Taylor Swift in Wonderland

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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.


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