But the pop world is an entirely different world, one inhabited by shameless paparazzi and writers who have little sympathy for the way things are done in central Tennessee. And from that point on – and as Swift’s profile continued to rise – she would have to face an entirely different type of scrutiny than she had before. Both of the professional and personal variety.
Her relationships with a series of celebrity beaus (including singer Joe Jonas, actor Taylor Lautner and singer-guitarist John Mayer), for example, went from tabloid footnotes to cover story material. And whereas before there had been only murmurs about a series of underwhelming awards show performances, criticism of Swift’s singing intensified.
Perhaps the loudest of those criticisms came in February of 2010, when an industry attorney and blogger named Bob Lefsetz – who had previously been supportive of Swift – referred to her 2010 Grammy performance (a duet with Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”) as “dreadful,” writing: “Now everybody knows that Taylor Swift can’t sing.”
All of this turmoil would end up as fuel for the songs that would comprise Swift’s third album, Speak Now. On the album’s highlight track, “Dear John,” she speaks about – or more correctly, speaks to – Mayer in devastatingly direct terms, singing, “Don’t you think nineteen’s too young to be played by your dark twisted games” (while, at the same time, mimicking some of Mayer’s signature guitar licks). And she confronted the criticism of her singing – and perhaps Lefsetz’ criticism in particular – in a song called “Mean.” Indeed, throughout Speak Now, Swift’s material seemed sharper and more pointed than ever before. “I think that the songs I wrote for Speak Now are really just like letters that I would have written to people in my life,” she says. “I’ve always approached songwriting from that angle, but these were very direct letters.”
But what about those criticisms? After all, it wasn’t just one disgruntled blogger grinding an ax. On more than one occasion, Swift’s singing has come under fire for being “off-key” or “pitchy.”
“I think I’m confident about every aspect of my career, sometimes. But I’m never always confident,” Swift confesses. “I’m never always confident about my songwriting. I’m never 100 percent confident about anything that I do. And I think that keeps you growing. And I think that keeps you motivated. I never want to get complacent and I never want to be 100 percent confident about any skill that I have. It’s just not the way I think and not the way that you grow.”
Taylor Swift is many things to many people. To her fans, she’s an immensely genuine songwriter who speaks about love and relationships in a uniquely candid voice. To a music industry perpetually reeling from declining album sales, she’s a saving grace who has sold over 13 million albums – more than any other artist to emerge in the Aughts. And, to her detractors, she’s proof that country music has strayed far from its roots, embracing songs for little girls that are sung by a singer who can’t sing.
Of course, most of those detractors come from places outside of the country music family itself. Those who live and work in Nashville remember that little girl sitting in those writing sessions years ago, pounding away on her guitar and putting in the sweat equity it takes to “make it” in a town where overnight success almost never happens overnight. That’s why, on that 2009 night in the Sommet Center, there was nary a sound of protest when her name was called. Indeed, generations of country music artists, industry executives, musicians and songwriters applauded so fervently not because Taylor Swift is a nice person (she is) or humble (she’s that too) or even because she’s the most iconic superstar the city has seen since Garth Brooks.