"Shake It Off" may be her poppiest single yet, but our new cover star Taylor Swift seemed to have her sights set beyond Nashville's borders from the very start. Already country's biggest crossover star, Swift is now poised to become the biggest star in pop, period. Here, in five songs, is how it happened.
A girl can make a solid career for herself in Nashville by writing songs about parking in a Chevy truck on a back country road with some good ol' hunk. But from the start, Swift's easy mastery of such contemporary country tropes suggested she'd quickly feel limited by the genre. Soon the slight twang in her voice and that subtle pedal steel would be as distant a memory as the high school boyfriend she sings about in her first single.
"Love Story," Swift's first pop smash, lived a double life: The original version targeted a country audience with acoustic instrumentation, while the mix for mainstream pop listeners accentuated electric guitars. "You Belong With Me" was an even bigger hit, and the guitars on its pop version were suitably gargantuan as well. A sly balancing act, but you had to wonder how long Swift could switch-hit like this without choosing a team.
There's more than one way to go pop. Ask Leann Rimes or Trisha Yearwood: A female country star who wants to cross over without alienating her older fans has no better friend than the big, weepy ballad. "Back to December" suggested that Taylor could have a successful future full of swooping adult contemporary string sections if that's what she wanted.
Swift didn't just want to cross over — she wanted to dominate. So she teamed with Swedish megapop kingpin Max Martin (Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne) and his frequent accomplice Shellback to loop a clipped acoustic guitar strum behind an army of sassy taunts. Her first Number One hit was almost like a breakup song to country music — though, of course, they can still be friends.
Dancing with cannily inept defiance in the face of her critics, Swift (again with Martin and Shellback) distills decades of cheerleader pop and marching band rock into a goofball jam that makes "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" sound as old-timey and down-home as Bill Monroe. Rocketing to Number One, it might just earn her the Queen of Pop crown she's been eyeing for so long.