Why Taylor Swift Won Entertainer of the Year at CMA Awards 2011
Reaction to Taylor Swift winning Entertainer of the Year honors at the CMA Awards 2011 has been ... passionate, to say the very least. Her army of loyalists are celebrating the win -- Swift's second CMA Awards Entertainer of the Year nod -- while critics and Swift skeptics are using the the honor to further explain why they think country music is going to hell faster than a Kardashian wedding.
There are over 6,000 eligible voters for the CMA Awards. This constituency includes radio station staff, record label employees, some media, artists and management companies. Unlike many awards shows, fan opinions are not included. That's worth repeating because there is a misdirected swell of anger toward the people perceived as being responsible for Taylor Swift's win: young girls and their mothers. Please don't picket the weekend soccer field or boycott the Girl Scouts because of Taylor Swift. They need your cookie money, and they had no input in this CMA Awards 2011 win.
Here is the Country Music Association's voting instructions for the Entertainer of the Year award category: "This Award is for the act displaying the greatest competence in all aspects of the entertainment field. Voter should give consideration not only to recorded performance, but also to the in-person performance, staging, public acceptance, attitude, leadership, and overall contribution to the Country Music image. Award to artist." It's important to remember that the official CMA year began on July 1, 2010 and ended on June 30, 2011.
In that time frame, Swift sold almost twice as many copies of her album 'Speak Now' than any other 2011 Entertainer of the Year nominee -- that includes Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban -- did with his recent album. She and Aldean led the way, with Swift selling 3.7 million copies to Aldean's 1.9 million copies of 'My Kinda Party.' Both were released within a week of each other last fall (it's difficult to tell how many albums each sold before the June 30 deadline, but it is true that Aldean has consistently outsold Swift since then).
Shelton didn't release his new, critically-acclaimed album 'Red River Blue' until after that deadline, and Paisley released 'This Is Country Music' just weeks earlier. Urban has sold over 600K copies of 'Get Closer' since it was released in 2010. From a strict sales perspective, Swift is clearly the champion. Aldean's album won the Album of the Year award this year, so he gets the edge in terms of content.
Touring and Staging
Swift has been selling out arenas (often twice in the same city) for two years, while this summer marked Aldean's first major headlining tour. Paisley headlined an amphitheater tour with opener Shelton and while attendance was great, tickets were still available for many of his shows. Urban played many of the same venues as Swift, but wasn't nearly as successful in terms of ticket sales.
If "staging" was taken literally, Swift should be a runaway winner as her show rivals a Broadway production. Of course, a more liberal interpretation includes the overall quality of the show. This is to each voter's personal taste, but if you're amongst the angry at the CMA Awards 2011 outcome, remember that even if you thought Brad Paisley's show was the best thing since the DVR, there is someone else who feels the same about Taylor Swift's Speak Now Tour. Industry voters tend to overcome emotion. Few will argue against Swift in this category.
Public Acceptance and Attitude
Few in country music get very far with a poor attitude, so this category is essentially a draw. Shelton's tweets can be taken as crass and irresponsible to some (or as hilarious to many). One could argue that Urban is reclusive or that he's reflective. Swift could be called a drama queen -- or graceful -- for handling criticism so skillfully.
Public acceptance has to include the non-country listening public. The many, many non-Nashville based presenters and performers seen on the Nov. 3 show are indicative of how high a priority bringing new listeners to the genre is for the CMA (and ABC). Shelton and Swift do this as well as anyone. Both had a very high profile year, with much of Shelton's popularity building just before the June 30 deadline. Give the edge to Shelton as he had momentum.
Leadership and Overall Contribution to the Country Image
As host of the CMA Awards 2011 and an increasingly recognizable voice of all things country music, Paisley takes the "leadership" title. "Overall contribution to the country image" is open to interpretation. On one hand, Swift is the top contributor because she brings more new fans to the genre. On the other, she's sort of labeled as a pariah for tarnishing the boots and hat image.
Now, How People Really Vote
Being the only female in the group helps Taylor Swift in a way similar to how being the only democrat in the 1992 election helped Bill Clinton defeat George Bush and Ross Perot. Swift didn't need a majority, just one more vote than anyone else. The other four, in many cases, cancel each other out.
There's also an unstated belief that an artist has to pay his or her dues before winning the Entertainer of the Year trophy. Essentially, one has to be nominated and lose a few times before taking home the honor (see Brad Paisley in 2010). That is enough for some people to cross Aldean and Shelton off their ballot. Again, only a few people think like this, but in such a (presumably) close election, a few votes could make a big difference. Ask Al Gore about that. Swift did win the honor with her first try in 2008, but the competition was not as even as it was in 2011.
Voters often spread the wealth. Some have said this is a result of Nashville politics, but more likely it's a result of wanting to see everyone go home happy. So you vote for Artist A in one category while you vote for Artist B in another category, just to be fair. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule (Miranda Lambert's honors in 2010), but again, a few votes could really make a difference. While over 6,000 people were eligible to vote for the 2011 CMA Awards, it's likely far fewer actually turn in ballots. With such a small sample size, the most illogical reasoning plays a big role in deciding winners and losers.
Industry voters also have a broader scope of what's good for country music. As a whole, the industry isn't going to say "I'm sick of her" because Swift continues to do the little things behind the scenes to put smiles on important faces in Nashville and radio. She sends little thank you notes to radio station programmers who play her record, and she always seems to remember a face. She's generous and accessible, perhaps to her own detriment. There just isn't the aversion to Taylor Swift among CMA voters (speaking in very broad terms) that there seemingly is among some of the general public.
What Will Happen in 2012?
Next year, both Shelton and Aldean will be in a better position to win the Entertainer of the Year award, as both are surging while Swift's tour is ending and her new album likely won't be out before the June 30 deadline; she seems to stick to fall releases. Miranda Lambert may also be in the category, and maybe even Carrie Underwood -- although Underwood doesn't get the credit she deserves as a live performer (but that's another essay). As fans learned this year, however, predicting the whimsy of CMA Awards voters is a perilous habit to keep. And as for this year, congratulations to Taylor Swift.
Watch Taylor Swift Accept the Entertainer of the Year Award at CMA Awards 2011