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Taylor Swift and her rise to the top of the pops

Taylor Swift, the subject of this essay from Blastocyst.org.uk, which is available in audio form at mixcloud.com/blastocast seems to be the happiest woman on Earth.

In 2014 she released the only album that sold enough copies to be certified Platinum in the same year it came out. That album, 1989, was a step forward from both the FM radio pop of Red, the country-pop of Speak Now and her self-titled pure country debut, which came out aeons ago in 2006.

Back then the Swift story was already important. She had convinced her parents to move from the East Coast to Nashville, where songs were made and when she could make connections in the music business. I remember hearing ‘Teardrops on my Guitar’ and thinking, Goodness this is pretty good. Did she write this?

She did write it. It’s one of her best songs and set the tone for her early songwriting attempts. The first track on her first album Tim McGraw is self-explanatory when you know the subject is a country star, while Our Song was a glorious ode to turning up the radio in the car to hear ‘our song’. Taylor was not yet 18 when the song became a huge hit, cracking the top 20 of the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.

In the first few years of her career, she supported big country stars on their tours: George Strait is one of the kings of the genre, while Rascal Flatts (despite having a song included in Pixar’s film Cars) are a renowned country group who are now signed to the same label that Taylor Swift released her first albums on. (Their hit song What Hurts the Most was a 2006 country number one and Top 10 Hot 100 hit; a dance-pop cover by Cascada was a hit the following year, and the song has become a modern country music standard.)

A few years after opening for Rascal Flatts, another standard emerged, from Swift’s pen and mouth. Love Story was, and is, a simple pop song with a killer key change. Swift’s trajectory changed when the song got a pop remix; it had been number one in the US country chart for several months in 2009 and got a UK release too.

She was still mainly known in the red bits of America, where they shoot the things they eat and drink beer while sitting on a pickup truck. (That’s not racist; it’s true.)  When Speak Now came out, I heard more of her music. Typically US country stars are huge in the US but are unable to break into the UK market unless they put out a ballad. Carrie Underwood, for instance, is loved by a few people, in the country where she won a TV talent contest. Kelly Clarkson won the same contest, but went pop, or pop-rock, with her first releases.

Underwood, whose Greatest Hits emerged in 2014, has done similar, but in a very country-rock-pop way: Undo It, Cowboy Casanova and new song Something in the Water have all gained UK radio play; the last of these made the A list on Radio 2’s playlist, as part of their campaign to make country music popular in the UK.

After all, the greatest pop tunes today come out of Nashville. The greatest writers are making music over there, and record companies on Music Row, in Nashville, are primed to sell the choicest cuts to radio. A song that hits the country chart, like Need You Now by Lady Antebellum, can be covered by Cheryl Cole and Gary Barlow on British TV and send music fans flocking to pop-country albums by the great US band who are now in the odd position of being too big for the country chart, but not big enough to top the pop charts.

And this is the part where we re-introduce the lady whom Lady Antebellum beat for the 2012 Country Album of the Year at the Grammies, their second consecutive win.

Fearless was Taylor Swift’s 2008 album, following her self-titled debut. Fearless won the 2010 Grammy for Album of the Year, in any genre, beating Beyonce, The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and, of course, Dave Matthews Band. The album was executive produced by a man called Scott Borchetta, whose name will mean nothing to you until you realise he is Mr Music Row. He discovered Taylor Swift and ran the label that put out Fearless called, haha, Big Machine.

Fearless’s third single, You Belong with Me, was nominated for Record and Song of the Year (two awards, don’t ask me why), while pretty ballad White Horse won the Best Country Song award. Another song that was a single, Fifteen, seems to nail down Taylor’s target market: teenage girls who, quoting the protagonists from her song Love Story, are young and after their Romeos to take them ‘some place to be alone’.

Taylor Swift is the first true pop star of the social media age. She is capable of being profiled in pop magazines, business titles and broadsheet newspapers. She has millions of people following and discussing her on social media, which are the metrics of the current era, but significantly she has sold physical music, be it CDs or tickets to her live shows.

Since her album Red, released in 2012, Swift has gone front-and-centre for the pop market, a clever thing to do if you look like a pop star, sound like a pop star and have recently moved to New York like a pop star. 2015 will see her headline Hyde Park in summer, supported by Ellie Goulding, as part of the British Summer Time series of gigs; Kylie Minogue is headlining one of the other ones on a bill that includes Chic.

Red was 65 minutes long – far too long, but then most pop records are too long – and includes a total of eight producers excluding Taylor herself. One producer is Jeff Bhaskar, who has worked with Kanye West and Mark Ronson, while another is U2’s producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, who helped make Snow Patrol sound radio-friendly. Chasing Cars is one of his.

Red, meanwhile, had seven singles taken from it, almost as many as Katy Perry or Rihanna release from their albums. Non-filler tracks on Red included the Max Martin co-write and lead single We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, I Knew You Were Trouble, 22, the title track and Ed Sheeran duet Everything Has Changed. Sheeran, who slept on her couch in Nashville, is reaping the benefits from supporting her on the Red tour, and a similar piece could be written about him, the man whose songwriting talents helped him shift many, many copies of his art.

