By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008
LOS ANGELES -- So teenagerly, this country super-starlet Taylor Swift.
Totally 18 going on 18. Totally acting -- and songwriting, and singing -- her age.
"What's Taylor like?" says veteran country singer Vince Gill. "She's like the back seat of my car when I take my kids to a movie. Everything is 'awesome,' 'she was like,' 'they were soooo.' It's really refreshing."
No sense rushing Swift into old age, right? Probably wouldn't be as much fun, for her or for us. Definitely wouldn't be good for business, which has been, well, awesome over the past year.
Swift's smartly crafted songs about high school crushes, puppy love and teen heartache have made her a sensation. Her self-titled debut album -- released in 2006, when she was just 16 -- has sold more than 2.5 million copies and was one of the 10 bestsellers in popular music last year. And she hasn't even finished high school. (She's still being home-schooled.)
Swift is a huge hit on MySpace -- 41 million song streams and counting -- and on the radio and television, too. "Our Song," a lively relationship anthem that Swift originally wrote for a ninth-grade talent show, spent six weeks at No. 1 on the country chart while the accompanying video had a record-setting run on CMT, where it was parked at No. 1 for seven weeks. "Teardrops on My Guitar," a confessional about a guy who is blind to Swift's feelings for him, is a crossover smash, with the video -- set in a high school, of course -- even landing on MTV, a network with a historical aversion to country music. (Yesterday, Swift appeared live on MTV's popular afternoon show "TRL.")
"She's attracting not just the traditional country audience, but a non-country audience as well," says Jay Frank, a CMT senior vice president. "She's become a much bigger artist than the country format."
No surprise, then, that Swift won the Horizon Award at the Country Music Association Awards in November. She reveled in the moment, delivering an exuberant acceptance speech in which she memorably declared: "This is definitely the highlight of my senior year!"
"I'm just a teenager, you know?" Swift says in an interview. It's early February, and she's sitting on an equipment case, deep in the bowels of the Staples Center here. She's just finished a brief rehearsal for the Grammys, where she's booked as a presenter and is nominated for best new artist -- the music industry's top award for newcomers. Ultimately, the award will be won by the troubled British R&B singer Amy Winehouse, who is perhaps the polar opposite of the squeaky-clean, all-American girl Swift, a straight-A student who always calls her mom if she's going to get home later than promised.
But, you know, whatever re Winehouse's win. Swift already has a great Grammy moment in her video scrapbook, from the December news conference to announce the nominees.
Flashback: Swift is onstage, early in the morning, helping with the announcements. Her name is called. She appears to be overwhelmed, ready to start "ohmyGod!"-ing at any moment. She's fighting back tears, freaking out, hugging the other, much older artists, most of whom look like they're still asleep. So very Taylor Swift of her.
"I'm not going to try to act like some adult who has it all together and isn't fazed at all by that," she says. "I am. I'm completely affected by it. I don't like it when people who are young act like they're 40. That's taking too much on. Putting up a shield and trying to act like you're so mature or whatever -- I don't try to act mature. Some people might say I'm mature for my age, but it's not something I'm trying to do, you know? I'm just me."
Go to Swift's MySpace page, and you'll find a ton of real-life, real-time data -- maybe enough to write a quickie bio: "Everything I Know About Taylor Swift I Learned Online."
She posts regular updates -- it's what the kids do these days, you know -- and her personal life is not off-limits. In fact, it's one of her favorite topics. Especially dating. Or not dating, as it were.
"I've never been the kind of girl who needs a boyfriend," she writes. "I believe that love will find you when you're not looking for it. So I've been actively NOT looking for it for about 3 years now. I'll let you know how that works out for me. It probably doesn't help that I write songs about every guy I talk to."
Kinda true. Her breakthrough hit, "Tim McGraw" -- written during a math class! -- was about a relationship with a boy who was about to leave for college. Her current single? The sneering kiss-off "Picture to Burn." "It's about a guy I liked who didn't like me back, and I got really mad, you know?" she says. In her liner notes, Swift offers a dedication: "To all the boys who thought they would be cool and break my heart, guess what? Here are 11 songs written about you. HA!"
