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Taylor Swift Isn't Country (And Apple's Not High-End)

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Taylor Swift plays both sides of the country-pop divide. That's what this article's about. But, by way of comparison, I'm going to talk first about Apple (AAPL)

Just as Taylor Swift isn't country, Apple's not high-end, even it positions itself as a producer and retailer of premium products for an elite consumer. Investors (and music fans) need to understand the dynamics that underlie both points.

Apple's a bit like Barack Obama -- everything to everybody.

When you're on Oprah, you act one way. When you're campaigning in Beverly Hills, you act another way. That's akin to Apple slumming its products in your local Wal-Mart (WMT) at the same time as it stocks accessories from names such as Bang & Olufsen and locates retail enclaves alongside luxury brands like Michael Kors (KORS).

The typical first of the month Walmart customer isn't rockin' $400 headphones or $200 earbuds by B&O. And they're certainly not dropping several grand on skirts and dresses.

While I contend this dual image dilutes Apple's brand and could have negative long-term consequences, I respect the argument that it's smart for Apple to straddle both sides of the fence.

It explicitly floats between high and low end on pricing and availability within product categories. Apple subtly markets its products as elite and aspirational; however, outside of a few exceptions, they're not. You can buy the best at Walmart. Or get it for really cheap, if not free, via promotion at a handful of third-party retailers. If that's not a contradiction, I'm not sure what is.

Along similar lines, I agree with TheStreet's Jason Notte that Taylor Swift isn't country, but I come at it a bit differently.

Notte's correct ...

While (The New York) Times still somehow considers Taylor Swift "country" -- despite long ago transcending that genre and eschewing twang and drawl for beats and Tegan and Sara covers -- the most prominent face of country music in the last decade or so has been the tanned, hat-shaded Tennessee visage of Kenny Chesney and the cocktail country that comes along with it.

But it's not the Times that considers Taylor Swift country. It's the powers that be within the country music industry. And, smartly, Swift goes along for the ride. Like Apple, she runs in multiple worlds. 

Country music benefits because it gets headlines like the one Notte was referring to -- "Young, Rich and Ruling Radio, Country Walks a Broader Line." Country tops lists as the most popular radio format and such. However, it can only achieve this status because of Swift's broad star power. She is, beyond a shadow of doubt, the best crossover phenomenon of our time. While Swift hasn't kept quite as much twang as, say, Shania Twain did during her crossover heyday, she keeps just enough.

Just enough so not too many country diehards hate her for crossing over (and not really being country any longer). Just enough to get nominated (and sometimes win) at every awards show from the CMAs to the VMAs to the Grammys. Just enough to show respect and prop up the format that launched her. Just enough to give hope to Top 40 and, eventually, save everything from indie pop to rock and roll.

Swift keeps a residence in Nashville, though she's rarely in it. She claims she spends time in Nashville, but we just don't see it because the paparazzi leave her alone there. In Nashville, we're to believe she's just like a low-profile Springsteen in Asbury Park or Rumson. As much as I love Taylor Swift (and I do), I call bull.

She has probably spent more time at the West Hollywood Whole Foods Market (WFM) in 2014 than Nashville. Swift splits time between Manhattan and LA. 

Like Wayne Gretzky, who's about as far from being Canadian as somebody born there could possibly be, both do justice to symbolism -- for their own good and for the good of the machines that helped make them. Country music for Swift. The National Hockey League and Canadian hockey pride for Gretzky.

Because Number 99 effectively rebuffed Canada a long time ago, there's been some strain in the relationship. It's not too tough to find a bitter Canadian miffed that Gretzky coached the Phoenix Coyotes instead of taking a post with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or another native angry that he lives on the American West Coast as opposed to the icy Toronto waterfront. For goodness sake, late last year somebody apparently defaced a Gretzky statue in Brantford.

As Swift's music veers further and further away from being country, she'll wind up in the same boat. Country music will reluctantly disown her and the format will take its rightful place somewhere south of where it is now. Because, as she prepares to release her fifth record, I reckon Taylor Swift's about to sound a lot more like Tegan & Sara -- who she brought on stage last year in LA -- than anything you might expect to hear on a country station. Simply put, country won't be able to play her songs without making a total mockery of the genre.

So if everybody's smart, soon Taylor Swift will star in an Apple commercial shot in Nashville on Music Row.

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is a full-time columnist for TheStreet. He lives in Santa Monica. Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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