoke’ used a soft rocker to turn to small town diner waitresses and observed their monotonous life from the first person; featuring sympathy and dry wit, it was sharply written, bringing us to third single ‘Follow Your Arrow’, whose traditional instrumentation supported a funny, clever lyric along the lines of do-what-makes-you-happy but paying special attention to supporting gay rights and soft drug consumption (marijuana). Never has Taylor written about either topic, and certainly she’s never dug into the human condition the way Kacey has, outside of songs about falling in love and broken hearts (on her first album she tackled eating disorders in ‘Tied Together With A Smile’, but that has emerged to be a rarity).
I’m not quite sure why Kacey has seemed to attract such a young teenage audience either. Sure, some of her songs are fun and bouncy (such as ‘My House’ and ‘Stupid’), but often they are slow, laid-back, thoughtful, and never afraid to tackle more adult (or at least not childish) topics such as casual sex (‘It Is What It Is’), nosey neighbors (‘The Trailer Song’) and not being ashamed of life mistakes (new track ‘Cup of Tea’). She’s also continued to write and record songs about marijuana, such as ‘High Time’. In fact, only ‘Step Off’, is in true Taylor style (it’s a diss track about someone who steps on others to get to the top), with a few sad heartbreak songs like ‘I Miss You’, ‘Dandelion’, ‘Keep It To Yourself’ and ‘Back On The Map’, which you could probably find a way to compare to anybody.
Perhaps Kacey came around at a time when Taylor was leaving the format, and people were eager to find who would replace her. Kacey is fairly young, pretty, and writes all her own songs, so perhaps that was where the comparisons began. But she is far more mature as a songwriter, with a far more diverse array of influences along with true country roots than Taylor is, and while the latter clearly wants to be a star, the former seems more interested in just doing her thing and hoping people like it. For me, it was right that ‘Same Trailer Different Park’ won that Grammy and ‘Red’ didn’t. Taylor is courting attention, courting men, courting power and money and sometimes courting artistry. Kacey is just courting music. Perhaps a naïve observation to make, but to me that’s where the differences are the most crystal clear.