This weekend, Blake Shelton will do the most mainstream American of mainstream American things: Be the host and musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.”
Shelton is the first country singer to host the famed late-night sketch show since Taylor Swift, who took the stage in November 2009, way back when she was decidedly still a country star. It’s a fitting, pass-the-baton situation: Now that Swift has officially defected to the pop world, Nashville needs a new face of mainstream country music. And that role belongs to Shelton.
It’s a key job, keeping the genre relevant beyond the country music bubble. It happened to Swift unwittingly: She became so famous with her early albums that it seemed only natural that she became country’s ambassador to the general public. It worked, and the country music community rewarded her for it.
Now it’s Shelton’s turn. It’s been in the works for awhile, ever since Shelton was cast as a coach and mentor of NBC’s hit “The Voice,” the only singing competition to endure as “American Idol” marches quietly toward reality TV afterlife. Though Shelton had been one of Nashville’s top artists for a decade, he was crowned as a “breakout” star upon its 2011 debut. His TV-ready quips, his musical chops, his sweet, genuine bond with contestants and his lightning-speed banter with fellow coach Adam Levine all endeared him to viewers.
And like that, he burst out as giant of pop culture. He lands long magazine profiles that play up his “country boy in the big city” shtick. (Whenever he spots a deer in Los Angeles, he sure wishes he had his hunting rifle!) The tabloids obsess about his marriage to fellow superstar Miranda Lambert (every week there’s a new story how they’re supposedly madly in love, ready to break up, or expecting a baby). His lip sync battles on Jimmy Fallon’s show go viral. He’s even on Buzzfeed’s radar.
Part of the reason Shelton managed to accomplish this rare type of fame, aside from the TV show that broadcasts him into millions of home every week, is the same way Swift attracted attention far beyond country music’s borders: She stayed true to her image, and it was one that people (beyond just country fans) liked a whole lot. While Swift was the regular girl on the bleachers, Shelton is a hard-drinking partier — also a universally relatable persona. His 10 million-plus Twitter followers are often privy to his alcohol-fueled thoughts, many of which brag about how drunk he is at that very moment.
But this works for Shelton, who plays the role of a guy amused to find himself so famous: After all, we really want our celebrities to be just like us. In the same way that Swift endeared herself by avoiding Hollywood clubs in favor of staying home with her cats and watching “Law & Order,” Shelton tries to shoot down the idea that he’s a typical L.A. celebrity, even if he is a TV star. He often emphasizes that he spends as much time as possible in his home state of Oklahoma.
“I literally leave the show, go to the house, and shut the gate,” he told Men’s Journal. “The only people’s houses that I’ve been to in L.A. are [‘Voice’ stars] Adam Levine’s, Christina Aguilera’s, [executive producer] Mark Burnett’s, and Michael Bublé’s.”
Yet those are still some pretty famous names. At the same time, Shelton walks the line between avoiding the spotlight but deftly remaining in it: And it’s the reason his popularity endures. Along with Adam Levine, he’s remained on “The Voice” for all seven seasons (and the upcoming eighth) and is a frequent guest on late-night talk shows.
Despite the massive fame, Shelton hasn’t quite reached full Swiftian heights: He still hasn’t had that crossover musical hit. While any song Shelton releases goes straight to the top of the country radio charts (he’s had a dozen No. 1 songs in a row, and his current single “Lonely Tonight” looks to be on its way), his sales aren’t what they used to be, and he hasn’t had the same success in mainstream charts. He recently had a duet with Shakira, “Medicine,” and contributed to the “Footloose” remake soundtrack, though neither made an impact. His closest success was a cover of Buble’s hit, “Home” in 2008.
Then again, after Swift successfully hit the pop charts, she went pop, leaving Nashville in her dust. And Nashville needs Shelton. While the country genre has a few hitmakers who could theoretically break out as well, it’s harder than it looks. Take Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, the two most likely contenders. Underwood has tried a couple times to be an actress, but her much-mocked “Sound of Music” performance ended that. Paisley attempted to follow in Shelton’s path with ABC singing competition “Rising Star,” which failed almost immediately.
So, as Shelton takes front and center on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, it’s not just corporate synergy between two NBC shows — it’s the start of a new era for one of Nashville’s most important figures.