This is what it sounds like when Taylor Swift totally loses it: “Oh, my God. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD.”
Her summer tan is turning ashen; her very blue eyes are practically pinwheeling with panic. But she didn't do anything that bad just now, didn't start a nuclear war or curse on country radio or upload her new album to BitTorrent: We're on a bleak industrial road outside a Nashville rehearsal studio one stiflingly hot late-August evening, with Swift behind the wheel of her black Toyota SUV – which she just backed directly into a parked car.
She's never learned how to use her SUV's built-in GPS, was messing with Yelp and Google Maps on her iPhone instead, realized she was going the wrong way, started to turn around, still clutching the phone, and . . . crunch.
"Oh, my God," she repeats, pausing for air. She takes another look at the car she hit. "Oh, is that my bass player?"
It totally is. "It's fine, it's my bass player!" She couldn't look more relieved if she had received a death-row pardon. Popping out of the SUV, she apologizes to her bemused employee, a Ben Stiller look-alike named Amos Heller, who had been walking toward his now slightly dented car. "I'm gonna pay for it, I promise! I'm good for it! Oh, my God, Amos, I'm so sorry. I freaked out 'cause I went the wrong way and he was gonna think I'm a bad driver and then I backed into another car. This is the worst interview he's ever had, already!"
One of her security guys, who was supposed to be discreetly trailing us, gets out of his own SUV, looking shaken: "You OK?" Soon enough, we resume our journey to a local restaurant, this time with Swift following her bodyguard, who's serving as a human GPS at her behest. Problem solved.
Swift is still recovering for the whole 10-minute drive. "I cannot believe there was a car behind me. I thought that – because I could only see the security car, and Amos' car was so low and I didn't look in the back camera and I was so sure no one was behind me and . . ."
The moment she crashed, she pictured herself being taken away in handcuffs, sitting in jail in her blue polka-dot shirt-dress. "I have a lot of anxieties that end in me being put into a police car," she says, ponytail bopping as she shakes her head. "I am so, like, rules, and not getting into accidents. So this is perfect."
At 22, Swift is always waiting for her luck to run out. This week, her new single, the irresistible, distinctly un-country "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," became her first Number One Hot 100 hit – and for all she knows, it could all be downhill from here. "I'm always terrified that, like, something's going to happen," she says, "and I'm not going to be able to do this anymore and it's gonna all end in one day. Part of the fear comes from loving this so much and not wanting to lose it."
Watch her segment of MTV's Punk'd, where Justin Bieber goads Swift into setting off fireworks from a waterfront balcony – then makes her think that they started a huge fire on a nearby boat: Her face betrays the same ohmygodohmygod terror. "You know I had serious nightmares where I'd wake up in the middle of the night for, like, three weeks after that? I really thought that was it for me. I was thinking, 'Justin is 17, so he's going to juvie, but I'm going to big-girl prison.' "
She nearly made it all into a self-fulfilling prophecy during her performance at the 2010 Grammys, when stage fright knocked her voice flat during an awkward duet with Stevie Nicks on "Rhiannon." Nonfans were instantly, and unfairly, convinced that she was an AutoTune baby who can't sing live. "I had a bad night," says Swift, who's since refocused on vocal lessons. "It's one of those things where you've rehearsed over and over and when the camera turns on, the nerves kick in and you just can't think straight."
Mostly, though, it's been a smooth ride, with so few speed bumps she could practically tick them off on crimson-tipped fingers: She was terrible at fourth-grade soccer, couldn't parlay her height into basketball glory, never managed to do a split, had a hard time with math. There were some mean middle school girls, and more recently, as you may have heard, a few totally exhausting boyfriends. She has that slight overbite; at five feet 11, her posture isn't great. And yeah, there was that time Kanye West snatched her microphone and started yelling stuff about Beyoncé – still so not funny, as far she's concerned.
But she's come to understand that life – even hers – is unpredictable, uncontrollable. Messy. The Kanye episode helped her to "realize nothing is gonna go exactly the way that you plan it to," she says. "Just because you make a good plan, doesn't mean that's what's gonna happen."
