By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Need evidence that Taylor Swift is a capital-P pop star? Forget her appearance on MTV's Video Music Awards and listen to how poised this Nashville sprite sounds wrapping her voice around the letter M.
"Mmmm-mmmm," she hums over the intro of "Hey Stephen," a pop-country bauble that beams its irresistible smile before permanently lodging itself in your hippocampus.
But to call "Stephen" the best offering from her sophomore album, "Fearless," is like picking a strawberry from the carton and declaring it sweeter than the rest. In Swift's world, every song is a radio-ready charmer, confirming the 18-year-old's ability to pen a gaggle of consistently pleasing tunes -- and in the case of "Hey Stephen," stretch a single consonant into sonorous ribbons of gravitas.
Swift's eponymous 2006 debut made her a gigantic success on country radio and on MySpace, but her precocity is still somewhat stunning. While many of her teen-pop contemporaries often sing as if suffering lung spasms (only to have their histrionic labors Auto-Tuned into pristine purrs), Swift hops up and down her register in a chirpy cadence, assigning fresh notes to almost every syllable. Her voice has only the faintest traces of Tennessee twang, and her delivery is both sugary enough for Radio Disney and poised enough for endless rotation on CMT.
She's an equally talented songwriter, but her consistency can often slip into uniformity. Here's how almost all of the songs on "Fearless" work: inviting verses, soaring choruses, a driving bridge, a final stripped-down verse and one last uber-chorus for the road. Rinse and repeat.
Even so, "You Belong With Me" manages to stick out, its banjos cluck-cluck-clucking alongside a new-wavey guitar crunch worthy of the Cars. It might be a ploy to countrify the proceedings, but on Swift's watch, the pairing manages to sound perfectly natural. "She wears high heels, I wear sneakers/She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers," she sings, trying to persuade some boy to come to his senses and submit to her everygirl charms.
Twelve of the 13 songs on "Fearless" traffic in a similar vein -- chronicling young romances gone good, bad and ugly. It's a brand of teen drama that market-obsessed record execs dream about, but Swift sounds like she's genuinely singing to the hallways of her high school. A remarkable example of this is "15," recounting both freshman butterflies and senior-year regret. "When you're 15 and somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them," her chorus warns. It's a wistful cautionary tale that feels like it originated on the front lines instead of in some godforsaken focus group.
And that makes Swift's most obvious precedents the legendary girl groups of yore. Like the Shangri-Las, Crystals and Ronettes before her, Swift has found a way to swathe the fun in profundity.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Hey Stephen," "15," "You Belong With Me"