From the outset of ABC’s Nashville, it was clear that the creators and producers of the show felt that the best direction to take the character of Juliette Barnes was the stereotypical, Taylor Swiftian, blonde up and comer who either intimidated or just annoyed everyone else in Nashville with the exception of the people who were putting money in their pockets due to her talent. Although Callie Khouri, Hayden Panettiere, and other members of the team behind the show consistently asserted that any similarities between Barnes and Swift were purely coincidental, it was pretty obvious throughout the first half of the season that this was the characterization they decided on and were running with it until further notice. Between her rude attitude, fashion style, romantic tanglings with a football player who was a non-partying, virgin, momma’s boy, and her fan base that consisted of screaming tweens covered in sparkles and pink it’s not hard to assume that the character was a direct rip off of everything Swift. Or at least everything that her career and personality seems to be from the outside looking in. On some level, this makes sense. Swift is one of the most marketable and famous personalities in all of country music if not in all of music itself. When launching a new show, especially on ABC, it’s much easier to slot your characters into existing beacons of popularity than to build from the ground up. Viewers want to be entertained from minute one of the pilot, and having fully formed characters ready to serve up on a platter is much simpler than hoping certain traits hook viewers and they stick around for more growth and change. Network television doesn’t allow that when ratings are on the line, so it wasn’t absurd that Nashville fell into the same trap every other network show does.
From that stereotypical start to Season 1 all the way through about the 12th or 13th episode, the Swiftification of Juliette Barnes stood pat. She was the soapy, romantic, crazy part of the show and had all of the fancy dresses and performances in front of screaming 14 year olds that went with it. Private jet, rotating cast of boy toys, bratty personality, using money as the fix for every scandal that she ran into, you name it. As the season went on, however, Juliette slowly made the transformation from most annoying and cliched part of the show to the most interesting and nuanced character in the bunch. Nuanced being used comparatively, of course. This is still a show that airs on ABC. By the end of the season she had completed her transformation from a one note character to someone who I was most looking forward to seeing every week. Besides the obvious changes made to her behavior by the writers this transition was also made clear through the music she performed. Since Nashville’s entire M.O. is that the music people are singing directly reflects their mood or feelings at the time it only makes sense that when attempting to reposition a character in this way it would start with her music. We were introduced to Juliette at the beginning of the show as she was filming music videos while rebuffing shrieking fans and tweeting out updates of her life. 22 episodes later she had made the conscious decision to go in a more mature direction with her new album and start to tone down the antics, even if only in the public eye. The show began shooting her in more close ups while singing and they gave her more and more slow, romantic, or sad songs to sing in The Bluebird or at small pop-up shows. Although nothing changed about her wardrobe when she was on stage with Rayna James on their tour together, while off stage or singing at bars her outfits took on a rugged yet polished look. Glitter was replaced with a little more leather and denim, etc. The death of her mother and betrayal at the hands of her supposed lover gave her an even more damaged and hurt persona than that which she had started with and this bled into her music choices over the last 5 episodes. Barnes was as different from episode one as she was going to be over the course of one season, but it was very clear there was still more growth that could occur and hopefully would in season two.
From my perspective though, even with all these alterations Juliette Barnes was still a stereotypical shell of Taylor Swift with some modifications tacked on to the model. She still had her adoring fans that skewed very young, she still acted like a brat towards pretty much everybody she spoke to whenever she felt like it and she still had a vengeful streak a mile wide. We still got a ton of trips on her private plane (as we have this season) and houses and suites seemingly whenever and wherever she asked for them. Granted these things were directly tied to the fact that she has money to burn and most other stars on the show we hear about do too, but her response to having so much money and the way she uses it to fix annoyances in her life speaks to a spoiled and naive person. Also, most of her songs reflected on some lost love or betrayal (with the exception of the ones about her mother’s suicide) and we all know who’s favorite pastime that is. But at the beginning of Season 2, there were signs that the show had made the choice to steer her even farther away from that inspiration and towards another blonde country starlet’s persona. A few specific events that have happened in the first two episodes of the season have led me to the conclusion that the behind the scenes decision has been made to position her as more of a dark Carrie Underwood than as a standard Taylor Swift mimicry. First of all, in the season premiere she did the Rayna James cover “This Love Ain’t Big Enough” that not only worked well with Panettiere’s voice but was easily one of the most country songs they’ve ever had her perform. Her motivations to sing it still worked from a character perspective, but the show could have easily given her a reason to sing a new original song or something that she simply dedicated to Rayna but was still a pop-country standard. She also spoke to the new head of the record label (played by Oliver Hudson because…why, again?) about her plan to continue moving her songs in a more mature and adult direction.
The second thing that led me to believe this was an active and intentional repositioning of Juliette’s character was the introduction of a new artist at the label, a young thing “right off the bus” who recently won second place in “that TV singing competition”. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “but if this new girl is a singing competition winner wouldn’t that be the character who is about to emulate Carrie” and I would agree, except this new girl seems much more likely to scheme and connive her way into a successful career than even Juliette does which would in turn boost everyone’s opinion of the latter. I don’t mind having a tween queen country pop star on the show by any means, especially if ABC is really serious about making Nashville more of a nighttime soap and less of a drama, but I would very much prefer that it not be Juliette. Give Hayden more to work with and she’s shown that she can deliver the goods. As an actress, she can handle much better and more nuanced material than trouble with her fans and which song to record as shown by the relationship between her and her drug addict mother last year. By making this new character a younger, hipper, copycat of Juliette and/or Rayna, the show can dump all of their newly freed up stereotypical story lines on her and focus on the growth that Juliette has been going through even more. I really hope it does as even though Juliette would still be free to double cross people, this new blood can be the snarky bitch that everyone hates instead of a main character who should really have more motivations behind her decisions to eviscerate someone or something besides “I felt like it”.
If the show actually commits to a more layered, darker, and as a result more interesting version of Carrie Underwood for Juliette to assume I think it could accomplish some great things that they didn’t have the opportunity to in Season 1. There was some evidence of these types of scenes this week as they sent Juliette back to her roots to interact with old friends in the trailer park she grew up in. Obviously Underwood didn’t come from a trailer park, but she embraces her past as a country girl and lets her fans and critics in to her life whereas Swift pretends she’s a good country girl who’s life began when she got to Nashville instead of having grown up in a decidedly not-country area of Pennsylvania. Overall, Carrie is more rounded and sweet. Up until now Juliette has been sweet only when she needed to be to get what she wanted from boys, managers, and band mates. Having her mature internally as well as musically, and maybe even have a romantic interest that isn’t capital “D” drama 24/7, would be a boon for the show and the actress putting on the most interesting performance out of what has turned out to be a great ensemble cast. So let this new addition be the stereotype now and start throwing all of the extra-soapy stuff into her orbit instead of Barnes’. Or better yet, come up with a completely new direction to take Juliette, one that doesn’t have half a dozen hallmarks of any existing singers out there. Make her a character all her own instead of one formed by PR teams in Hollywood and NYC. I would much rather see Juliette and Rayna shed any semblance of cliché than have them both start circling the stereotype drain again this season.