I’m not sure what I was expecting from Taylor Swift’s return to country radio, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t this.
After walking the line between country and pop music for several years, Swift finally made a clean break with country with her 1989 album in 2014, leaping into the pop-star stratosphere as her former genre was being consumed by the Bro-Country movement. A lot has happened to Swift, country music, and the world in general since those days, but given that she’s been cracking the top fifteen of the Hot 100 pretty consistently over the last half-decade, and her brief forays back into country were going nowhere (2017’s “New Year’s Day” limped to a #41 on the Billboard’s airplay chart, and her 2018 feature on Sugarland’s “Babe” couldn’t lift the song beyond a disappointing #17), it appeared that a return to country music was not in the cards for Swift, at least in the short- and medium-term. Then the pandemic happened, Swift was inspired to put together what would become her latest album folklore, and suddenly we’ve got a new single “betty” being pushed to country radio. If you’re expecting Swift to ride in on a white horse and re-conquer country music, you’ll likely be disappointed: I called “New Year’s Day” a “ballad that quickly runs out of steam and overstays its welcome” and “is just okay by comparison” to her prior material, and “betty” fits the same description: It’s a lukewarm love story whose unorthodox angle on the tale isn’t enough to hold the listener’s attention for its nearly-five-minute runtime.
Despite the number and variety of instruments credited on its YouTube video, there really isn’t a whole lot to the production here. The mix is primarily driven by an acoustic guitar backed by some harmonica riffs (now there’s an instrument that’s been sidelined over the last few years, even moreso than the fiddle), with a random assortment joining in for some swell on the chorus (primarily an electric guitar and a synthesizer, but you’ll also hear an organ and even a rare pedal steel note at times). Admittedly, “swell” is probably an overstatement, as none of these added instruments amount to any more than background noise (until you reach the very last chorus, where suddenly everything bursts out and drowns out the lyrics). This is generally a restrained and relaxed arrangement, and it does two things well: It generates a very bucolic atmosphere that gives the track a bit more character, and it mostly stays out of the writing’s way (outside of the last chorus, at least). The problem, however, is that it doesn’t generate a whole lot of energy, and and it ends up lulling the listener to sleep after the first few minutes (so I guess the sudden swell at the end was to wake people up?). It’s an okay sound overall, but it’s not a terribly interesting one.
I’ve had some spirited conversations over the years about whether or not Swift was really that good as an artist, but I think this song is a mark for her rather than against her, even if the end result is a bit mediocre. It’s not a technically demanding song by any measure (it’s got no real range, flow, or power demands), and even then Swift can struggle at times: Her delivery can get choppy and her voice gets overwhelmed on the final chorus. From a song-selling standpoint, however, this might be the toughest challenge I’ve seen an artist take on since Easton Corbin voiced a dog in “Raising Humans”: The narrator is a seventeen-year old guy named James, a persona that would appear to be the polar opposite of the 30-year-old Swift. While the song opens by raising the question about the narrator’s sexuality, once that question is answered Swift is able to tell the story and pull off the performance without raising any eyebrows at all. (Part of this is because Swift’s own debut at sixteen still gives her some credibility in the teenage-love space even as she’s aged out of this demographic. Also, while the song shouldn’t generate a controversy like Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” in theory “Girl Crush” shouldn’t have started one either, so we’ll see if people actually take the time to listen to the lyrics and not jump to conclusions.) It’s an impressive performance, but much like the production it’s not a very interesting one, and once all the mystery is pulled away, Swift herself is pretty much the only reason to stay tuned in (if one of Nashville’s faceless young male artists were behind the mic, we’d have fallen asleep fifteen seconds in), and charisma and charm aren’t quite enough to keep the audience engaged for the whole performance.
The writing is a mixed bag, as the narrator spends the song working through why a relationship has soured and looking for a way to fix it. On one hand, I love the level of detail here: The start of the track raises a lot of question about the narrator’s identity and how the relationship fell apart, but the writers take the time to explain everything as the song goes along, giving the listener a complete sense of the situation and framing the narrator as a sympathetic character trying to take responsibility for their actions. That said, “the situation” turns out to be another run-of-the-mill love story marred by jealousy and heartache, and “[taking] the time to explain everything” means the song runs nearly fives minutes long (and with few instrumental breaks to speak of), boring the listener to death while they wait for the punchline. I appreciate how much the story is fleshed out, but the lack of payoff in the end leaves the listener wondering if it was worth waiting for.
“Betty,” like “New Year’s Day” before it, is “a solid-but-not-spectacular [return] from Taylor Swift” featuring “just enough classic Swift here to make people take notice, but…doesn’t do enough to hold that interest for very long.” The production is a bit too bland, the lyrics take too long to get to the point, and Swift herself isn’t able to hold the whole thing together. It’s still better than the Cobronavirus junk that’s been clogging up the airwaves this summer, but it’s middle-of-the-pack by Swift’s standards, and thus a bit disappointing. It’s hard to say if this song will find any more traction than “New Year’s Day” did, but if you’re waiting for a full-fledged country comeback from Taylor Swift, you’ll likely be waiting a little longer.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see how it strikes you.