Taylor Swift is a country music sensation, a teenage godsend to a beleaguered music industry, and the hands-down winner of "The Star-Spangled Banner" singing competition during the Phillies' World Series sweep at Citizens Bank Park. (Sorry, Patti LaBelle and John Oates.)
The Wyomissing, Pa., native's self-titled 2006 album has sold 3.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And, speaking from Los Angeles last week, Swift was in the midst of a promotional blitz that finds her strutting alongside hair-metal band Def Leppard on CMT Crossroads, hitting Late Show With David Letterman last night, and appearing today for a full hour on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
It stands to reason that her sophomore release, Fearless, is bound to make an even bigger noise. But this 18-year-old Everygirl on her path to world domination says popularity has never been the idea.
"I think when people make a record with a goal in mind - like taking it to the next level or making them seem more mature - that gets in the way of writing great songs," says Swift, the 5-foot-11 ex of that scalawag Joe Jonas (more on him later). Meantime, Swift says she has "a few tricks up my sleeve" for tomorrow's performance at the Country Music Association awards, in Nashville (on 6ABC at 8 p.m.).
Fearless (Big Machine Records ***) has already seen four digital singles released through iTunes, including the fairy-tale romance "Love Story," piano ballad "You're Not Sorry," and the fist-pumping, uncharacteristically vague underdog anthem "Change."
Swift says she "just focused on writing great songs. Let the best songs win. I write a lot of them, so let the best ones rise to the top." She either wrote or cowrote all 13 of Fearless' songs, which tend to concern her favorite interrelated themes.
"They're all about boys, relationships and feelings," she says, laughing. (With a few exceptions, that is, like the I-love-my-mom charmer "The Best Day.")
Swift, who grew up on a Christmas-tree farm outside of Reading, the daughter of a stockbroker father and stay-at-home mother, started writing songs and playing 12-string guitar when she was 12. By the time she was 14, and had moved with her family to Nashville, she'd become the youngest staff songwriter ever hired by the esteemed Sony/Tree publishing house.
The key event in turning her into a songwriting prodigy, she says, was a preteen mini-drama when she was a student at the Wyndcroft School in Pottstown.
"I became a people-watcher when I lost all my friends when I was 12," says Swift, who's doing a little better at social networking these days: She's got more than a million friends on MySpace, "a place I can really be myself and let people know what's really going on with me."
She became friendless "because in middle school there really doesn't have to be that much reason for people to not like you. Maybe it's because your hair is frizzy. . . . or maybe it's because instead of getting drunk and going to parties on the weekends when you're 13, you write songs and play at coffeehouses."
When she looks back, Swift says, "it was so healthy for me to go through that rejection. Because I wouldn't be able to look at people and read a situation if I hadn't developed that skill when I was 12."
That observer's perspective is apparent in uncannily sophisticated songs on her first album such as "The Outside" and "Tim McGraw." It turns up on Fearless, too. "She wears high heels, I wear sneakers," she sings on "You Belong With Me," addressing a boy too dense to realize that the girl with the guitar is his true soul mate. "She's the cheer captain, and I'm on the bleachers."
On "Fifteen," she details the freshman-year growing pains she shared with her real-life best friend Abigail, from an 18-year-old's point of view. "When all you wanted was to be wanted," she sings in the song's intimate bridge, which manages the neat trick of being generationally specific and universal. "Wish you could go back, and tell yourself what you know now."
But while Swift may be a watcher by nature, these days she's also being watched. "I've always strived to be successful, not famous," she says. "I want my albums to sell well, I want to play concerts every night. But I don't want to be on every page of every tabloid every day."
Last week, she took to her MySpace blog to nip a bit of Web gossip in the bud, and preserve her good-girl image. "I read a very creative rumor this morning saying I'm pregnant, which is the most IMPOSSIBLE thing on the planet," she wrote. "Take my word for it. Impossible."
While being interviewed by DeGeneres, she also came clean about the demise of her relationship with the alpha Jonas Brother, Joe, who dumped her last month in a call she said lasted "like 27 seconds."
The newly single Swift says "every day is different. Some days I'm frustrated and mad. Some days I'm happy and fine. Some days I'm really sad." She decided to talk about it, she says, because "I owe it to my fans to acknowledge it. I've always been very personal with my fans. . . . So it was a way of saying, 'Look, it happened, it's not happening anymore. I feel like I've already given him too much of my time and my energy so I'm ready to let him go and stop talking about him.' "
On Fearless, "there's a song called 'Forever and Always,' in a very sarcastic sense of the phrase. I had written it when I sensed that it [her relationship with Jonas] was all going downhill, and I didn't know what happened, though I found out later what had happened," she adds ominously. "It was important for me to get it out there."
To many, the slickly produced Fearless will sound more like a pop than a country record. But Swift says she's a country artist to the core.
"It's the way I tell stories," she says. "When you listen to my record or an Alan Jackson record, you're going to hear a lot of differences in the melodies. But you're going to hear a lot of similarities in that we like to tell stories about our lives. . . .
"And whether you tell stories about how you live on a farm and cherish your family and God, or whether you tell stories about being in high school and being cheated on, they're stories about your life. That's what makes me a country artist."
She's also an artist who will always consider herself a songwriter first.
"I'm not trying to go out there and do vocal acrobatics," she says. "I'm just trying to write good songs. When I listen to a song, I don't say, 'Oh my gosh, that vocal line she sang was the best thing I ever heard.' I'm thinking, 'That lyric just moves me. That lyric just said what I feel better than I could say it myself.' Writing songs like that, that's where my priorities are."