If our experience is the norm, reporters who talk to Taylor Swift get two interviews in the bargain. You get a professional entertainer, poised and practiced, who's already been the music guest on SNL and a featured performer on the Grammys before her 20th birthday. And sometimes, even in the same breath, you get a guest appearance by the not-atypical Tennessee teen you probably passed on Second Avenue without a second look.
Take the oft-raised question of whether she is really country or pop. "I don't sit down, start writing a song and freak out, and say, 'not country enough,' or 'not pop enough,' or, 'I'm going for this demographic or that demographic,' " Swift says, now rehearsing for her imminent summer tour. "I just write music. And I try not to overcomplicate things with how people might perceive it."
That's Taylor Swift the multiplatinum hit machine, who just last night was singing her anthem "Fifteen" before the music world's glitterati and a global audience. Then Taylor Swift the teenager adds an emoticon: "Y'know, it's all good."
If anyone's been able to master life as a dual citizen—teenager/celebrity, country girl/pop star, and of course singer/songwriter—it's Swift, perhaps country music's brightest hope. When her second album, Fearless, was released in November 2008, the Hendersonville 19-year-old found herself in two places at once: No. 1 on the country chart and No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200.
What got her there, says her frequent writing partner Liz Rose, is an ability to talk to her peers in their own voice without faking it. Even in writing sessions. "For about two minutes she's just...high school," says Rose, who co-wrote four songs on Fearless, including the single "You Belong With Me." "She'll be like, 'Give me some chocolate!' Then we'll close the door, and she'll say, 'OK, here's my idea.' "
Those ideas tend to be good—like the time she told Rose she wanted to write a song about Tim McGraw. The result, her first single "Tim McGraw," reached No. 6 on the country chart. Thus far, Swift has managed to flesh out her ideas without play-acting or patronizing. When she sings, "She wears short skirts / I wear T-shirts / She's cheer captain and / I'm in the bleachers" (in "You Belong With Me"), she's easy to imagine in either role. Asked the same question about Swift's genre identity, country or pop, Rose says it's immaterial.
"Taylor's heart is country," Rose says. "The fact that we ran off our younger demographic a long time ago—people should be thanking Taylor. She's brought back a lot of fans we lost that went to pop and Disney." As for Swift's crossover appeal, she says simply, "Taylor didn't ask for pop. Pop asked for Taylor."
And pop keeps asking. Swift sold more than 4 million albums in 2008. If success has given her what Koreans call kongju-byeong ("princess syndrome"), she's hiding it in a way every overnight country-pop-whatever superstar should study.
"When I'm home, I like to get to know my brother," Swift says. "Other than that, Abigail and I"—you may remember Abigail as her friend in "Fifteen" who "gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind"—"we'll go to, like, the Old Spaghetti Factory. We literally do that. Just go to Broadway and do touristy stuff, because it's fun."
As for success, she says, "Every day feels like a bonus day for me, because I never thought I was gonna get to do this.... I've always approached it like, 'You probably won't get this, but if you're lucky, you might.' And that goes for everything."
Maybe "lucky" isn't quite the right word. Like many teenagers, Swift is big into social networking—she just happens to have, quite literally, a million friends on MySpace. She owes at least some of her success to utilizing online networks better than anyone else in country music, because it came naturally. "I love my MySpace," she says. "I'm on there all the time."
Last year, Swift spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200—the first female country artist ever to do so—and became the first artist in SoundScan history to land two albums in the year-end Top 10. What can she possibly do for an encore? Her first headlining tour, of course.
"You have to come out and see it!" she exclaims. If anything, she sounds like she might consider stapling flyers on Elliston Place the week before the show. "Putting together a tour," she says, "I think to myself, y'know, 'What if nobody shows up?' " That won't be a problem. The first show that went on sale for the Fearless Tour—at L.A.'s Staples Center—sold out in two minutes. "[That] really blew my mind," she says.
Aside from the tour, which stretches from March to October, Swift is "always writing" for an eventual third album. With one boot atop the country world and a stiletto at the top of the pops, Swift now seems as indomitable as she is unclassifiable. But she's not getting ahead of herself.
"You have to realize that you know nothing compared to what you're going to know two weeks from now," she says. "And that's just how I live my life."
Photographed at Sommet Center by David McClister (davidmcclister.com)
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