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Taylor Swift in Wonderland

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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.

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