Case in point: Later that evening, Swift is driving back from dinner, singing along to Third Eye Blind's "Never Let You Go" (which came out when she was nine) – when, unbelievably, we get into another car accident.
This one is random, terrifying and utterly not her fault. As Swift cruises down a four-lane street, what looks like an old Corvette blazes out of an intersection and veers into our lane – smacking the driver's side of Swift's SUV, then speeding off. They were driving, as Swift later puts it, like they had just robbed a bank.
"OK, that was my life flashing before my eyes," she says, voice trembling. "What is this day? This is some strange alternate reality where things just go wrong a lot. That was the second time today! I'm going to have a nervous breakdown!" Her phone rings – it's her poor security bro, who sounds like he's already had one.
There is a pond, complete with koi fish, in the middle of Swift's astonishing, many-colored Nashville condo. It sits beneath a wrought-metal spiral staircase leading to a human-size birdcage that faces floor-to-ceiling windows, with a view stretching to the green mountains beyond downtown. ("It's the most comfortable place in the world," she says of the wooden cage, built from a sketch she made. "It's just, like, pillows and comfiness.")
Under the previous owner, this was an ultramodern bachelor pad. Over 18 months of remodeling, Swift gave the condo a sex change and a heavy dose of well-funded OCD whimsy. The ceiling is arranged in multiple motifs – billowing curtains here, a painted indigo night sky there. In one corner, under hanging crystalline stars, sits a giant bunny made of moss. He's wearing a hat. "It's a whole Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland structure here," she says, welcoming me the next morning. "It's what the inside of my brain looks like, essentially."
On the custom-built walls – some brick, some purple-wallpapered – are an endless array of photographs in ornate gold frames, some with matching gold-cursive captions: Swift with her high school friend Abigail (complete with lyrics from "Fifteen," in which said friend gave a boy "everything she had"); Swift with James Taylor; Swift making that heart-hand-symbol thing with buddy and Bieber-fräulein Selena Gomez. Above the fireplace, which is emblazoned with a small heart, there's even a photo of the moment Kanye stormed her VMA stage (captioned, "Life is full of little interruptions," a phrase that's also in the liner notes of her last album), right next to what is presumably the actual award in question under glass.
The place is immaculate, and there's no sign that any other living thing – besides her unusually friendly Scottish fold cat, Meredith (named after a favorite Grey's Anatomy character) – has been here recently. But a gossip item circulating that morning suggests otherwise: As the story goes, she missed her boyfriend, 18-year-old Conor Kennedy – an incoming prep-school senior – so she "kidnapped" him, via private jet, flying him to Nashville.
Swift stopped reading her own press after the Grammy incident, and instituted a self-Googling ban. "What did I do? Don't tell me! Is it bad?" she says, clutching a pale-blue knitted pillow and curling her mile-long legs beneath her on a swiveling love seat. She's barefoot, wearing a V-neck white blouse and high-waisted, vintage-y floral shorts. Her knees have some fresh white scars on them ("I fell on rocks on the beach, and I fell during volleyball. Kind of eight-year-old-child injuries"). When she hears the day's gossip, her eyes widen under feline makeup. She looks faintly nauseated: "How did I kidnap him? You can't kidnap a grown man! These are serious accusations, now!"
She laughs, but she's swiveling furiously in the chair, like it might move her away from this topic. "It's an interesting way to spin something into a story," she says. "See, this is why I don't read stuff."
So is Conor chained to something upstairs, then? "What? God!"
She is aware of another recent rumor: that she and Kennedy crashed his cousin's wedding, then flatly refused to leave. "I have no idea what happened there," she says, spinning again, fidgeting with some chipped nail polish on her index finger. "I think that story was based on the biggest misunderstanding, 'cause I would never knowingly show up somewhere that I thought I wasn't invited to. And I would never want to upstage anybody."
