A few days before Taylor Swift was born on December 13, 1989, another country star snagged his first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Country chart.
The song in question was a ballad about love and promises and worrying about the future — all themes Swift would come to call her own. The song was "If Tomorrow Never Comes," and it set the groundwork for Garth Brooks' monumental fame.
By the time Swift could hold a guitar, Brooks was selling out stadium shows across the country. Now, she does the same because — knowingly or not — she's following the path he created to achieve superstardom. The two share a level of success that no other country artist has come close to touching. They are the only two recipients of the CMA Pinnacle Award, an honor given to a country music artist who has achieved worldwide success and recognition.
Now, Brooks and Swift are are facing pivotal moments in their careers. He's on a national comeback tour with his first full-length studio album of new music after a 14-year break, which he took after a failed foray into pop music. On Monday, she releases 1989, which she's dubbed her first official pop album. Up until now, at every turn, she has succeeded where he succeeded before her — from connecting personally with fans, to tweaking the traditional country formula to create an individual sound, to astronomical album sales. But this is the first time she could succeed where he failed. When Brooks tried to become a pop star, he failed miserably. But all signs point to Swift completing the transition with no problem at all and forging into unchartered territory for a star with country roots.
Becoming country music giants
The similarities between Swift and Brooks start on a very basic level.
They both had traditional, unremarkable first albums, then shifted gears. Brooks added touches of modern arena rock to his songs. There had been mild overlaps between rock and country since the former began (see also: Johnny Cash), but Brooks tapped into the high-gloss production and sounds of '80s smooth rock. It was huge. His second album, No Fences, spent 23 weeks at No. 1. His third album, Ropin' the Wind, was the first ever to enter both the pop and country Billboard charts at No. 1. Brooks proved that country's appeal could extend beyond its traditional audience, as his music videos became mainstays on VH1.
Swift, too, borrowed from other forms of music to bolster her sound. Her self-titled first album was twangier and far more country than anything she's produced since. But her Grammy-winning second album, Fearless, harnessed the catchy choruses of pop, landing the album in the No 1. spot and winning her a devoted following. For Swift, the twist on country was less about integrating other genres and more about avoiding trends — country or otherwise. She eschewed overproduction and huge bass lines. She didn't belt, as so many other country women did — Carrie Underwood, for example. And her videos were hits, with "You Belong With Me" taking home one of MTV's Video Music Awards.
Neither Swift nor Brooks has a great voice. Both are good songwriters, but not necessarily all-time greats. Both claim to be influenced by James Taylor. (Swift is even named after him.) Both have songs that are staples for any country fan, despite the fact that they have been frequently criticized for pandering to pop interests. Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" and "The Thunder Rolls" are great country songs that easily double as light rock standards. Likewise for Swift's "Mine" and "You Belong With Me," which have pop bona fides.
They began their careers as slight outsiders in the country landscape. Although they performed at country music awards shows, they managed to keep their distance at the edges of the genre's landscape. Country music, for both, became a way to find fans and to sell albums — not a way to exclusively define their sounds. They had aspirations that extended far beyond Nashville.
Building a constructed front
At its most basic, country music is all about story. Swift and Brooks have their share of angry, sad, and emotional country songs, but the best story that these two managed to tell is the one about themselves.
"I wanted to be an artist that the American people could relate to," Brooks declared in a 1994 Playboy interview. "I wanted to be America's guy."
Brooks is known for humility, genuine or not. In interviews, he often sounds self-deprecatory, which makes him seem more approachable. "I'm just a guy who eats too much, is lazy, and loves to play music," Brooks told the Daily Beast. He is constantly trying to convince everyone that he is just a regular guy, regardless of the millions of albums he has sold and the amount of work that goes into playing 17-song sets night after night.
The same can be said for Swift, who does her best to look genuinely surprised whenever her name is called at an awards show, despite the fact that she has won pretty much every award a 24-year-old musician can win.
"I'm realistic about the fact that millions of people don't have time in their day to maintain a complex profile of who I am," Swift told Esquire in October. "They're busy with their work and their kids and their husband, or their boyfriend and their friends. They only have time to come up with about two or three adjectives to describe people in the public eye. And that's okay."
The image Swift has created, much like the one Brooks created in the early '90s, is meant to suggest normalcy and approachability, even though they are millionaire celebrities. But they painstakingly craft and preserve their images of being regular folks who just happened to become megastars. And fans love them for it.
Swift's fans show her a level of devotion that seems boundless. That is, until it's compared with the devotion of Brooks' fans.