Swift, in February 2015, won the Best International Female award at the BRITs. That same week, she attended America’s version, the GRAMMYs, on behalf of her huge song Shake It off, where she was beaten by Sam Smith’s song Stay With Me. She wasn’t so fussed: in her career so far, Swift has won 7 of the 25 Grammy Awards for which she has been nominated, 20 of 44 Billboard Music Awards, 11 of 21 CMA Awards and 16 of 18 AMAs (American Music Awards). She has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, and been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, at an age before many songwriters have had their first hit.

She must be pretty good, if the industry thinks so. Yes, some awards are given because of sales and airplay and getting the music out to as many people as possible, but to win the Album of the Year Grammy at the age of 20 is something.

In 2015, three of the five nominees are women. The 2014 winner was Kacey Musgraves, who beat…Red, and whose voice is a gentler version of Taylor’s. But with songs like Follow Your Arrow, Musgraves does not write traditional country songs about the usual things, and it is worth watching to see if she follows Taylor into the pop market.

In 2014, Taylor Swift turned 25 (she’s a Sagittarius, for those who care, and was born on December 13, 1989). By that age, Paul McCartney had already written Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, and Ray Davies had written Waterloo Sunset. Amy Winehouse had recorded Back to Black and Adele, of course, had become a reclusive mother-megastar. We’re waiting for her album, rumoured to be called 25, which may sell a million copies within two weeks just as 1989 did.

Only McCartney had released at least five huge albums that crossed over from one genre – in his case rock’n’roll – to another. The Beatles defined Pop Music in 1964-6, before they invented the concept of pop stars growing up and becoming smoking, drinking, girlfriend-on-the-side rock stars. Taylor Swift did the modern Pop Thing and started her latest album with a (quite dull) track called Welcome to New York. In 1965, Paul McCartney played bass and sung on a song called Taxman (written by a 22-year-old George Harrison) all about how most of his earnings went to the Exchequer, in exchange for a nice MBE award from the Queen.

All this is contextual. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the best pop album, for many people, released this decade. It is the product of an artistic vision and a craft honed through being surrounded by good people, and a talent nurtured by Scott Borchetta; think of him as a sensible, music-loving version of the talent magnet Scooter Braun, who directs the careers of Justin Bieber and Arianna Grande, and signed up PSY after Gangnam Style.

For 1989 Swift holed up with Max Martin and a man called Shellback, the killer writing-and-production team behind much great pop music of the last 20 years. A large chunk of the album is credited as Swift-Martin-Shellback, but other writers pop up. Jack Antonoff is the fiancé of Lena Dunham, another famous New York resident, who co-wrote Out of the Woods with Swift and Martin; Antonoff also wrote We Are Young, fun.’s massive hit from 2010.

Antonoff and Greg Kurstin, who wrote The Fear with Lily Allen, worked on I Wish You Would, a fun track that recalls songs by Haim; I wonder if Swift had given their Days Are Gone album several spins while writing the record. The three Haim girls are now great friends of Taylor’s. The song is driven by a funky guitar buried low in the mix (an expert decision) and spacious drums which don’t interfere with the chorus. It’s musically one of the best tracks on 1989, and deserves to be a hit soon.

Ryan Tedder, who also co-wrote Ghost with Ella Henderson, co-wrote I Know Places and Welcome to New York with Swift and his songwriting partner Noel Zancanella. The two men wrote Counting Stars for OneRepublic, Tedder’s band, as well as Maroon 5’s Maps. Like those last two, the two on 1989 are poppy and catchy, following the template set by Swift throughout her career.

Whether all of this was planned or not, it seems that 2015 will be the year Taylor Swift takes over pop. Signed at 14 years old, her self-titled album was written by a teenager for teenagers to hear. After a few listens my favourite track is Picture to Burn, which references pick-up trucks and sounds in places like a playground jeer. The image is great: “You’re just another picture to burn”…You can’t burn Instagram pics; at least not in the old definition of burn.

Throughout the first album Taylor sings in a high alto voice all about boys and growing up. Most of the songs are mid-tempo, but Shoulda Said No is a poppy tune with a great hook.

Fearless trod a similar musical path to her debut, with more songs by a girl written with girls in mind. With the release of that record she matured to the main event, headlining big venues around America. The key single was the one which was number one in the country charts the week Fearless was released.

A sophisticated key change and a lyric inspired by Shakespeare, Love Story was streets ahead of most of her first album. I was unimpressed with a lot of Fearless, but then it wasn’t aimed at me. The title track was another single, with Taylor’s voice floating over mandolin and drum before the chorus kicks in.

Another writer may go on about how Taylor is a paragon of Modern Womanhood, about how she empowers a listener by singing about herself, a modern woman, in a world of glass ceilings and Florida Georgia Line. Instead of all that, I’ll just say that as a woman working in the arts, I admire how Taylor has piloted the course of her career. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, in comedy, and Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the Best Director Academy Award, share plaudits for being great at what they do and happening to be female.

