The world's biggest new pop star is a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll, and all control freak. What's behind Taylor Swift's drive for success?
On a bright Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, Taylor Swift is on good behavior, as usual. In high school, she had a 4.0 average; when she was home-schooled during her junior and senior years, she finished both years of course work in 12 months. She has never changed her hair color, won't engage in any remotely dangerous type of physical activity and bites her nails to the quick. At 19 years old, she says she has never had a cigarette. She says she has never had a drop of alcohol. "I have no interest in drinking," she says, her blue eyes focused and intent beneath kohl liner and liberally applied eye shadow. "I always want to be responsible for the things I say and do." Then she adds, "Also, I would have a problem lying to my parents about that."
Swift has gotten far playing Little Miss Perfect — not only was her second album, Fearless, at Number One for eight weeks this winter, but she's enjoyed numerous perks, like a 10-day stay at the West Coast home of her childhood idols, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, which is where she is today. The couple, who befriended Swift in Nashville, offered the use of their house while she is in L.A. appearing on an episode of her favorite show, CSI. The fact that Swift's first hit single is called "Tim McGraw" — a wistful, gimmicky ballad about a separated couple who recall each other by their favorite McGraw song — is a clue to her feelings about them. "I love Tim and Faith," she says, dashing about the house, which is utterly enormous, filled with gilt crosses and life-size Grecian statues, and worth about $14 million (Eddie Murphy is a neighbor, in a house "the size of a country," says Swift). "I think I like the bright colors in here better than the lighter ones," she says, critiquing the rooms, which seem to go on endlessly, like galleries in a museum. "I don't know. I go back and forth. You know when you walk into a furniture store, and you're like, 'Oh, that's how I'm going to decorate my house,' and then the next one you're like, 'No, that's going to be the way I decorate my house'?" She giggles. "I think when I do it, I'm going to be so indecisive."
Swift lives at home with her parents in a suburb outside of Nashville, in a big house overlooking a lake. The family was wealthy before she became a star — both of Swift's parents have had careers in finance, which makes them particularly good advisers, and they aren't interested in their daughter's cash. One of them usually travels with her, and her father, a kind and friendly stockbroker, has just arrived, a stack of business documents in tow. Swift seems to have three gears — giggly and dorky; worrying about boys and pouring that emotion into song; and insanely driven, hyper self-controlled perfectionism — and, as she embarks on a wholesome afternoon activity, the third aspect of her personality comes into play. In Hill and McGraw's white-marble kitchen, she attacks the task of baking mocha chocolate-chip cookies with a single-mindedness rarely seen outside a graduate-level chemistry class, measuring and sifting and whipping with sharp, expert movements, while her father keeps up a patter about her career.
It takes superhuman strength for a teenager to listen to her father talk at length about her personal life, and even Swift — the goodiest goody-goody in the nation — struggles to remain polite. She's constantly worried about saying something that could be construed as offensive to her fans, and even swats away a question about her political preferences before conceding that she supports the president: "I've never seen this country so happy about a political decision in my entire time of being alive," she says. "I'm so glad this was my first election." Her eyes dart around like a cornered cat as her dad runs on about the tour bus on which she travels with her mom: "We call it the 'Estrogen Express,'" he says. "That's not what we call it," counters Swift. Then her dad talks about the treadmill he got for her, because she didn't want to deal with signing autographs at the gym. "That's not why!" yelps Swift. "I just don't want to look nasty and sweaty when people are taking pictures of me."
But these are momentary distractions in an otherwise pleasant afternoon. Within 45 minutes, Swift produces two dozen perfect, chewy cookies, which she offers around with a glass bottle of milk. Suddenly, she squints at the jar, and shrieks a little: eggnog. She scours the fridge but comes up empty-handed, irritated by the foolishness of her mother, whom she surmises was shopping absent-mindedly. This cannot be. Snack time is ruined. Then she blinks rapidly and composes herself.
"I didn't do that," she says, shaking her head firmly. "Mom did that."
Swift likes to do everything the right way, and most of the time that means she likes to do everything herself. She may be a five-foot-11-inch blonde, but she does not have the carefree soul that usually goes along with that physiognomy, and her back is starting to hunch a little from stress. Swift writes or co-writes all of her songs: She's been a working songwriter since the age of 13, when she landed a development deal with RCA Records. "Taylor earned the respect of the big writers in Nashville," says Big and Rich's John Rich, a hot Nashville producer. "You can hear great pop sensibilities in her writing as well as great storytelling, which is the trademark of old-school country song-crafting." At 14, Swift walked away from RCA's offer of another one-year contract — "I didn't want to be somewhere where they were sure that they kind of wanted me maybe," she deadpans — and put herself on the open market. She received interest from major labels but held out for Scott Borchetta, a well-regarded executive at Universal who left the company to start his own label, Big Machine Records. "I base a lot of decisions on my gut, and going with an independent label was a good one," she says. "I thought, 'What's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? What's been done a million times?'" Says Borchetta, "Taylor and I made an aggressive deal on the back end." He chuckles. "I've written her some very big checks," he says.