Red, Swift's fourth album, sold 1.2 million copies in its first week. That was the biggest opening for an album in a decade. Speak Now, her third release, also sold 1 million copies in its first week. 1989 is expected to sell 800,000 copies, but Swift has the hype behind her to possibly open with 1 million in sales. This is in a year when albums sales are down by 14 percent and no one has sold 800,000 albums in a week since Beyoncé's self-titled surprise release in 2013. For Swift, hitting a million sales so quickly has become a habit, which is amazing because only 18 albums have ever sold that many copies in their first week.
The very first member of the instant million club was — you guessed it — Brooks in 1998, with his Double Live set. He's an album-sales monster. Six of his albums sold 10 million copies each. Double Live sold close to 21 million. According to RIAA album sales records, Garth Brooks is the third highest-selling artist of all time, behind only Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, having sold 134 million albums worldwide. After 14 years on hiatus, Garth Brooks has sold out every stop on his new tour.
One of the reasons they have such rabid fans is that Brooks and Swift understand that intimacy — no matter how feigned — sells. When Brooks broadcast the very first live-via-satellite concert to Walmarts nationwide to promote Double Live, he spoke directly to his fans. "Country radio is the bridge between the artist and the people," he told the Daily Beast. "Social media twists everything, but on radio, it is my voice directly to the listener."
Swift seeks to connect with her fans in much the same way as Brooks, but, ever a product of her generation, she sees social media as the way to do it. And though her strategy may not be as radio-reliant as Brooks', his goal — to connect "his voice directly to the listener" — sounds an awful lot like what Swift is trying to do with her 1989 secret sessions and video monologues before each song.
Building that bridge with the listener, for Swift, is a way to ensure loyalty. Through her social media presence, Swift does what Brooks did on country radio: she makes them feel special by giving them tracks early and sharing future song lyrics with them. When Taylor Swift steps outside in a shirt that reads "No... it's Becky," a reference to a popular Tumblr page, she isn't just making a joke. She's not-so-subtly telling her fans that she's listening to them, and reading their comments — that she cares.
The move to pop
In 1999, Brooks tried to make the transition from country music god to pop music titan — a transition that Swift is currently undergoing.
Brooks's music was never entirely country. But in 1999, he made the full pop music jump. In a bold and unheard-of move, Brooks assumed an alter ego — Chris Gaines, an Australian alternative-rock star with a goatee.
Garth Brooks in . . . the Life of Chris Gaines peaked at No. 2 on the pop charts and sold a little over 1 million copies, but it was largely ignored by country fans. Sales were good, but Brooks' pop transition failed miserably. The public wasn't ready for the shift. Instead of seeing Chris Gaines as another Brooks innovation, they saw him as a betrayal.
"All I know how to do is be myself. That's all I did in the '90s, and that's all I'm doing now. For me, it's not pop or country. It's just Garth," Brooks told the Daily Beast in retrospect.
Being Garth works. Being Chris Gaines did not. After the album was released (and hated), Brooks announced that he'd be taking a break from music until his youngest daughter went off to college.
Now that he's on his comeback tour, his fans still love him. They scream at his concerts for him. They cry. He's back, he's the Garth fans adore, and no one is complaining. Swift's concerts on the Red tour featured much of the same. Her fans, like Brooks', alternate between screaming praises and standing on tiptoes. She tells personal stories like she's at a slumber party, instead of a 50,000-person arena.
But Swift has been undergoing a Chris Gaines transition of her own. She has learned to dance (somewhat) and only pulls out the guitar for a few songs. She calls 1989 her first official pop album, but Swift's transition has been more subtle, and she didn't create an alter ego to do it. She made a slow, careful transition that made her evolution seem inevitable. For instance, her last release, Red, especially on songs like "22" and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," sounds like a pop album. Hell, it is a pop album. But Taylor didn't brand it that way, and so she was still welcomed into the country-music fold.
Because she was younger than Brooks when he tried to become Chris Gaines — or maybe because she's more calculated or because it's a different time — Swift is making the pop star transition better than Brooks ever could. On her, it simply looks like she's growing up. In 2007, Swift said she looked up to Brooks for his "work ethic" and that he represented a "true artist to her." She watched his career flourish and flounder, and it's doubtful she will make the same mistake he did.
When this new, pop queen Swift performed "Out of the Woods" on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week, she looked less approachable than she ever has on stage. But she also looked like a more-refined, more-polished, and more-talented star than she ever has. And there's the difference. When Brooks became Chris Gaines, he shed his identity. Swift looks like she's finally found hers.
Taylor Swift's fifth album, 1989, drops October 27. Garth Brooks's ninth studio album, Man Against the Machine, drops November 11.