By Holly Gleason, Courtesy of INSP News Service www.INSP.org / The Contributor
“I don’t really think people were surprised I made a pop album,” Taylor Swift says without flinching. “I think they were surprised I was honest about it.”
There, in a one simple compound sentence, the long-legged songstress defines the courage in her take on the world, and the reason her fans are so passionate. At 25, she has literally grown up in public, making the same mistakes and learning the same lessons we all have, only on a very public stage.
Unlike us, though, Swift turns them into songs, big popular hit songs. In the process, she’s become an international supernova: kicking her tour off in China, gracing TIME‘s Power 100 cover, paralyzing the paparazzi with a single move, and sharing the life every teen-, 20- 30- and 40-something would love to have. But more than the star-power and exceptional song sense, there is , as there’s always been, her intense need to be forthright.
For example, her latest hit single Bad Blood is a public middle finger to fellow singer and former friend, Katy Perry.
“Because my music comes from a very vulnerable place, my fans usually tell me equally honest and raw confessions about their life,” she says over the phone, as she moves somewhere between the speed of sound and the speed of light. “One thing I’ve heard a lot lately is that we’ve grown up together.
“I put my first album out 10 years ago, so it’s like these people have been reading my diary for half my life. And since they’ve heard me singing about heartbreak or insecurity or humiliation or loss or joy, they don’t feel so alone in experiencing those things in their own lives.
“We crave the feeling of being understood, the feeling we have when someone says, ‘me too, I know exactly how you feel.’ Music has the ability to create that comfort.”
Swift pauses, weighs the weight of what she’s saying. Then she plunges straight into why she does it, what it means.
“The simple fact is I wouldn’t be a singer if I wasn’t a songwriter. I wouldn’t find it interesting, and I wouldn’t be able to convey songs with conviction if I hadn’t experienced whatever inspired them, then simplified my very complicated emotions into a simple three-and-a-half minute thought.”
Complicated is one word for it. Yet Taylor Swift, the unlikely little superstar who came out of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, determined to be an artist by knocking on Music Row doors at 10 years old, is a creature of singular determination.
She can distil a dating life that rivals Warren Beatty into a cannon of heartbreak hymns that lay it all out like broken glass. If I Knew You Were Trouble, Back To December, Begin Again and Dear John offered much to talk about, there was also more than just her love life in the songs.
She took on a bullying critic and won a Grammy for Mean. She consoled her best friend who learned how callous teenage boys can be with “Fifteen.” She consecrated the universal tropes of youth’s bottomless heartbreak in Teardrops of My Guitar and the outsider’s desire in You Belong with Me.
But more than anything, the ever-evolving young woman made life visceral. Her songs charged with electricity, the rush of living and the extreme emotions of being completely open to the world, no matter what it holds. In that, the emerging pop force managed to forge the ultimate crossover: one that doesn’t look back. But before she did, she showed country music she knew how to connect at the root level.
As the Country Music Association’s annual CMA Music Fest lures people from all 50 states, Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan and beyond to Music City, let’s not forget since winning the CMA Horizon Awards in 2007, Swift has also taken home a pair of prestigious Entertainer of the Year Awards, Album of the Year for the aptly named Fearless, Female Vocalist in 2009 and a handful of other awards while attracting millions of younger fans to the genre.
Bedrock of Honesty
For Swift, those roots are not taken lightly. If some of the entrenched Music Row powerbrokers were taken aback by her announcement of “my first official pop album” in the days before 1989 emerged, Swift was more concerned with honoring where she came from.
“Who tells you what they’re doing and is honest?” she marvels in hindsight. “But even though I didn’t make a Nashville-centric album, I wanted to respect Nashville and all the songwriters and tell the truth about what I was doing. Watching ‘I Knew You Were Trouble,’ it was obviously pop, but I’d not stepped out to make a record like this.
“Look, you can paint a wall green and call it blue,’ but it’s clearly not blue. That would go over badly (with my fans), because people know. It felt like it was important to tell people what (1989) was. When people trust you, they believe you’re investing them with a piece of your life and their life in turn, so you want to keep that trust at every level.”
For Swift, it is a sacred bond. She takes her relationship with her fans as something as precious as her well-celebrated friendships. Indeed, the fans seem almost an extension of her Lena Dunham/Karlie Klose/Lorde relationships, which we see scattered on Instagram, Twitter and yes, The Victoria Secret Fashion Show. And friends tell friends everything.
