01.28.10

Battle of the Blondes

Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift face off at Sunday's Grammys for the title of country queen. Whose side are you on?

Those of us who hail from the Red States know the main event at Sunday’s Grammy Awards isn’t Lady Gaga. It’s the battle of the blondes. The combatants: Carrie Underwood, the four-time Grammy winner, and Taylor Swift, the relative ingénue who just won four Country Music Association Awards. Underwood and Swift are officially duking it out for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. But the real battle is much wider: It’s a Beatles-vs.-Stones tug-of-war for our souls. Are you on Team Carrie or Team Taylor?

Underwood, 26, and Swift, 20, would deny any sort of rift. They would point to their mutually assured country stardom, their shared PG values. (Swift has said she doesn’t smoke or drink; Underwood refused to live with a man until he was her “hubby.”) But, in point of fact, the differences between Carrie and Taylor run deeper than the ones that broke up Brooks & Dunn. Which blonde you choose says a lot about you.

The complaint about Swift is that she only sings about high school stuff. The complaint about Underwood is that she only sings about the stuff of high-school essays.

Such as: Are you a country music purist? If so, Underwood is your songstress. After she won American Idol in 2005, she recorded a pop-country album, Some Hearts, as a sop to her Idol fans. But with her second and third albums, Carnival Ride (2007) and Play On (2009), Underwood went full-throttle into Dixie Chicks land. She is quite defensive about this. “You can call me ‘not country’ till your face is blue,” she once told Entertainment Weekly, “but I sing country music.”

Swift is what you might call Sorta Country. She has one long leg in the Top 40 charts and another in the land of twangy vowels. Her latest album, Fearless (2008), is a pop album with fiddles. If you prefer Swift, you’re saying that the Frankenstein’s monster of genres that constitutes modern country doesn’t bother you at all.

Choosing Swift also means you are siding with the songwriter. Swift estimates she has written 500 or so songs in her lifetime and calls Fearless her “diary.” Siding with Underwood means you are embracing the pure vocalist (who is only now becoming a rather dutiful songwriter). What turns on Underwood is not pop hooks but big notes; she is liable to take dreary songs like “ Jesus, Take the Wheel” and sing them well.

Being a Carrie person or a Taylor person reveals how you like your singer to conduct herself. Swift is the puckish schemer. When talking about her formative moments, she points to her middle-school years, when the popular girls made fun of her for her musical taste. (She’d fallen in love with that old-timer LeAnn Rimes.) Swift would go home, pick up her guitar, and exact her revenge on the mean girls by writing songs about them. These days, it is ex-boyfriends like Joe Jonas, who reportedly dumped Swift in a 27-second phone call, that are on the receiving end of Swift’s musical throttling. Kanye West is no doubt next.

“I’m nice to everybody,” Swift has said, “but if you’re horrible to me I’m going to write a song about you, and you are not going to like it.” Swift feels she is shy, and country music is her revenge mechanism.

Underwood would never show such vulnerability. To hear her friends tell it, she is a bit like one of the fearsome middle-school girls who was looking askance at Swift. “I know nothing more about her now than I did when I met her,” Simon Cowell remarked a few years after Underwood won Idol.

Cowell wasn’t alone. In 2007, after Underwood appeared a few times with Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, the singer claimed the two were just friends. Romo said they were dating. It is quite likely, given Underwood’s beguiling, sphinx-like manner, that this was a matter of mutual misunderstanding. (Related: Underwood says people often think she doesn’t like them because she’s so quiet.) For Underwood, country stardom is a heat shield she uses to keep the rest of the world at bay.

Swift is more likely to outwardly crave our affection. At November’s CMA Awards, for her rendition of her hit song "Fifteen," Swift was surrounded by legions of teenagers, a tableau befitting a United Way commercial. You can’t imagine Underwood consorting with the masses quite like that. In fact, Underwood was hosting those CMAs with Brad Paisley. And after Swift won Entertainer of the Year, Underwood awkwardly cut off Paisley’s tribute to Swift. (She said it was a misunderstanding.)

Both women are rural products: Swift hails from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania (pop. 11,200, including Jon and Kate Gosselin) and Underwood is native of Checotah, Oklahoma (pop. 3,500). But Swift’s music has notes of get-me-outta-here resentment. “This ain’t Hollywood,” she sings in “ White Horse,” “this is a small town.” Whereas Underwood is more prone to glorify her Green Acres upbringing. A crucial part of the Underwood legend is that before she competed in American Idol, she had never been on an airplane.

To reduce Taylor vs. Carrie to style points would be a mistake. Their music has deep thematic differences, too. If you favor Swift, you are embracing a Weltanschauung that says that all of life is a high-school melodrama. Swift’s aesthetic is unapologetically teen angst; her songs can be divided into “Yay!” or “Darn!” From the former, we have a freshman girl told by a guy that he loves her (“ Fifteen”), a crazy, head-over-heels crush (the excellent “Hey Stephen”), and an unrequited attraction to the star wide receiver (“ You Belong With Me”).

Swift’s “Darn!” songs are less convincing, partly because you can’t quite imagine her ever being upset. The worst sins a boy can commit are apparently telephonic. From Fearless’s “Forever & Always”: “I stare at the phone, and he still hasn’t called.” From “You’re Not Sorry”: “You don’t have to call, anymore, I won’t pick up the phone.”

In an Underwood song, by contrast, the heroine gets drunk and wakes up in the arms of a Pinto-driving cowboy. (Swift would no doubt faint at such a scenario.) But Underwood’s music, while more adult in theme, is not more sophisticated. She is likely to shoehorn her pain into lugubrious scenarios that are perfect for country-music videos. Thus, we get treacle like “ Just a Dream,” in which a would-be bride (played by Underwood in the video) finds her fiancé has been killed in action. Or “Temporary Home,” a telethon-style song that reels off tragic cases: a boy in foster care, a single mom in a halfway house, a dying man in a hospital.

The complaint about Swift is that she only sings about high-school stuff. The complaint about Underwood is that she only sings about the stuff of high-school essays.

But like Beatles-vs.-Stones, the true sign of whether you’re a Carrie person or a Taylor person is how you think about the world. A Taylor person sees a future of endless possibilities, of sunny days and dark days—the playing field wide open before them. A Carrie person sees a world as having been lived in a little—a series of senseless tragedies, mindless affairs, drunken encounters. And whichever reality you pick, you see the chance to make a fortune.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.