So: Step carefully, boys.
"I have to pick a guy who's really nice," Swift says. "I've got 2 million fans who are going to tell me if they don't approve of him, you know? That's sort of why I'm single. I don't want to have to find the right guy right now. I'm fascinated by my career and I'm not too fascinated by guys right now. I know that'll change and someday I'll have a great relationship, or a whatever relationship. But right now isn't the time for that.
"My friends are like: 'Oooh, look at him, he's cute.' But I have these blinders on. . . . It's not like I'm running out of time or whatever. But music is my boyfriend."
She's a willowy thing, 5-foot-11 in her bare feet but probably 6-1 in her stylish brown cowgirl boots. She's wearing a loosefitting dress with three-quarter sleeves and spangly trim. Piercing blue eyes, spring-loaded blond tresses, pouty little lips, an upturned nose. An affinity for mascara, too.
She grew up in Wyomissing, Pa., on a Christmas tree farm, where she became enamored of words, writing poetry and, during one summer vacation, a 250-page novel. "She wrote all the time," says her mother, Andrea. "If music hadn't worked out, I think she'd be going off to college to take journalism classes or trying to become a novelist. But her writing took an interesting twist when she picked up the guitar and applied her writing to music."
She showed enough aptitude as a songwriter and performer that her mother took her to Nashville with a demo CD. They went up and down Music Row, knocking on doors. "I'm, like, 11," Swift recalls, "and I'm saying, 'Hi, I'm Taylor, and I'd like a record deal.' " She giggles at the memory.
When she was 13, she landed a development deal with RCA. So precocious. That same year, her family moved to the Nashville area. Her deal with RCA soon fell apart. (The label wanted her to record songs by other writers; she wanted to do her own material. Are you smarter than a 14-year-old? No, apparently not.) But Swift quickly found a new backer: Scott Borchetta, an industry veteran who was planning to start a new label, Big Machine Records, and wanted Swift to be one of the centerpieces of his roster.
"She played some songs in our first meeting and I was just killed on sight," Borchetta says. "She's the full package, somebody who writes her own songs, and is so good at it, so smart; who sings, plays the guitar, looks as good as she looks, works that hard, is that engaging and so savvy. It's an extraordinary combination."
So, then, no negatives? Maybe one, Borchetta says: Swift has actually gone off-plan, becoming so successful so quickly.
"My fear is that she'll conquer the world by the time she's 19. She'll get to the mountaintop and say: 'This is it?' Because she's just knocking down all of these goals that we didn't even have for the first album. . . . My job at this point is really to protect her and not burn her out."
No signs of wear just yet. Swift is tireless, focused, determined and weirdly enthusiastic about every part of the process of being Taylor Swift. Even the yucky promotional stuff. It's like she was programmed in a secret laboratory or something. She knows it, too.
"Maybe this makes me sound like a robot, but there is nothing more interesting to me than my career," she says. "I feel sooooo lucky to have found something I love sooooo much. I don't have an identity without music. It probably sounds crazy, but I want to do everything I can to keep this precious thing intact."
Up next: album No. 2 -- the sophomore effort from the high school senior. She's finished about half of the album, which should be released before the end of the year. Probably around the time she turns 19, in December.
But this obsession with her age: Maybe it's wrong? Brad Paisley, with whom Swift toured last summer, says Swift isn't great for 16 or 17 or 18; she's great period. But Swift writes from a particularly youthful perspective and connects with a particular demographic. "Every kid relates to Taylor and those songs because they're pointed right at them," Gill says.
Swift's teenagerly take? Whatever. "I'm not concerned with people seeing me in a certain way," she says. "Some people see me as a kid, some people see me as an adult. But I'm seriously not going to complain how anybody sees me, as long as they see me."