Swift has sold 6 million of her first and second albums, making her the bestselling artist of 2008. Now she is preparing to launch her first headlining arena tour of 52 cities in April (a date at the Staples Center in L.A. sold out in two minutes). She's benefited from a broad demographic appeal: The "Taylor Nation" ranges from country to indie-music fans to the Disney generation, particularly the good gifts. Her impeccably crafted songs easily translate to pop radio, and Swift is clearly taken with the notion of crossing over, though she's nervous about alienating her core audience. "You can't forget who brought you to the party, and that's country radio," she insists. She's very savvy: It was her decision to sing "Fifteen," her song about the innocence of that age, with Miley Cyrus at the Grammys. "I think it's cool, because when she was 15 she had a lot of things going on," says Swift. "Lessons learned." (This is how savvy she is: When she was starting out in music, she used her spare time to paint canvases — "I'm interested in Jackson Pollock's kind of art, where art is beautiful but it's nothing and yet it's incredible" — which she then sent to country-radio managers as gifts.)
For all her high-minded business acumen, as an artist Swift is primarily interested in the emotional life of 15-year-olds: the time of dances and dates with guys you don't like, humiliating crying jags about guys who don't like you, and those few transcendent experiences when a girl's and a boy's feelings finally line up. You can't go anywhere without your best friend. You still tell your mom everything. Real sexuality hasn't kicked in yet. Swift won't reveal anything on that topic herself. "I feel like whatever you say about whether you do or don't, it makes people picture you naked," she says, self-assuredly. "And as much as possible, I'm going to avoid that. It's self-preservation, really."
Self-preservation is one of Swift's favorite phrases, and she uses it in reference to both her professional and personal lives. She wants to have a long career, not get tossed away like most teen stars. "I've not seen many people work as hard as Taylor," says Kellie Pickler, a good friend. "She's a very competitive girl, and those people go far." Along with the Jonas Brothers and a gaggle of young Disney stars like her pals Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, she's part of a backlash against the pantyless TMZ culture of earlier this decade, which proved to be a career-killer for Lindsay Lohan and her clique. Swift admits that she was fascinated by girls like Paris Hilton when she was younger — in a rare moment of prurience, she notes that her high school football team was named the Commandos, then laughs wryly — but says that she never thought the gossip about these women was true. "You should never judge a person until you know the full story," she explains, matter-of-factly.
Swift is certain she would never let herself get caught up in such shenanigans. "When you lose someone's trust, it's lost, and there are a lot of people out there who are counting on me right now," Swift says. She cocks her head. "Rebellion is what you make of it," she says. "When you've been on a tour bus for two months straight, and then you get in your ear and drive wherever you want, that can feel rebellious."
If this is Swift's game face, it must be tattooed on, because it never drops during hours of press on a recent weekday in New York, a day that includes mind-numbing patter on Sirius XM and Clear Channel, a voiceover for a new style show on MTV and a sickeningly saccharine luncheon for her L.e.i. sundress line sold at Walmart. It's a tour de force: Swift engages easily with the teen-fashion journalists following her around, bantering about blow-dryers and bachelorette parties; then, she's gracious to the misshapen radio hosts, calling everyone by their names and administering warm hugs by the dozen. But there's a moment, at the Walmart luncheon, when she gets a little testy with a young fan — Swift asks the fan where she's from, and when the girl answers, "New Jersey," Swift makes fun of her accent — but this is literally the only sin against a human she commits during a 10-hour day in which she's barely fed, never stops smiling and signs hundreds of autographs with a pink Sharpie pen.
This politesse is part of Swift's character, a way of treating others taught by her loving family. Her parents intentionally raised their kids in the country, on a Christmas tree farm with a grape arbor and seven horses, in eastern Pennsylvania, while Swift's father commuted to work. "I had the most magical childhood, running free and going anywhere I wanted to in my head," says Swift. But her parents also prized success in the real world: They even gave her an androgynous name, on the assumption that she would later climb the corporate ladder. "My mom thought it was cool that if you got a business card that said 'Taylor' you wouldn't know if it was a guy or a girl," says Swift. "She wanted me to be a business person in a business world."
