There is pulling a Taylor Swift, and then there’s pulling a Taylor Swift. Of the handful of country musicians who’ve briefly gotten a foothold in the pop mainstream — a list that in the past couple decades has included Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Lonestar, Lady Antebellum, and Carrie Underwood among others — Swift is by far the all-time champ, completely transcending her country origins on her way to taking over the world. Any country star who hopes to gatecrash the pop charts can study her career as a roadmap from Nashville sensation to global monolith. Maren Morris, so far as I can tell, is the only one who is following the formula so closely that she’s appearing in actual Target commercials, just like Ms. Big Reputation herself.
The occasion for this corporate tie-in is “The Middle,” an appropriately titled song on which Morris, one of the best young country singers going, plunges headfirst into electronic pop with all the vigor the genre demands. It’s a collaboration with Zedd, one of the superstar EDM producers who’s been able to adapt to pop’s post-EDM landscape, and with Grey, the rather anonymous production team of brothers Kyle and Michael Trewartha, with whom Zedd teamed for the charming Hailee Steinfeld hit “Starving” last year. “The Middle,” too, is a prime example of modern pop done right. Catchy, emphatic, effervescent — put simply, it’s a bop.
Ever since breaking through with the Foxes-featuring “Clarity,” one of the finest singles of that peak EDM moment, Zedd has scored his biggest successes serving up euphoric sugar-rush beats for female vocalists ranging from fluttery diva Ariana Grande (“Break Free”) to soulful, conversational Alessia Cara (“Stay”) to breathy chameleon and one-time flame Selena Gomez (“I Want You To Know”). He and Grey are very much in their comfort zone on “The Middle.”
It’s a bit of a surprise to hear Morris thundering across that chorus, though. Sure, her 2016 breakout hit Hero was full of tracks that could be perceived as backdoor pilots for a pop crossover — the 1989 synthesizers rippling across “80s Mercedes,” the loose hip-hop backbeat behind “How It’s Done” — but those were still country songs at heart. Sure, she recently added One Direction alumnus Niall Horan to a list of duet partners that also includes country stars Dierks Bentley and Thomas Rhett, but Horan’s version of pop is basically just soft-rock. None of her maneuvers suggested she’d be kicking off 2018 slinging digital bliss.
Man is it working for her, though — commercially as well as creatively. “The Middle” just became her first top-10 single, climbing to #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Whether it portends further pop excursions from Morris remains to be seen. As it stands she’s positioned herself to become, if not the next Taylor Swift, at least the next Faith Hill or Shania Twain — or maybe, given her remarkable talent and distinctive songwriting touch, the first Maren Morris.