Can Maren Morris Make the Taylor Swift Crossover to Pop?
In 2014, Taylor Swift cast aside her country origins and released 1989, a retro-leaning pure pop record that launched her from Nashville standout to mainstream chart star. She's far from the first to make the crossover leap — country pop can be traced back to the "Nashville sound" of the 1950s — but she's inarguably one of the genre's greatest success stories. And in the four years since, no one has come for her crown. Now, Maren Morris is making a good case for next-in-line with her insta-addictive Zedd team-up "The Middle," but does she have what it takes to follow Swift's meteoric rise?
A fellow Music City export, Morris has, until now, solidified herself as an auspicious country darling. Her debut studio album, 2016's Hero, notched critical acclaim, four Grammy nominations, and a top-five perch atop the Billboard 200. And while her music is overarchingly country, there are glimmers of pop potential: the soaring, shout-along chorus of "'80s Mercedes," the R&B tinge of "Just Another Thing," the name drop-laden sing-rap of "Rich." Her 2017 Niall Horan duet, "Seeing Blind," even has the same genre-fusing appeal as Swift's first crossover hit, "Love Story," a deft blend of folk acoustics and sky-high refrains.
As with 1989, "The Middle" marks a distinct shift in tone for Morris, melding trendy, synth-saturated production with a radio-destined hook. It's currently charting at No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, only a few slots down from the No.16 debut of "Love Story." And, like Swift, Morris is a gifted songwriter: She co-wrote every track on Hero. Pair that with her demonstrated genre fluidity, and certainly, Morris has crossover chops.
Now also seems like a particularly apt time for a Swiftian changeover. Songs like Beyoncé's "Daddy Lessons" and Bebe Rexha's Florida Georgia Line-featuring "Meant to Be" — and even full-tilt albums, like Lady Gaga's Joanne — have further blurred the bounds between country and pop. And Morris, too, seems eager to step beyond her Nashville roots. In an interview with Billboard in January, she cited Ed Sheeran — a longtime co-writer for Swift — and Bruno Mars as dream collaborators.
But like all great pop stars, Swift isn't just a singer, she's a brand, and her global ascension is as much indebted to her tabloid-rife love life and precision-planned image as it is sharp songwriting. She's methodical and stylized, maintaining the business-first foresight to lean into whichever narrative can best augment her career, victim or villain. She's also personal enough in her lyricism to preserve a semblance of intimacy with her fan base, but distant enough to avoid alienating any single market. Her music is all-encompassing, appealing to everyone from the red states to the liberal elite.
Morris, on the other hand, is openhearted and outspoken: She isn't coy about her politics, and has been engaged to songwriter Ryan Hurd, her partner of nearly three years, since last July. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing — in fact, it is objectively good — but it doesn't lend itself to the kind of headline-kindling back-and-forth that's made Swifties so invested in Taylor's every move. Maren Morris is a person, real and accessible. Taylor Swift (as a pop star, not as a woman) is a cultural commodity, idolized and intangible.
That doesn't necessarily mean Morris can't chase a similar trajectory, but if she's eyeing the same sort of worldwide takeover, she will have to take a different route. In an era smartly defined as the Great Awokening by The Cut's Molly Fischer, people want different things from their icons than the do-no-wrong adoration of decades past — things like honesty and awareness and authenticity. Amid that shift, Swift's steely strategizing has begun to fall on deaf ears, and that could play to Morris' benefit: Her profanity-laced lyricism and sass-streaked bravado could easily turn her into the Chrissy Teigen of country pop.
So, if "Seeing Blind" and "The Middle" are testing the waters for a crossover, the sea feels open to a new captain. How Morris fares will just depend on which way she sails.