Swift rode horses competitively as a child, but her main hobby was making up fairy tales and singing the songs from Disney movies by heart. At six, she discovered a LeAnn Rimes record, which she began to listen to compulsively. "All I wanted to hear from then on was country," she says. "I loved the amazing female country artists of the Nineties — Faith, Shania, the Dixie Chicks — each with an incredible sound and standing for incredible things." She began to act in a children's musical theater company but found that she preferred the cast parties, which featured a karaoke machine, to the stage. "Singing country music on that karaoke machine was my favorite thing in the world," she says. As is the Swift-ian way, even at 11 she was determined to "pursue other venues" where she could perform, and soon found the Pat Garrett Roadhouse, which had a weekly karaoke contest. "I sang every single week for a year and a half until I won," she says. Her prize: opening for Charlie Daniels at 10:30 a.m.; he played at 8:30 at night.
Newly emboldened, Swift began to perform the national anthem at local sports games, and even landed a gig with her favorite team, the Philadelphia 76ers. But tragedy soon befell our young songstress. It seems that her classmates did not agree that country music was cool. "Anything that makes you different in middle school makes you weird," she says. "My friends turned into the girls who would stand in the corner and make fun of me." She was abandoned at the lunch table. She was accused of possessing frizzy hair. She tried to fit in by joining teams but proved to be horrible at every sport. Then redemption came in the form of a 12-string guitar. "When I picked up the guitar, I could not stop," she says. "I would literally play until my fingers bled — my mom had to tape them up, and you can imagine how popular that made me: 'Look at her fingers, so weird.'" She takes a deep breath. "But for the first time, I could sit in class and those girls could say anything they wanted about me, because after school I was going to go home and write a song about it."
This is Swift's tale of triumph, and she likes to tell it a lot when she's interviewed. It sounds canned, in a way — who hasn't been made fun of in middle school? — but she's managed to keep the feelings raw, and access to them is part of her appeal. The sun is starting to set as Swift heads downtown, near the World Trade Center site, to play a live acoustic set on the radio station Z100 for about 50 "Caller 100s" — a group that happens to be almost exclusively plain, primly dressed girls between 12 and 17. The fans listen raptly as Swift chats about bad-hair days and ex-boyfriends. They hold up their camera phones, sometimes with a Sidekick in the other hand. Swift keeps insisting that they sing along with her, and at first they're shy, but soon the scene resembles a teenage-girl "Kumbaya" session, all the alienation and hurt that they feel in their real lives melting away, replaced by a deep sense of peace. "Taylor is so down-to-earth," gushes Darlane Shala, a ninth-grader from Manhattan. "She's just such a good person."
Afterward, Swift takes more photos with the girls and looks at her fan letters. The girls write about feeling like outsiders, about getting ostracized by girlfriends over misunderstandings with boys, about hating girls who make fun of other girls and not understanding why some people enjoy being so cruel. "When I first discovered your music a few years ago, something in me opened up," says a meticulously crafted two-page letter from a high school sophomore, who included a picture of herself at the beach. "I had been feeling upset, and you told me that I'm not alone," she continues. "Your lyrics mean the world to me, and I swear they are the narration of my life." She adds that Swift has given her a path for the future: "I wish more than anything that I could change a teenager's perspective," she writes, "the way you have done for me."
This is Swift's primary hope for her music: She wants to help adolescent girls everywhere feel better about themselves, and in the process heal her younger self. "In school, I loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I'm very interested in any writing from a child's perspective," she says. At high school in Henderson, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville — her parents agreed to move when she landed her RCA contract, at the beginning of her freshman year — Swift's interest in country music was obviously considered normal, but she still wasn't popular. She may be pretty now, and she eventually might have abused the power that comes with being a beautiful senior girl, but when she left high school, at 16, she was still a gangly sophomore. "There were queen bees and attendants, and I was maybe the friend of one of the attendants," she says. "I was the girl who didn't get invited to parties, but if I did happen to go, you know, no one would throw a bottle at my head."
In a way, Swift's emotional state seems to be stuck at the time when she left school. She says that she has only a half-dozen friends now — "and that's a lot for me" — and she talks constantly about her best friend, Abigail, a competitive swimmer and freshman at Kansas State, with a new nose ring and a new pet snake, doubtlessly having many experiences that Swift may not be ready for. In fact, Swift is a very young 19-year-old. "I feel like Miley, Selena and Demi are my age," she says at one point, acknowledging the fast-paced lives of her Los Angeles-based contemporaries. "It's crazy, I always forget that they're 16."
