1 Feb 2009: Taylor Swift is already being compared with Dolly Parton, has mammoth record sales and all by the age of 19
Is it possible to be a bona fide superstar aged just 19? In Taylor Swift‘s case, the answer has to be “hell yeah”. Last year, Swift was the bestselling artist in America. She shifted more than 4 million albums at a time when the music industry was in meltdown. Rolling Stone hailed her as a “preternaturally gifted songwriter”. The New York Times described her self-titled debut album, released when she was 16, as “a small masterpiece of pop-minded country“. Swift is young, talented, gorgeous and utterly focused, telling Rolling Stone: “All I ever wanted to do was sing, ever since I was born.”
And sing she does. Last year, she had six Billboard top 20 hits and her second album, Fearless, was sitting atop the Billboard 200 for the seventh week last week, keeping Beyoncé at bay. Swift is unlike any country star before her, her mainstream pop aesthetic attracting a devoted young audience in what is a traditionally a middle-aged market. Bob Harris, who hosts a weekly country music show on Radio 2, has no doubt about her pedigree: “She’s definitely the real thing. There’s a driving force in her. She was destined to be a singer. The degree of her success is sensational; she’s had a huge impact on the pop charts.”
Swift writes (or occasionally co-writes) her own music and pens teen diary lyrics fuelled by anger and regret. The music is country-lite and the lyrics are direct, honest and personal. On Fearless, there’s a song about longing for a boy who only wants to be a friend (“You Belong With Me”) and another detailing relationship frustrations: “I’m sick and tired of your attitude/ I’m feeling like I don’t know you.” Her most-quoted song is “Fifteen”, in which she sounds twice her age: “In your life you’ll do things greater/ Than dating a boy on the football team/ But I didn’t know that at 15.”
She tells American journalists that she “absolutely can’t stop writing songs”. Mostly about boys: “When someone breaks up with me, I like to write about it, because I feel like I have the last word.” Evidently she likes being in control. Which is great because it means there’s no Svengali lurking in the shadows, just Scott Borchetta, the CEO of Nashville-based Big Machine Records, who signed her up when she was 14. By then, she was pretty much a veteran who, at the age of 11, had been handing out homemade demos and singing the national anthem at the World Series because it was an excellent way to get exposure.
She was also smart enough to have a website before even signing a record deal; at 12, she had secured taylorswift.com. By the time she started to pick up awards (and there have been plenty in the past 12 months), Swift was making sure to thank her “MySpace people”. She has more than one million friends on her MySpace page, goes on the site daily (when times allows), posts photos, updates her blog and chats with fans. Her page now boasts an incredible 157 million streams and although radio has pushed her too, she is in part a digital star. This is no mean feat given that a country artist’s usual adult demographic would sideline the net in favour of CDs.
Borchetta thinks Swift’s largely female audience ranges from eight to 38, explaining her huge online fanbase. Ken Tucker, Nashville correspondent of Billboard magazine, says: “Young teens look up to Swift and older women relate to her lyrics. It’s amazing to watch her backstage with fans. She finds a way to communicate with them all.”
The appeal is not just smart pop with country roots; here’s a star who doesn’t believe in the us-and-them divide between artist and audience. In this, she is following a country music tradition that dictates strong contact with fans. Bob Harris recalls watching Willie Nelson patiently spending 90 minutes signing autographs after an American concert and Swift will do the same.
So, despite her success, Swift is still the girl next door, the clean-living role model who is an antidote to Britney, a tonic in these days of destructive, dramatic pop stars. Her family have been supportive but – and this is surprising given that we’re talking about America – there’s no evidence they pushed her.
Perhaps it’s because singing is in the blood. Born in December 1989, Swift grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and her earliest influence was her opera-singing grandmother. She has joked that her mother has spent her entire life backstage with either her mother or her daughter.
Taylor’s mother was obsessed with Def Leppard but being a “random family when it comes to musical tastes”, Taylor ended up listening to country. “LeAnn Rimes was my first impression of country music. I got her first album when I was six. I just really loved how she could be making music and having a career at such a young age.”
When she was barely 11 (but already on to the national anthem), Swift joined the karaoke circuit, singing songs by the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Faith Hill. When she was 14, her parents moved to a Nashville suburb and educated her at home. She now says she was an outsider at school, but it seems more likely that she needed time to concentrate on her music and the closer she lived to the home of country the better.
Given her naked ambition, Swift has been surprisingly happy to serve a musical apprenticeship which has seen her support most of her country heroes. “I don’t have an ego issue. I’m cool being an opening act. I’d rather be an opening act longer than I should than headline too early.”
If this sounds unnaturally mature, then it’s probably because such patience is rooted in absolute self-belief and a conviction that her career will last. In country, the song is king and, as Bob Harris points out, country artists are built to last. “Nashville has a way of producing artists whose career lasts a long time. There’s an expectation that those artists will deliver top 10 albums over a 10- or 15-year period.”
It seems that Swift has the chance to exploit the best of two musical worlds: country with its massive American fanbase and old-fashioned approach and pop with its commercial, international clout. Ken Tucker says that Swift is constantly pushing forward; just a few weeks ago, she appeared as the musical guest on US comedy show Saturday Night Live. “It’s very rare – think Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw and Willie Nelson – for a country artist to appear on that show. Later this year, she’ll do a guest spot on crime drama CSI. Last year, she co-hosted a Country Music Association concert special on ABC. I could go on and on.”
At barely 19, Taylor Swift is set to be a worldwide star. Radio 1 is already playing Love Story, the first single from Fearless to be released in the UK. She will appear at the Brit awards later this month and the album will be released here in March. Tucker says that unlike most American country stars, Swift wants to stray beyond the borders of the US and Canada. Her temperament may well suit global fame – “I’m going to stay on course and not fall off at the deep end,” she told USA Today. “I don’t want to end up in rehab. I promise you that I won’t” and in some ways she’s already an old pro.
Tucker says it’s too early to compare her with greats like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. “There are similarities though; all three are songwriters, all three write from the heart, about their experiences. All three write and sing in a way that others can relate to – listeners believe the songs are about them. In that respect, Taylor is not unlike two of country’s biggest stars. Whether she will have a long and successful career remains to be seen, but she’s off to an amazing start.”
A swift primer: Taylor’s rise to stardom
Taylor Swift was born on 13 December 1989 in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania,to Scott Swift, a stockbroker, and wife Andrea. She has one younger brother. The family lived on a Christmas tree farm.
At the age of 10 Swift was regularly performing in Wyomissing karaoke contests, festivals and country fairs. Aged 11 she journeyed to Nashville to distribute hand-made demo tapes to record labels.
Diverse influences include her grandmother, who was a professional opera singer, and country star LeAnn Rimes.
She was signed to Big Machine Records, the Nashville-based country music label also home to Garth Brooks, in 2003. Her debut album, Taylor Swift was released in October 2006, has sold 3.8 million records to date and still remains near the top of the billboard chart. Her second album Fearless, released in 2008, has sold 2.3m copies.
In 2008 Swift was the year’s most searched-for artist on Myspace. Also that year she was nominated for Best New Artist Grammy, eventually losing out to Amy Winehouse.
Swift had a summer romance with Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers last year. Forever and Always from Swift’s Fearless album is said to be inspired by their split. Ed Parshotam