When country superstar Taylor Swift announced her fifth studio album “1989” in August 2014, she was very, very clear: She was leaving country music.
“This is my very first documented, official pop album,” she declared at the time, in case anyone was unsure about her choice of genre. Although her country songs frequently leaned toward a pop sound, she clarified that “1989” was the “most sonically cohesive album” of her career. In a Rolling Stone profile, she talked about how her record label president asked her to include three country songs on the record. Her answer was a resounding “No way,” and she stayed away from the country radio and award show circuit.
Now suddenly, she’s back on both. A day after country quartet Little Big Town revealed that Swift was the mysterious songwriter behind their new single, “Better Man,” Swift appeared in the final moments of the Country Music Association Awards on Wednesday. She presented the most coveted prize of the night, entertainer of the year, which was awarded to Garth Brooks.
“Hi, Nashville,” she said cheerfully from the stage to the screaming CMAs audience. “It’s been almost 13 years since I came to Nashville with a dream of being a songwriter and a recording artist. And I learned so much about what it means to be an entertainer from the remarkable artists in this arena tonight.”
It’s a similar narrative that Little Big Town vocalist Karen Fairchild put forth in a press conference on Tuesday when the group confirmed the Swift news, saying Swift reached out to them to record the track because she’s a fan of their harmonies. “At her heart, she is the biggest pop star in the world, but she’s a songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee,” Fairchild said.
So … what exactly is going on here? Swift is meticulously strategic about every career choice she’s made in the last decade — she always thinks 10 steps ahead. Why is she hinting at a return to country music when she was so direct about leaving it?
The obvious guess is that Swift is looking for familiar territory after she took a rare hit to her reputation this summer. First, she was the subject of mockery thanks to her relationship with actor Tom Hiddleston, whom she was photographed kissing in June, a couple weeks after breaking up with DJ Calvin Harris. “Hiddleswift” embarked on a worldwide tour of PDA, and was so thoroughly documented by the paparazzi that some people assumed their relationship was fake, or even performance art.
Then, in the wake of their split, Harris exposed some of her PR tactics. It culminated in his Twitter rant when Swift’s camp confirmed that she was actually the songwriter of his summer hit, “This is What You Came For”; he took this as Swift trying to make him look bad and he accused her of trying to “bury” him like her frenemy Katy Perry.
But that was nothing compared to the infamous phone call between her and Kanye West that Kim Kardashian posted on Snapchat in July, which seemed to prove Swift wasn’t being entirely truthful about her role in the controversy over West’s song “Famous,” which name-checked her in the lyrics. (Long story; Swift responded that she had been “falsely painted as a liar” and West never played her the song to begin with. ) The scandal rocked the Internet, and many decided Swift was a “snake.”
Aside from an Instagram post defending herself, Swift was mostly silent in the aftermath. Since she and Hiddleston broke up in early September, she’s stayed under the radar, and performed her first and only concert of the year last month to celebrate 10 years since her debut album, released in October 2006.
Since crossing over to pop, Swift has dominated the charts and concert ticket sales. But if she wants to hit the reset button and restore her image a bit, it is a smart move to go to a genre that never really got over her departure. Country music would be more than happy to welcome her back, particularly award shows, where she always helps with ratings. As Swift excitedly posted on Wednesday night, Little Big Town’s “Better Man” is the No. 1 song in all genres on iTunes, so it seems country radio has also warmed to her music again.
What remains a mystery for now is why she made her exit from country music seem so official. At the Academy of Country Music Awards (different from the CMAs) in April 2015, Swift showed up to accept a Milestone Award. On stage, she delivered what sounded suspiciously like a break-up speech.
“Somebody once told me that you truly see who a person is when you tell them something they don’t want to hear…And so to the country music community, when I told you that I had made a pop album and that I wanted to go explore other genres, you showed me who you are with the grace you accepted that with,” Swift said. “I will never forget it.”
(This post has been updated.)