Pop Stars Deal With Things Country Artists Seldom Face

Media Spotlight Shines Brighter on Taylor Swift These Days

(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)

Brad Paisley was a willing participant in an episode of South Park in 2012. On the other hand, Taylor Swift was featured in Wednesday night’s (Dec. 10) airing of Comedy Central’s animated comedy series, but it’s hard to imagine she had any control over being depicted on a couch while Bill Cosby offered her wine and they sang a song loosely based on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

At the risk of overanalyzing things, could this be the difference between being a country superstar and a major pop star? Had she not made a move from country to pop, would South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have even considered fictionally pairing Swift with an American icon who’s now making headlines for an alleged series of sexual assaults? Or would they have gone with Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or even Ariana Grande?

But Swift has entered a new level of celebrity — one that only a handful of country stars ever experience — and it’s a different world.

It’s not as though Swift entered this portal overnight, however. As country’s most successful crossover star, she had already dealt with national media attention surrounding her dating, friends, real estate transactions and an occasional stalker.

Fueled by a significant series of national magazine interviews and TV appearances — not to mention an undeniably catchy initial single in “Shake It Off” — Swift’s 1989 sold 1.29 million copies in its first week of release to become the biggest-selling debut of any album released since 2002.

Her high profile has had some positive effects, including being named Billboard’s Woman of the Year, one of the finalists for Time magazine’s Person of the Year and inclusion in Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2014, an ABC special airing Sunday.

On the other hand, the attention also created a bit of a public relations challenge after a fan tweeted some blurry photos taken at concert by the band The 1975 in New York City. Captioned “exclusive taylor and karlie making out,” the photo circulated on various gossip sites on the Internet.

The tweet claimed to show Swift and Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss kissing in the balcony, but the photos were taken on a cellphone from such a far distance, one commenter on MTV.com wrote, “I do photography. These photos are ridiculous. How can you even tell who it is? Crazy for the media to make anything from this.”

A spokesperson for Swift denied the report, referring to it as “hilarious,” but perhaps the irony of the rumor is that these same websites are also claiming Swift is dating Matt Healy, the frontman for The 1975, the very band she went to see that night.

The incident prompted Swift, who turns 25 on Saturday, to tweet, “As my 25th birthday present from the media, I’d like for you to stop accusing all my friends of dating me.”

Honestly, these are the sort of situations the average country singer never has to deal with, but media coverage is different in New York and Los Angeles than it is in Nashville.

Nashville-based media have often been accused of treating country celebrities with kid gloves and, at the very least, being reluctant to delve into paparazzi photos and tabloid-style reporting. Admittedly, there’s some degree of truth in that, but the Nashville is still a lot like a small town. And with that comes small-town sensibilities and a sensitivity to others.

It has to be easier to report speculative or bombastic stories about celebrities when you know there’s little chance that you’re going to run into them at a supermarket, restaurant or shopping mall. I can’t even remember how many times someone has told me about seeing Nicole Kidman casually shopping at one of the local Whole Foods stores. That’s probably why she likes living in Nashville.

And while Swift hasn’t abandoned Nashville and seems to have nothing but glowing things to say about the city, she’s spending a lot of time in New York and L.A. At least for the time being, she’ll probably have to deal with the sort of gossip and rumors that result from being a top-tier mainstream celebrity.

However, she hasn’t come as far as she has through naiveté and a lack of planning. She’s clearly an overachiever who has toiled overtime doing her homework. The approach was effective when she launched her country career, so there’s no reason to think she’ll be unable to cope with having an even brighter spotlight shining on her life.

The problem for commercially-successful singers, musicians or actors comes when the celebrity factor eventually trumps the actual art they’re able to create. Fortunately for Swift, she’s still ahead of that potential curve.

Whether you like her latest music or resent her for recording a pop album, give her credit for following her personal artistic muse wherever it takes her. Even if they’re committed to keeping it country, that’s more than a lot of singers are doing in Nashville these days.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.