And in her love life, Swift admits to being mighty inexperienced. She says that she's had her heart broken, but she's not sure if she's ever really been in love. She had a boyfriend her freshman year, a senior hockey player: "We weren't an It couple," she drawls. But there really haven't been many guys since then except for Joe Jonas, who famously broke up with her over the phone for another girl. Swift wrote a song on her second album, called "Forever & Always," about Jonas, then filmed a MySpace video with a Joe Jonas doll, during which she remarks, "This one even comes with a phone so it can break up with other dolls!" Jonas later insinuated that she hung up on him. "I did not hang up on him," she says now, then mouths, "Omigod."
The illogic of love is unsettling to Swift, who has a hard time understanding it with her supremely rational mind. Music, for her, is a way of expressing feelings that are largely repressed or absent. She maintains that marriage is something she would "only do if I find the person I absolutely can't live without" and "it's not my ultimate goal in life." In fact, the first two singles on Fearless — "Love Story" and "White Horse" — are about a guy that she considered dating but never even kissed. Many of her songs are not about her own personal experiences with love — about half are inspired by her friends' relationships. "I'm fascinated by love rather than the principle of 'Oh, does this guy like me?'" she says. "I love love. I love studying it and watching it. I love thinking about how we treat each other, and the crazy way that one person can feel one thing and another can feel totally different," she says. "It just doesn't take much for me to be inspired to write a song about a person, but I'm much more likely to write that song than do anything about it. You know, self-preservation."
A couple of weeks ago, Swift started four days of rehearsal at a studio on the outskirts of Nashville for her upcoming tour. She picks the alfalfa sprouts out of a sandwich — Swift avoids vegetables, hates sushi and in general gravitates away from anything healthy — and straps on her guitar, strumming as she gives her tour manager instructions on the set list. As much as she engages in good-natured banter with her band, she's clearly in charge of this show: With a faintly sex-kitten stage presence — punctuated by many pumps of her very long arms in the air — she cues fiddle licks, restages a number and shuffles the orchestration in a mash-up. Then she stops. "Omigod," she giggles. "For 'Love Story,' the stage is going to become a church, and I'm going to get into a white dress." She bites her lip. "There's so many cool sets," she says later. "We're going to have a giant castle!"
After rehearsal, she returns to her parents' home, which is set on a promontory over Old Hickory Lake. "In the summer, people fish off the dock," says Swift, then deadpans, "More people now. Apparently, there are more fish now." The mantle of their living room is crammed with bulky glass awards, and posters of Swift line the hallways; a large sitting room is devoted to racks of clothes that Swift has worn in performance or public, with a sign affixed that reads, "Please go through: Keep or give to Goodwill." Her younger brother Austin, a 16-year-old lacrosse player and academic overachiever, has moved into a room on the garage level, doubtless to have some space away from the Taylor Nation, but Swift still lives in her childhood bedroom.
It's a small room, decorated almost exclusively in pink and purple. Her closet is itty-bitty, with clothes organized in neat rows above her shoes and a drawer of padded bras. Any sign of her life as a superstar has been scrubbed, with the exception of a postcard from Reba McEntire. She rifles around in her armoire — careful not to show its contents, which she considers too messy for guests — and pulls out a cardboard box of colored wax, which she used to seal envelopes. "I wrote my Valentine's Day cards yesterday," she says, holding up a thick stack. "It's not going to be a big shindig for me. I didn't have that one person." She smiles. "So I had to write 30."
It's almost 8 p.m., and Swift is planning to work on her set lists for a few hours tonight, but first she needs a Frappuccino. She hasn't started her car, a champagne-colored Lexus, in a couple of months — her brother has to jump-start it — and when she finally pulls out onto the road, she seems a little less perfect. She's an unsure, semi-reckless driver, hitting the brake too hard, pointing the car this way and that at various intersections like she's tacking a boat. She screams, "Five-oh!" as she spots a cop, then pulls into a drive-through Starbucks. "I've been in three accidents, but none of them were my fault," she wails.
Soon she comes to a stop, pointing to an expanse of lawn. "This summer, the guy from the 'Fifteen' song came back into Abigail's life," she says. "He got me to bring her here, and while we were on the way he texted her, 'We need to talk.' "When they arrived, the guy was standing in the center of this field in a big heart made of candles, holding a bunch of roses. "It was so romantic," she says, smiling dreamily. "I love that kind of stuff." Then she starts pulling away. "You know, I totally burned a CD for him to play that night, because he wouldn't have known Abigail's favorite songs otherwise," she says, tapping the steering wheel. "And as usual, I had to clean up the mess the next day." She sighs. "But that's OK," she says. "I didn't mind."
This story is from the March 5th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.