The success of Taylor Swift flies in the face of seemingly every element it takes to be a female mega-star in today’s pop world. The singer-songwriter doesn’t have a sexualized image, she doesn’t make transparent bids for media attention, and her songs are introspective and confessional, not gimmicky and exhibitionist.
So how in the world did Swift have the top-selling album of 2009 with “Fearless” and sell out her entire 40-date tour despite the current slump in concert ticket sales?
The answer is that Swift, whose new CD “Speak Now” drops Oct. 25, is saying things a lot of people want to hear. And she’s putting it across in a package that appeals to a lot of folks.
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“The thing that makes Taylor really different from a lot of the young female stars that are out there right now is that she’s very relatable,” said Brian Mansfield, USA Today’s Nashville correspondent. “I think girls don’t see her so much as bigger than life than as more like their perfect selves. Taylor really runs counter to the archetype of the female pop star right now. You’ve got your Lady Gagas and your Christina Aguileras, but Taylor’s not at all like that in terms of her public image.”
While having a girl-next-door image might have meant a path to success for, say, Carole King back in 1971, today’s media landscape is less hospitable to artists whose emphasis is on songwriting, not showmanship.
“There’s so much competition that you have to do something to stand out,” said Ida Langsam, a veteran New York publicist whose client list has included Kiss and the Ramones. “Everything is instant and 24/7. The second you put down Rolling Stone with a story on Lady Gaga you’re picking up something else and she’s forgotten and then you’re moving onto whatever else.”
Maintaining a “good girl” image isn’t easy within the pop industry, said Debbie Gibson, a teen star of the 1980s who said she remembers “fighting to wear high-tops instead of heels” in her videos.
“It is the hard road, but the high road,” said Gibson by email while on a tour stop in Manila with Children’s International. “It is nothing new for male record execs to wanna vamp up a little girl. It’s a way easier sell.”
A more honest pop star
Yet by offering fans a more down-to-Earth image than most any major female pop star in the past decade, the 20-year-old Swift has become an unlikely rebel in her own way.
“I think people like that there isn’t a lot of drama around her,” said Ken Tucker, managing editor of Country Weekly. “In a story I’m doing on her, we listed 13 reasons why we love Taylor Swift and one of them was basically that she’s the anti-Lindsay Lohan. Yes, there’s headlines about who she’s dating but that’s it. You’re not reading about her getting a DUI or being too revealing in terms of her clothing. She’s wholesome and I think people like that. That’s a refreshing change.”
Swift’s music is also defiantly her own, not the product of a production committee. According to her record label, Swift was the first female solo artist in country music history to write or co-write every song on a platinum-selling debut CD.
On her sophomore effort, 2008’s “Fearless,” seven of the 13 tunes were penned by Swift alone, including the hits “15” and “Love Story.” On “Speak Now,” Swift penned 12 of the 14 songs by herself. The Y! Music Country Blog called the songs “startlingly candid,” especially “Dear John” and “December,” each of which are supposedly written about former famous flames. This hyper-personal approach to songwriting has been employed by artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Carly Simon to Alanis Morissette.
“She seems completely honest, whether it’s in her music or interviews,” said Annie Reuter, a freelance music journalist who recently interviewed Swift for Marie Clare. “She lets the whole world know that in high school she wasn’t the popular girl. I think that’s what people find relatable — she’s an everyday girl.”
Alison Bonaguro, a freelance writer for Country Music Television.com, said she believes Swift’s confessional style strikes a chord with listeners. “She’s writing about her life both as a teenager and as a young adult and those are highly emotional years for any woman, whether you’ve outgrown that time of your life or you’re still living it,” Bonaguro said. “I have a 15-year-old daughter and I see her in that emotional state of her life. I’m 45, but I remember what it was like to be 14 or 15 like it was yesterday because you’re going through so much.”
It’s not easy for a pop star to grow up in public after becoming known to the public as an adolescent, according to Gibson.
“The danger in projecting an innocent image at a young age is that everyone makes a huge deal over it when you are eventually in touch with your sexuality and dressing ‘age appropriate.’” Gibson said. “People want to keep you sweet and innocent forever when it’s the first image you project.”
Tucker said Swift may be able to sidestep that pitfall because she’s an artist whose appeal extends beyond the novelty of the young age at which she started: “I think there are artists that sometimes the only hook that’s there is how young they are.”
Swift, said Tucker, “at least so far, seems to have successfully turned that corner and made that transition (into adulthood). The songs on her new album are, I think, a little more grown up than the songs on her last album.”
Also in Swift’s favor is her background in country music, whose listeners are less enamored with flash-in-the-pan artists, Tucker said: “That’s the difference between country and pop. Country artists tend to have longer careers — not always, but tend to.”
“I think her ability to write about any emotional stage in a woman’s life has legs,” said Bonaguro. “I think Taylor will stay genuine.”