She's come to grips, sort of, with the fact that her days of exclusively good press are over. "I just gotta take it day by day," she says. "I don't think anyone is ever truly viewed as only one thing, as only good, as only well-behaved, as only respectful. In the beginning, when there would be a tiny news story about something that wasn't true, I thought that meant my fans weren't gonna show up to my next concert. But now, knock on wood – where's wood? I need to knock on wood – I feel like my fans have my back and I have theirs."
And she knows that she can't always be the good guy. "It's just part of the dynamics of a good story," she says. "Everybody is a complicated character."
It's somehow not surprising to learn that Swift had her first drink ever on her 21st birthday. "I knew I couldn't get away with it until then," she says the night before, sipping a Diet Coke through a little red straw that matches her lipstick. We made it into the restaurant without fuss, except for a pigtailed little girl who gaped with I-just-saw-the-Easter-Bunny joy. "I didn't really care to know what I was missing, and I knew it was illegal, and that my luck would be that I'd get caught. And then you think about all the moms and little girls who would have thought less of me. I'm still not much of a drinker, but I'll have a glass of wine every once in a while." And has she gotten drunk? "I'm not gonna talk about that! No one wants to picture that!"
It can't be easy, living like this. Gomez recalls going out to dinner with Swift when she noticed another patron eavesdropping. "She got startled that they were listening," Gomez says, "and she got nervous, and then the person left and she felt awful. She was like, 'I hope he didn't leave because of me. I hope he doesn't think I'm mean. Do you think he's going to tell everyone I'm mean?' She cares so much."
Swift has recurring anxiety dreams, and, predictably enough, one of them involves being arrested for something she didn't do. "I keep trying to tell them that I didn't do anything," she says, "and they won't listen, or my voice doesn't work."
Another one is quite vivid. "I'll be in a room with piles of clothes all over the floor, and I can't clean it. And no matter what, they keep piling up and I can't move. It freaks me out! It makes me wish I could clean it, 'cause I love cleaning. But the piles get bigger, or there's piles on the ceiling, and I don't even know how that's possible."
She knows what that one's about. "I think I have a big fear of things spiraling out of control," she says. "Out of control and dangerous and reckless and thoughtless scares me, because people get hurt. When you say 'control freak' and 'OCD' and 'organized,' that suggests someone who's cold in nature, and I'm just not. Like, I'm really open when it comes to letting people in. But I just like my house to be neat, and I don't like to make big messes that would hurt people. . . . I don't want to let people down, or let myself down, or have a lot of people that I know I wronged."
Swift has never seen a therapist. "I just feel very sane," she says.
It takes only a cursory listen to Swift's songs – or a visit to TMZ – to figure out the one part of her life where she allows messiness to reign. "The way I look at love is you have to follow it," she says, "and fall hard, if you fall hard. You have to forget about what everyone else thinks. It has to be an us-against-the-world mentality. You have to make it work by prioritizing it, and by falling in love really fast, without thinking too hard. If I think too hard about a relationship I'll talk myself out of it."
And why would she go from dating men in their 30s – John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal – to her current, SAT-prepping guy? "I have rules for a lot of areas of my life," she says. "Love is not going to be one of them."
Before she got together with Conor, she was publicly touting her interest in the Kennedy family's history, and had mentioned reading a 960-page book called The Kennedy Women. "Weird," she says. "Oh, my God, I know. It's like – things happen in my life in coincidental ways that are weird."
But it does look funny. . . . "You're telling me," she says. She looks comically aghast at the idea of Elvis superfan Nicolas Cage marrying Lisa Marie Presley – he got the ultimate collectible. "That's not what's happening," she practically yells, sending her eyes skyward.
It may also help that a friend did it first. Ask fellow minicougar Gomez if Swift got the idea from her relationship with Bieber (who's almost two years younger), and her answer is quick and cheerful: "Probably!"
Swift has written some of her generation's most seductively romantic songs – she may be the world's leading proponent of kissing in the rain. "I love the ending of a movie where two people end up together," says Swift, who further explores this theme on a new collaboration with Snow Patrol. "Preferably if there's rain and an airport or running or a confession of love."
