Swift, who turned 21 recently, was an early starter. She won a national poetry contest in fourth grade. A computer repairman taught her the first chords on her guitar. Ten years ago she knocked on the door of every record label in Nashville. Disappointed but persistent, she moved with her family to the suburbs of the city, renowned as the heartland of country music. By 15, she was performing regularly though she had to wait to sample chart success. Her first single Tim McGraw – after the American country music star – charted at No 6 on Billboard Hot Country Songs in 2006. That October, all of sweet 16, Swift released her self-titled debut album.
Helped along by cleverly targeted music videos, the songs on Taylor Swift (2006) – themed around teenage romances, late-night phone duels with toy-boys, kiss-and-forget college dances, and mushy heartbreaks that she had both suffered and inflicted – worked like chick-lit on crack. While they revealed a prodigious star with a penchant for perfect phrasing and clingy hooks, it helped that Taylor was blonde, blue-eyed and 5′ 11”.
Her sophomore release Fearless (2008) debuted at No 1 and rewrote sales records for female and country artists.
The 14 songs on Speak Now aim mischievous arrows at her exes by smartly stepping clear of lyrical clichés. Swift has said that her relationships offer copious grist for songwriting. “Better than Revenge” has her snarling cattily at a girl who stole her boyfriend. The line “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with” in “Dear John” is rumoured to be a swipe at John Mayer, on whose recent album Swift sang two lines. Those apart, there are fine touches in “Back to December”, “Speak Now” and “Haunted”.
Swift also showed us that her heart, which pumps out marshmallow ditties, is in the right place. In 2007, she supported a campaign to protect children from internet criminals.
Her songs, echoing of Shania Twain, are heady with adolescence but she slips in a measure of adult-like restraint. On her website she says, “These songs are made up of words I didn’t say when the moment was right in front of me.”
With three editions of sonic Mills & Boon (or what Entertainment Weekly described as “a one-girl empire of dear-diary reveries”), Swift has warmed the American heart. But time will tell if her songwriting will endure as it comes to terms with stardom and adulthood.
And who cares what Kanye West is thinking?
Big Machine Records, 2010
This review first appeared in M magazine, December 2010
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