Taylor Swift is that rarest of pop phenomenona: a superstar who managed to completely cross over from country to the mainstream. Other singers performed similar moves -- notably, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson both became enduring mainstream icons based on their '70s work -- but Swift shed her country roots like they were a second skin; it was a necessary molting to reveal she was perhaps the sharpest, savviest, populist singer/songwriter of her generation, one who could harness the zeitgeist and turn it personal and, just as impressively, perform the reverse. These skills were evident on her earliest hits, especially the neo-tribute "Tim McGraw," but her second album, 2008's Fearless, showcased a songwriter discovering who she was and, in the process, finding a mass audience. Fearless wound up having considerable legs not only in the U.S., where it racked up six platinum singles on the strength of the Top 10 hits "Love Story" and "You Belong to Me," but throughout the world, performing particularly well in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. Speak Now, delivered almost two years later in the autumn of 2010, consolidated that success and Swift moved into the stratosphere of superstardom, with her popularity only increasing on 2012's Red and 2014's 1989, a pair of records that found her moving assuredly from country into a pop realm where she already belonged.
This sense of confidence had been apparent in Taylor Swift since the beginning. The daughter of two bankers -- her father, Scott Kingsley Swift, works at Merrill Lynch; her mother Andrea spent time as a mutual fund marketing executive -- Swift was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and raised in its suburb Wyomissing. She began to show interest in music at the age of nine and Shania Twain wound up as her biggest formative influence. Swift started to work regularly at local talent contests, eventually winning a chance to open for Charlie Daniels. Soon, she learned how to play guitar and began writing songs, signing a music management deal with Dan Dymtrow; her family relocated to Nashville with the intent of furthering her music career. She was just 14 years old but on the radar of the music industry, signing a development deal with RCA Records in 2004. Swift sharpened her skills with a variety of professional songwriters, forming the strongest connections with Liz Rose. Taylor's original songs earned her a deal with Sony/ATV publishing but not long after that 2004 deal, she parted ways with Dymtrow and RCA, all with the intent of launching her recording career now, not later.
Things started moving swiftly once Swift came to the attention of Scott Borchetta, a former DreamWorks Records exec about to launch Big Machine Records. Borchetta saw Swift perform at a songwriters showcase at the Bluebird Cafe and he signed her to Big Machine in 2005; shortly afterward, she started work on her debut with producer Nathan Chapman, who'd previously helmed demos for Taylor. Boasting original song credits on every one of the record's 11 songs (she penned three on her own), Taylor Swift appeared in October 2006 to strong reviews and Swift made sure to work the album hard, appearing at every radio or television event offered and marshalling a burgeoning fan base through use of MySpace. "Tim McGraw," the first song from the album, did well but "Teardrops on My Guitar" and "Our Song" did better on both the pop charts and country, where she racked up five consecutive Top 10 singles. Other successes followed in the wake of the debut -- a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (she lost to Amy Winehouse), stopgap EPs of Christmas songs -- but Swift concentrated on delivering her sophomore set, Fearless.
Appearing in November 2008, Fearless was certified Gold by the RIAA in its first week of release and the record gained momentum throughout 2009, earning several platinum certifications as "Love Story," "White Horse," "You Belong with Me," "Fifteen," and "Fearless" all scaled the upper reaches of the country charts while "You Belong with Me" nearly topped Billboard's Top 100. Along with the success came some headlines, first in the form of an infamous appearance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards where her acceptance speech was interrupted by Kanye West, who burst on-stage to declare that Swift's rival Beyonce deserved the award more, but her romances also started gaining attention, notably a liaison with Twilight star Taylor Lautner, who appeared with the singer in the 2009 film Valentine Day. Her flirtation with the silver screen proved brief, as she then poured herself into her third album, Speak Now. Released in October 2010, Speak Now was another massive first-week smash that refused to lose momentum. Hit singles like "Mine" and "Mean," which won two Grammys, played a big factor in its success not just on the country charts but on pop radio, as well. Following a 2011 live album called World Tour Live: Speak Now, Swift turned toward following a pop path on her fourth album, hiring such mainstream musicians as Dan Wilson, Butch Walker, and Britney Spears producer Max Martin. This mainstream pulse was evident on "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," the first single from Red. Upon its October 2012 release, Red shattered expectations by selling over a million copies in its first week, a notable achievement that was doubly impressive in an era of declining sales. Once again, Swift's album had legs: it was certified platinum four times in the U.S. and its international sales outstripped those of Speak Now. She supported Red with an international tour in 2013 and more hits came, including "I Knew You Were Trouble" and "22."
As she geared up for the release of her fifth album in 2014, she made it clear that 1989 was designed as her first "documented, official" pop album and that there would be no country marketing push for this record. "Shake It Off," an ebullient dance-pop throwback, hit number one upon its August 2014 release. When 1989 appeared in late October 2014, it once again shot to number one and shattered all expectations, nearly matching the first-week sales of Red and offering proof that Swift was indeed the decade's biggest pop star.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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