TAYLOR SWIFT: Elevating Teen Dreams into Art

Taylor Swift isn’t precocious, cute or sweet, although she possesses a winning combination of vulnerability and toughness, which is one key to her immense success. The 18-year-old singer, songwriter and budding mogul doesn’t exactly sing country, either.

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Taylor Swift isn’t precocious, cute or sweet, although she possesses a winning combination of vulnerability and toughness, which is one key to her immense success. The 18-year-old singer, songwriter and budding mogul doesn’t exactly sing country, either. She might have penned what sounds initially like a paean to Tim McGraw, but 2006’s hit single “Tim McGraw” turns out to be about her own experience, with McGraw’s music as the backdrop to a life that runs like an accelerated, time-lapse film of growth-where there was bare ground two seconds ago now teems with bright colors. Like most current music marketed to a country audience, Swift’s 2006 self-titled debut was something else entirely. She is, in many ways, a classic singer/songwriter, the kind of artist who is driven to pick apart the quotidian.

Still, her autobiographical impulses and her devotion to the everyday put her in line with any number of young country and Americana artists, even if Taylor Swift sounds slick enough for her to have snagged an opening slot on a recent Rascal Flatts tour. Still, Swift’s teen-pop goes deep and gets ambivalent while hewing to the conventions of the well-made Nashville song. After all, what mainstream country or pop artist recording in Nashville has the luxury of experimenting?

On her new album, Fearless, Swift doesn’t break a lot of new ground musically, but her knack for conversational and slightly troubled lyrics remains intact. Like the best writers, she finds a way to open up her narratives, which makes her-deservedly-a poet of the teenage experience. In her best songs, however, she’s something more. Fearless‘s title track takes time to note the “glow off the pavement” as she makes her way through another closely observed romantic dilemma. And part of Swift’s poetry is the way she offers the image and then snaps it shut with the following line, “you walk me to the car.” Swift seems to understand how a narrative song uses imagery to give us a glimpse into her state of mind, and to show how sharply she notices the world. A less commercial or skillful writer might have offered another image, but Swift phrases the line “you walk me to the car” in a very canny way. The image flows seamlessly into the action. She closes the book on that particular bit of emotion and advances her tale like the storyteller she is.

For all that, Swift operates like an artist, right down to her obsession with writing. Discovered by future Big Machine Records executive Scott Borchetta at Nashville’s famed songwriting temple the Bluebird Cafe singing a song she’d written when she was 14, Swift-born in 1989 and raised on a Christmas-tree farm in Wyomissing, Penn.-had already been writing at a furious clip. “The song, ‘Picture to Burn,’ which was a Top 5 single for us, I wrote that when I was 14 and played it at that [Bluebird Cafe] showcase,” Swift says.

Most writers are born as well as made, and Swift proves it. “For me, I started out writing when I was 12. I learned three chords on a guitar and wrote my first song that night,” she remembers. “I would write songs until my fingers bled, until my mother would make me leave my little computer room and come to dinner. I found something at that point that I absolutely couldn’t put down.”

Moving with her family to Nashville, Swift quickly achieved the near-impossible: she landed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV. As she says, “I was the youngest person Sony had ever signed. And I walked into writers’ session with writers that I knew were hit songwriters. I knew they were twice if not three times my age, and I knew they were going to have serious doubts about walking in and working with a 13-year-old. The first writers’ sessions I got were due to my publisher pulling major favors.”

That might be true, but setting up younger writers with more experienced tunesmiths is a venerable Nashville tradition, and also, of course, a way of hedging one’s bets. Swift might have been young, but she was determined to make the most of an opportunity most aspiring writers would envy.

“I knew I couldn’t let my publishers down, and I couldn’t let this industry down,” Swift says of those early writing sessions. “And I knew how people were going around talking about how there’s this 14-year-old who had just lucked into a major publishing deal. So, before every single writing session, I’d walk in with 15 or 20 ideas, of songs that were almost finished. For me, I just wanted everyone to know I was serious about it, and that, yes, I was going to high school during the day. But while I was in school, every second of my free time was spent on thinking of ideas to bring to these co-writers.”

