Ok, hear me out. I want Taylor Swift to make a Nick Cave style murder ballad record. “I need this” is a new series of entries where I try to wish new records into existence and this entry is one I have been thinking about ever since recording the Taylor Swift show. Plus, Taylor is a big fan of Jukebox…at least I tell myself that…so she will definitely read this and get her creative vibes going. Folklore and Evermore are both incredible records that showcase Swift’s command of song writing and her gift for taking traditional country / folk structures and putting a modern feminist twist on them. Moreover, the track No Body, No Crime with HAIM gave us just a small taste of how amazing a Taylor Swift murder ballad record would be. With social issues becoming more in the forefront of music, now is a great time for such a bold project. So, let’s explore why we all need a Taylor Swift murder ballad record.
First, we need a history lesson. Murder ballads are a traditional English folk tradition that dates back hundreds of years and made its way into traditional country and blues music. One classic example is Knoxville Girl, which stems from old English folk songs about men killing women for perceived infidelity or disrespect. These songs would change based on the city where it was performed. So, there were songs about Oxford Girl or Essex Girl, but they all revolve around men killing women. Women are killed for possible infidelity, asking too many questions, or simply for becoming a nuisance to the man. Furthermore, women are rarely named in these tracks, which further silences them.
Johnny Cash brought this classic structure to country music with the iconic track Cocaine Blues. This song details how the subject took a bunch of cocaine, killed his wife and ran from the police until he was caught. Much like Knoxville Girl, the woman in Cocaine Blues has a history of perceived infidelity and making him “slow.” Ultimately, the lesson Cash teaches the listener is not that killing women is repugnant, but to “let that cocaine be.” Nick Cave would bring the murder ballad to a modern audience in his track Where the Wild Roses Grow with Kylie Minogue on his Murder Ballads record. This track is about how a woman meets her first love and he rewards her by killing her with a rock for nothing more than not allowing her to ever be with anyone else. All of these songs place the man in ultimate control of women, even in control of whether they live or die, and cast women as men’s possessions. Other modern examples are The Decemberists’ The Rake’s Song, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, The Violent Femmes’ Country Death Song and Colter Wall’s Kate McCannon.
Dolly Parton then took this structure and turned it on its head. She set out to sing murder ballads from the woman’s perspective. The most well known of these tracks is The Bridge where she sings about a man leaving her when she is pregnant and she ultimately kills herself from the bridge where they met. In this track she gives the woman a voice and shows the gender double standard in these songs. For Parton, these men are not going to whitewash over her pain and people will have to face the violence and suffering men afflict on women. In this sense, she is not the nameless possession men can get rid of when they no longer have a use for her. She is a person whose story is one to be valued and respected. The Chicks took this inversion even further with the amazing track Goodbye Earl where a violent and toxic man deserves to die for his abuse. This track gives women the agency they lack in traditional murder ballads and holds men accountable for their violence.
This context leads us to why we need Taylor Swift to make a murder ballad record. First of all, No Body No Crime is evidence that Swift can write an amazing murder ballad in the vain of Dolly Parton and The Chicks. Tick. Also, tracks like Exile show how she can write about domestic violence in a personal way, as well as pull off an amazing duet. Tick. Finally, Swift has a history of centring women in her songs, which is key to a modern feminist murder ballad. Tick. Tick. Tick.
So, all the elements are there, but now we need to think about what this record would look like. First of all, a good murder ballad record would have some great duets. Taylor’s duets on folklore and Evermore are well crafted with both Taylor and the featured artist really giving it and playing off each other. With that said, who would make for good duets on a future Taylor murder ballad record? I’ll kick it off the the Queen Bee herself, Beyonce. Her record Lemonade showed her genius vocal delivery and evocative songs about male entitlement, which has her primed for a bangin’ murder ballad. Plus, a murder ballad with Swift and Beyonce on it would rule the world. Swift have done some great work with The Chicks in the past and their record Gaslighter is clear evidence that a murder ballad with Swift about domestic violence would be amazing. Some good outsiders would be Lizzo, Justin Vernon (I know he just did a duet, but Exile is sooooo good), Amigo the Devil, Orville Peck, Bruce Springsteen and maybe Anderson Paak. No murder ballad record would be complete without a duet the the original, Dolly Parton. Swift and Parton would make a murder ballad that would change music forever.
Ok. We have the duets sorted. Now, we need some producers. I know it is an easy take, but I think we would have to have Dessner and Antonoff working with Swift on producing this record. Their ability to strip songs back to their bare emotional core, while still finding places for pop brilliance on the same record is incredible. Dessner, Antonoff and Swift are the tri-force of power in the production room, but let’s think out of the box for a few tracks. I think Danger Mouse on a track would be great. He is able to capture this old school soul vibe that would work really well with a murder ballad. His track Turn the Light with Karen O is a great example of what his production brings to a track. I also would like to see what Jack White could do with Taylor. His collaboration with the afore mentioned Beyonce on Don’t Hurt Yourself was a match made in heaven. Finally, Lana Del Rey would be an interesting pick as a producer on a track or two. She worked with Antonoff and co – produced her most critically acclaimed record Norman Fucking Rockwell.
Alright, here we are. The duets are set and we have the producers, but I feel like we’re missing something. That’s right….Covers! All good murder ballad records have a couple covers on them, like Nick Cave with Stagger Lee on his record. It would be interesting for Swift to cover a classic like Knoxville Girl, but gender invert it in a way that the woman is the central figure. Another Nick Cave track The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane is about a woman who hides under a table in a bar and then jumps out to brutally murder a sleazy guy as about four other men murder each other to try to get to her. It is a gory song, but it’s pretty bangin’. I also want her to go back to her country roots and cover Kitty Wells’ track It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels. Now, the ultimate track would be a cover of The Bridge with Dolly Parton. The mere thought of this imaginary track is good enough to be my song of the year for 2021.
Well, there you have it. One incredible murder ballad record to follow up the amazing combination of folklore and Evermore. I think this record would be truly incredible and something that fits really well with some of the discussions happening in society right now. So, if you are friends with Taylor Swift, a fan of hers….or if Taylor is reading this right now…make this record happen. I think I can speak for everyone when I say; “I need this!”