She's also written breakup tunes that, in their own way, rival "Idiot Wind" for mercilessness. "Dear John," 2010's presumed John Mayer evisceration, may be the most brutal: "Don't you think nineteen's too young to be played by your dark, twisted games?" But the new album's "Trouble" comes close: "You never loved me or her or anyone," she sings.
"In every one of my relationships," she says, "I've been good and fair. What happens after they take that for granted is not my problem. Chances are if they're being written about in a way they don't like, it's because they hurt me really badly. Telling a story only works if you have characters in it. I don't think it's mean. I think it's mean to hurt someone in a relationship."
Mayer told Rolling Stone that "Dear John" "really humiliated" him, and accused Swift of "cheap songwriting." When I first try to ask her about that over dinner, she literally presses her hands against her ears, saying, "Be kind, and don't tell me."
The next day, I'm unkind enough to relay Mayer's quotes, and she turns steely. "I didn't write his first and last name in the song! So that's him taking it on – when he had an album to promote."
But didn't she use his first name? "I didn't say anything about the person's identity. 'Dear John' is a well-known concept."
And why not just pick up the phone and tell these guys off directly? She looks at me like I'm insane. "What's the fun in that?" ("She's so tough," says Gomez. "Sometimes she'll tell me, like, 'You should be a little mean sometimes.' ")
In addition to heavy rom-com viewing (Love Actually is her favorite), Swift's daunting ideal of love comes from her maternal grandparents, who were married for 51 years, and died a week apart. "They were still madly in love with each other in their eighties," she says.
There are no mere hookups in Swift-land. "No," she says, nose wrinkling. "Where's the romance? Where's the magic in that? I'm just not that girl." And by the way, hackers shouldn't bother with her cellphone: "There's interesting things on there, like text messages," she says. "But you wouldn't find any naked pictures."
She's uncomfortable discussing a line from her new album – "I'll do anything you say if you say it with your hands" – that seems to break new ground. "I don't know if I'm interested in writing about, um, blatantly sexual things out of the context of how it affects a relationship," she says, then pauses. "Oh, I should just totally say that Dan thought of it," she adds, meaning co-writer Dan Wilson. "I could get myself off the hook so quick!"
Swift loves the idea of long relationships, though she's never really had one. "It usually lasts four and a half months, and then it all just disintegrates. Then I spend, like, a year and a half mourning the loss of it."
Eventually, she would like to have a lot of kids: "Like, minimum, four," she says. "My fantasy has always been having a bunch of kids running around. I would love to become as dedicated a mom as my mom was." Which brings her to another recurring nightmare. "I have a kid and the paparazzi is taking pictures, and it's scaring my baby. And I know that I caused it, and I can't figure out how to stop it."
A few days later, swift is sitting in a dressing room in MTV's New York studio, wearing a fluffy blue bathrobe and borrowed hotel slippers, talking business on her phone. Her two beauty coordinators are ministering to her wavy hair with a flatiron as she speaks. She waves me in, midconversation.
"I resent the idea that you can just start a sentence with 'respectfully' and then you can just say whatever you want," she says, sounding like someone with whom you wouldn't want to negotiate. "I don't understand how we resolve this – is it him giving points? Ah, OK, good call. Absolutely, if he calls me I'll tell him that. OK, cool. Mm-hmm. Yeah, respectfully." Instead of a manager, Swift has a management team, which she leads herself.
Her parents, Scott and Andrea, both have business backgrounds and have been involved in her career from the start. "I think my earliest memory is my mom would set up an easel in the kitchen when I was three," says Swift. "And she'd give me finger paints and I'd paint whatever I wanted, and it was always good enough.
"My mom would have conversations with me before I could talk," she says. "So I started talking really early." Her first word was 'yellow,' which had something to do with fellow tall creature Big Bird.