On Taylor Swift, she wrote most of the songs with Liz Rose. “She’s one of my favorite co-writers,” Swift says, “and she and I wrote eight of the songs on my first record, and I think three of the songs on my second record are ones I wrote with her. I felt so comfortable with her that sometimes I would bring in the craziest ideas. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. A case in point where it worked was when I brought in an idea called ‘Tim McGraw.’ She looked at me like I was crazy, and then, as I kept on playing this idea for her, it sunk in. She got it.”

The result has since become famous-a real landmark of teen-pop and country crossover that doesn’t sound in the least bit country. (On both her records, the pedal steel and banjo are merely signifiers. Musically, she operates strictly in mainstream pop, with a haze of indie indecision hanging over some of her chord changes.) Like many of the songs on Fearless, Taylor Swift’s “Picture to Burn” has formal affinities with the work of Pavement or any number of ‘90s indie-rockers. It’s a generational thing, and one gets the sense that Swift’s music-and the rather anonymous backing of the studio pros she uses-is secondary. Swift, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s like a puzzle,” she says of her efforts to marry music and lyrics. “If you get the code and the syncopation and the melody and the emotion just right, the words can absolutely bounce off the page. I love syncopation-the way you can take a chord structure and play it and lay a bunch of different melodies and lyrics on top of it. It’s almost conversational. I like to write conversational songs because I can relate to them more.”

Writing with Big and Rich’s John Rich for the new record, Swift turned out “That’s The Way I Loved You.” Here, the composition integrates music and lyrics in a completely natural and intelligent way. Unlike some of Swift’s songs, which can sound like lyrics simply grafted onto a melody, “That’s The Way I Loved You” binds together sound and sense. The experience of hanging out with Rich was something of an eye-opener for the young singer. “I went to write with him, and he’s like a cartoon character,” Swift laughs. “I say that in the best way possible. I went to meet him at a gas station near his house and he pulls up in this Bentley, this crazy-expensive car. He pulls up, rolls the window down-the window’s completely blacked out–and I’m just, like, of course, John Rich drives that. He’s got this bulldog named Frank Sinatra. Writing with him was so amazing, because I didn’t know how it was gonna click.”

“That’s The Way I Loved You,” about the conflict of choosing between a perfect, amiable guy and the bad boy she still dreams about, contrasts slightly mechanical-sounding verses with a more relaxed chorus (she sings the verses as if she’s slightly distracted, with an intentionally unnatural emphasis on certain words). Swift says that was intentional. “We wanted the verses to seem very robotic,” she explains. “But then when you get to the chorus, the melody explodes. We wanted to reflect the lyrics of the song in the way the melody was.”

Swift talks about what she calls “a crazy, weird minor chord [Rich] came up with,” and this reveals an aspect of her experience that seems strangely unformed. The chord, and its place in the song’s harmonic progression, is pretty standard; The Beatles used it in “You Won’t See Me” in 1965. Despite her undeniable talent, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Swift is writing to formula a lot of the time, and that the formula excludes a lot of ideas that could be interesting, not to mention commercial. There’s nothing particularly surprising about her choice of chord progression and rhythms, although this may be a byproduct of the Nashville practice of co-writing.

Fearless does well with its readymade forms, however. In her hands, the standard pop song-already assembled and ready to use-becomes a vehicle for expressing her emotions. The casual “Hey Stephen” might be the best track on the record. With its nod to Phil Spector’s girl-group productions in its drum intro, “Hey Stephen” stands as a first-rate pop song. Throughout Fearless, one marvels at Swift’s precision as a writer of lyrics. When she sings the line, “repeating history and you’ve gotten sick of it,” it’s clear she is some kind of newfangled master of the colloquial.

Swift is a pro, and she’s still incredibly young. When she talks about becoming a mogul in the mold of Madonna or Dolly Parton, it’s not hard to imagine. She’s a realist who one day may find a way to overcome Music City’s formulas. The pressure must be incredible, and she seems to take Nashville’s peculiar, hot-house style of writing in perfect stride. “What you can learn from a co-write session is that it can be the best thing, if the ideas are flowing,” she says. “If it’s not right-well, there are days when it’s not gonna work.”

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