Taylor Swift has defied a lot of conventional wisdom. In the midst of a recording-industry implosion, she sold 3 million physical copies of her 2006 debut. At a time when Nashville is dominated by Stetson-wearing male singers in their 30s and 40s, the 18-year-old emerged as country's newest superstar with a repertoire full of girly songs aimed at teens. She is a blond, blue-eyed, amazonian starlet who — unlike nearly every other person who fits that description — writes her own songs, plays an instrument, answers to no Svengali and doesn't rely on high-priced studio ninjas and trendy producers. Britney she ain't.
With her second album, Swift aims to extend her dominion beyond the country-music-loving red states. Songs like "Fearless" and "The Way I Loved You" are packed with loud, lean guitars and rousing choruses. The only overtly country-ish things about Fearless are Swift's light drawl, the occasional reference to a "one-horse town" and a bit of fiddle and banjo tucked into the mix.
Swift is a songwriting savant with an intuitive gift for verse-chorus-bridge architecture that, in singles like the surging "Fifteen," calls to mind Swedish pop gods Dr. Luke and Max Martin. If she ever tires of stardom, she could retire to Sweden and make a fine living churning out hits for Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry.
For the foreseeable future, though, she's concentrating on her own quirky teen pop. She sings one vaguely political anthem, the string-swathed "Change," filled with pronouncements about "revolution" and a singsong chorus of "hallelujahs." And then there's "The Best Day," a goody-two-shoes ode to Mom and Dad: "Daddy's smart, and you're the prettiest lady in the whole wide world," Swift croons. But she mostly sticks to her favorite topic — boys, boys, boys — in songs filed neatly under "love-struck" or "pissed off." In the latter category is the infectious "Tell Me Why": "I'm sick and tired of your attitude/I'm feeling like I don't know you."
It's hard not to be won over by the guilelessness of Swift's high-school-romance narratives ("She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts/She's cheer captain, and I'm on the bleachers"), with their starry-eyed lyrics about princesses and ball gowns and kissing in the rain. For Fearless to feel any more like it was literally ripped from a suburban girl's diary, it would have to come with drawings of rainbows and unicorns in the liner notes. The lyric sheet to "Forever & Always" even reveals a hidden message in the form of an acrostic, clearly intended for a young man of Swift's acquaintance: "If you play these games, we're both going to lose."
And therein lies the peculiar charm of Taylor Swift. Her music mixes an almost impersonal professionalism — it's so rigorously crafted it sounds like it has been scientifically engineered in a hit factory — with confessions that are squirmingly intimate and true. In "Fifteen," Swift confides, "Abigail gave everything she had to a boy/Who changed his mind/And we both cried." Swift's real-life best friend is a girl called Abigail — the singer's not afraid to name names. It's safe to assume that the titular love object in the lilting "Hey Stephen" is, well, some dude named Stephen that Swift has a crush on. And she has a question for him: "All those other girls, well, they're beautiful, but would they write a song for you?"
This is a story from the November 13, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.
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