“Listening to my music is a really accurate way of telling how my life has been going lately. It’s always been a huge goal to never let the idea of ‘celebrity’ deaden the sharpness of my lyrics or the honesty in my storytelling. Being truthful and open is what got me here, so I’m not about to start writing songs that could be about anything or anyone.
“My confidence level is different every day,” Swift admits. “It’s never going to be a constant for any of us, but right now, I genuinely love the way my life is. I think that comes through in the music, even if it’s very subtle. I didn’t want to write some over
‘I’m a strong independent woman!’ song, because I think strength can be much more graceful and understated than that.
“If you know you’re strong and happy and free, it’s just as great to simply live your life from that place as it is to shout about it.”
Or in Taylor Swift’s case, blow up the radio with it. But these days, it’s also the sense of humor that has tempered her work that stands out. “Shake It Off,” the earworm that kicked-off 1989, was the most exuberant, rump-shaking case of superglue ever, while “Blank Space,” with its breathless vocal and swirling, gleaming arrangement, skewered her heartbreak trainwreck reputation with an effervescence that, like good champagne, goes straight to the head. Oh, the euphoria. Oh, the impossible lightness of being Taylor Swift.
Energy and youthful discovery
“I’m excited and thrilled and filled with more energy than I know what to do with! There is something so electric about getting to make the record you want exactly the way you want it. (With 1989) I got to go exactly where I thought each song needed to be, and we didn’t think about anything except that. There were no considerations, other than the music and that was great!
“Over the years, I’ve made a conscious decision to seek new ways of crafting a lyric or a story, to find new ways to set up a song. I am always consciously trying to tell the truth, or look at life in the songs, but in different ways. I never want to go into the studio just to make people dance.”
Though in working with Max Martin, the uber-producer who executive produced all of 1989 for cohesion and several tracks on his own, there is a strong tilt toward the kind of dancing Swift unselfconsciously whips out at awards shows. Just as obviously, there’s the heavy retro-modern feeling of today’s technology and sonics against ’80s grooves and melodies.
“It was something I discovered when I was young!” she marvels about evoking musical touchstones older than she is. “I watched a lot of (VH1’s) Pop-Up Videos when I was a kid, and they did a great job of educating my generation on that kind of ’80s pop with that endless feeling of potential. “People were wearing bright colors. They were making bold statements. It was shiny and happy. You couldn’t listen to it and not feel good.”
Even the edgy Into the Woods, co-written with the Bleachers’ and Fun’s Jack Antonoff, channels the track’s nervous build into something that lifts the listener up. If not euphoric, it’s an energy that propels. “I view production as an important tool for conveying emotion. How you make the record has a lot to do with what the songs realize. I want the songs to sound exactly like they feel.
“When Jack and I got together to write, I wanted to capture that ‘is this over yet?’ sense. Because that feeling, it’s more than words. So we kept building and building, to really put people there.”
Since the first breathless notes of Tim McGraw, the most tender innocence in love remembrance since Deanna Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” Swift has been doing just that. The rejected, the angry, the outsider, the hopeful: all have a voice in the young woman who refuses to be jaded or buy into the celebritocracy.
Swift is much more concerned about the fans, the kids and now young women coming into their own power who find the light at the end of their tunnels in her music.
“I think my songs go out into the world and become something different for each person who listens to them, and that’s one of the most exciting things.
“Some people come up to me and thank me for writing Shake It Off, because it helped them with extreme bullying they were facing at school. Other people say it helped them get over grief they felt when losing a loved one.
“And then I have a lot of people tell me they had the greatest time dancing to it drunk at a wedding! At the end of the day, music is empowering for those who want to be empowered and comforting for those seeking comfort–and yes, for others, it’s just to dance to.”
And it’s also empowering for anyone evolving. Even Swift, who hit the world with curly locks, little sundresses, and cowgirl boots triggering a fashion revolution seen ’round the world.
“I’m definitely filled with mixed emotions when I look back at my old pictures, phases and the lessons I’ve learned with the entire world watching,” she concedes. But it’s only a twinge, because empowerment is what Swift does.
“But the reason I have no regrets is that everything I ever put out was my creation – and never some executive’s idea of what a 16-year old should be singing about. Even my mistakes were made on my own terms.”