The rest is already a familiar story: She grew up on a Christmas-tree farm in rural Pennsylvania, became unaccountably obsessed with Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks, started singing and writing songs, and by age 14, persuaded her parents to move near Nashville. They signed to a fledgling label called Big Machine Records, founded by a former Universal executive named Scott Borchetta. Swift's dad, a Merrill Lynch stockbroker, was a minor investor in the label, which was more of an idea than a company when they signed: "Scott Swift owns three percent of Big Machine," Borchetta says. "But I hear people go, 'Oh, well, he funded the whole deal, and that's why Taylor's Number One.' It's like, 'Please, people.' Everybody wants to say, 'Well, there's a reason.' Yeah, there is a reason. 'Cause she's great. That's the reason."
As she prepares to release her fourth album, Red, Swift is at the very center of pop – more than any other putatively country artist before her. That's why MTV is sacrificing valuable Teen Mom airtime to debut her new video in a live segment tonight. But first, she has to endure nine or so taped interviews with various network offshoots. Now in a tight red top and blue pants, she displays such ease with a parade of interrogators – and the random little kids who come by for autographs – that it's not hard to imagine her running for office someday. "Really? I might have to be a college graduate, though," she says. "I guess I better start figuring out my platform."
This ease with glad-handing comes from her father, who, as Borchetta says, "never meets a stranger. You send him into a room, and he'll walk out and go, 'Hey, I just met a guy on the board at Papa John's.' True to form, when I eventually meet Scott Swift – an affable silver-haired guy in a Brooks Brothers-y suit and rimless glasses – he immediately goes for common ground, sharing tales of a brief stint in journalism.
Taylor's maternal grandmother, Marjorie Finlay, was a professional opera singer who sang around the world. "I feel like my karma in life is being in a backstage area or being in front of the house," says Andrea Swift, whose mother died around the time Taylor was signing her record deal. "We were in Nashville when she passed away, and it was a surreal moment, because I knew we were doing what she wanted us to do. There was a kind of passing of the torch."
Swift is convinced she's an exact mix of her parents' personalities – she thinks like her mom but acts like her dad. "My mom is, like, all about the worst-case scenario," she says. "My brother and I call her Central Intelligence Andrea. If you have a headache, she could tell you 15 different things it could be, all of which end in emergency room or death. But she also knows how to throw the best party. She's also really compassionate and kind and disciplined and has a really good head on her shoulders for advice."
Her father is the designated dreamer, though she won't say if her lyric about "a careless man's careful daughter" is autobiographical: "My mom thinks of things in terms of reality and my dad always thinks in terms of daydreams – and, 'How far can we go with this?' " He was the one who envisioned her success: "I never really went there in my mind that all of this was possible. It's just that my dad always did."
As Swift waits for her video debut, racing around the room on a wheeled ottoman, network executives Van Toffler and Amy Doyle show up. Many smiles and hugs ensue. "How huge is that single?" says Toffler, who's wearing jeans and a blazer, his hair slicked back. "It's like the most ginormous thing in history."
"It's the highest female debut in iTunes history," Swift says. "I'm, like, what?"
"And you know," says Toffler, "or I don't know if you do know, but you're going to be closing the VMAs."
"Oh, my God," says Swift. "I'm gonna pass out. What? When were you guys gonna tell me that? Thank you, that's amazing. Now I really do feel like I might pass out." She's happy, but there's a familiar hint of terror in her eyes. Ohmygod.
A viral video called "Taylor Swift Can't Believe It" shows Swift winning award after award, acting lottery-winner astonished every time, continually mouthing, "What?" (See Kristen Wiig's brutal Swift impression.) Needless to say, Swift has never seen it. "I really get my feelings hurt when people make fun of me," she says. "I never won anything in school or in sports, and then all of a sudden, I started winning things. People always say, 'Live in the moment' – if you really live in the moment at a big awards show and you win, you freak out!"
"Those are just her mannerisms," says one of Swift's best friends, stylist Ashley Avignone. "She does the same thing if I tell her something on the couch at home."
The morning after the VMAs, we meet for breakfast in Beverly Hills – her security sneaks her through the back of the restaurant. Us Weekly's headline for the performance was "Taylor Swift Gets Sexy" – because she wore shorts. "It's a really interesting idea that you wear shorts and all of a sudden it's very edgy," she says. "Which, you know, on the bright side gives you room to grow – I don't have to do too much to shock people."
It's 11 a.m. and she's totally bright-eyed and un-hung-over in her cream-colored blouse and polka-dot pants ("not shorts," she says, "that would be too sexy"). She skipped the afterparties and had sushi with her band instead. When she hears that Lady Gaga tweeted, "Swifty is so cute" after her performance, she offers a taste of jaw-drop-awards face: "No way! Are you serious? I need to see that! Thank you for telling me that." She spends three minutes trying again and again to load the tweet on her phone, without success.
It would be easy to watch Swift at those awards shows and conclude that she's a phony – in her terms, a cheerleading captain pretending she still belongs on the bleachers. But if she lacks self-consciousness, that's the idea. "I just don't want to live that way," she says. "I never want to get jaded, because then you get really protective and hard to be around. That's what can happen if you're too aware of people second-guessing every move you make. So I try to be as blissfully unaware of that as possible." She laughs. "Please don't ruin it. I'm living in such a happy little world!"
Swift may just experience life a little more intensely than the rest of us, which is one reason her songs can hit so hard – along with the ache in her voice, and her instinct for the minor fall and the major lift. Her songs sneak past our emotional defenses because she has so few of them.
Swift has one more thing to do before she leaves L.A. – a performance at a Stand Up to Cancer telethon, broadcast live on more than 20 channels. She has a bunker-buster of a song for the occasion, called "Ronan." Swift's eyes grow wet telling me about it: It's the true story of a not-quite-four-year-old boy who died of cancer, told from the perspective of his mother. (Swift incorporated ideas from the mom's blog, giving co-songwriting credit.) Nearly every line is unbearably upsetting – it makes "Streets of Philadelphia" sound like "Party Rock Anthem." (The lyric that keeps getting me: "It's about to be Halloween/You could be anything you wanted if you were still here.") Andrea – blond, warm-eyed – passes out tissues as Swift rehearses the song at the Shrine Auditorium. I take one.
As showtime approaches, Swift keeps her mind off the song, doing her extensive vocal warm-ups (which, at one point, involve actual meows) and discussing food options for tonight's plane back to Nashville. She's sprawled sideways in a director's chair; her flats have cartoon-cat heads by the toes. "Buffalo tenders? OK! And rigatoni with truffle meat sauce – can I get it with spaghetti, though? Rigatoni makes me feel weird. It's like a wheel, and what's it trying to do? It's like an unfinished ravioli."
Soon, trailed by a small entourage that includes her mom and her stylist, Swift enters the theater's darkness. She stands just offstage, biting her lip, head down, as Alicia Keys sings. In a similar moment before this year's Grammy performance – which earned her a redemptive standing ovation – Swift told herself, "This is either where you prove the people who like you right, or prove the people who hate you right. It's up to you. Put on your banjo and go play."
She un-hunches her shoulders, breathes deep, and walks toward the stage. "Come on baby with me," she sings with exquisite tenderness, over a hushed guitar. "We're gonna fly away from here/You were my best four years."
Swift makes it through the song. But afterward she breaks into a jog toward her trailer, weeping uncontrollably the whole way, smudging her eye makeup into wild streaks. Ten minutes later, when I say goodbye, she hasn't stopped. "I was trying not to cry the whole song," she says, shrugging helplessly.
Some of the event's stagehands were watching Swift from the sidelines, beefy arms folded. Goateed, ankle-tattooed, wallet-chained, they would've looked at home wielding pool cues at Altamont. But they're soon frozen in place, transfixed by Taylor Swift, and by the time she's halfway through "Ronan," I catch one of them silently brushing away a tear.
This story is from the October 25th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.