Fearless was made by an eighteen-year-old woman. It occurred to me the other day that most 18-year-old girls who were high achievers were enrolling at college, but Swift was about to embark on her first tour to support Fearless. The album was another mix of quickies and slowies, the latter including the single ‘White Horse’ and a couple of neat album tracks including The Way I Loved You and The Best Day.

On White Horse, Taylor is vulnerable, “naïve…I didn’t know to be in love you had to fight to have the upper hand”. Confused, learning about the world, figuring out that she isn’t a princess. “This is a small town, I was a dreamer…and I let you down.” It’s tender, and elegiac with the strings and brushed drums. As with the title track of the album White Horse becomes more emphatic briefly in what’s called the Middle 8, the change in melodic shape just before the final chorus. No man on his white horse (or woman, I suppose, if gender is equal) can “catch” Taylor. Life is real and gritty and disappointing…

A lot of the production is clear, giving space to every instrument and coating Taylor’s voice in pleasant harmonies.

The Best Day is a gentle tale about tough teenage lives being remedied by being curled up with friends and family. It’s very country and somewhat saccharine, but it’s a comforting song for a Swift fan. Musically The Way I Loved You (also from Fearless) is excellent – banjo, snare drums, string section, guitar solo, and another strong chorus complete with Beatles-y minor chords. There is a great vocal too, and a lyric about a boy and the “rollercoaster kinda rush” of being in love.

Without hyperbole, only Paul McCartney and possibly Elvis Costello can rival Taylor’s album-to-album consistency. David Bowie, too, is another act who surprises his followers and fans. The difference between these acts is the era they found themselves in. McCartney played the game because Brian Epstein worked him hard, Costello followed his muse and Bowie could afford to kill off Ziggy Stardust and spend the rest of the 1970s making weird arthouse rock music or ‘plastic soul’ (as he did on Young Americans). Taylor Swift’s version of arthouse is moving to Brooklyn, in New York, and partying with her friend Lena Dunham.

Taylor is a Millennial, the generation who overshares, shares online links and is presumed missing if they don’t send out a social media missive every few hours or so. Almost 25m people await her next Instagram post: a recent one starred Haim and Ellie Goulding to celebrate International Women’s Day, another was with DJ Nick Grimshaw and popstar and friend Ed Sheeran in a photo booth.

Stunningly 55m people or robots await her musings on Twitter. She has just thanked her fans for her third straight number one in the pop chart, Style, and reminded the world that 50 days from March 16 her 1989 Tour begins. She’ll be on the road playing the new hits for the first time all year, starting in May, including Style (already a hit) and Bad Blood, which is an expected future hit.

Attending pop and style awards shows, Taylor has been photographed with Kanye West and his wife Kim, crooner Sam Smith and chart-bothering friends Hozier and Ed Sheeran. And yet she takes time to do humanitarian work making her fans’ lives better. Buzzfeed ran a piece which listed (of course it did…) 21 occasions that she changed their lives. She shut a toy store to ensure every kid could choose one toy as a thank you for being in the video for Mine (the shoot took 18 hours). Ed Sheeran has said that she paints guitars for terminally ill children who write her letters. Last year she famously donated 1989 dollars to a fan to assist her student loan bill; caught on camera, the fan broke down in tears. She has also invited fans to her house for pizza and to award shows, and also to be in the Shake it Off music video.

The first single from Taylor’s first pop album, 1989, was a global smash hit. Notwithstanding that she took out copyright over the phrase “This. Sick. Beat.”, and that the record did not stream with Spotify because she could earn more money if people bought the album (which has just come out with extra tracks in a deluxe edition), it’s brilliant. Three chords, a percussive rhythm and a killer chorus with an uplifting message (“Haters gonna hate..I’m just gonna shake it off!”)

It’s hardly Tim McGraw, the first track on her first record: “When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think of me.” Taylor’s catalogue includes lots of positive tracks, including Stay Beautiful and a Place in this World.

Dear John is a fascinating track, coming midway through third album Speak Now. It’s got a scorching guitar part played by Nathan Chapman, her producer, and a biting lyric about being messed around and reduced to tears, set to a 6/8 ballad feel. “You’re an expert in sorry, and keeping lines blurry”, she sings, ultimately triumphant: “I took your matches before fire could catch me”. The track was part of her set for her second big tour, which came to London’s O2 arena in March 2011 and went on to fill LA’s Staples Center for four nights in August. In total she played to over 1.5m fans, some of whom had surely seen her show more than once.

Taylor was 21 and headlining huge arenas in America essentially as a country star. Songs like Mean and Last Kiss were played in the American shows (but omitted in the shorter European set), the former a song about how Taylor will “some day be living in a big old city”; as mentioned, in 2014 she moved to New York. Taylor ended her set with Love Story and began with another great pop song, Sparks Fly.

Sparks Fly is a better song than the weak The Story of Us, which tried too hard to be thudding country-pop for my liking, and was nowhere near as good as Love Story. Fifteen is another formulaic song, although I won’t pour too much scorn over it because it’s a song for and about 15-year-old kids at school trying to be liked and the reference to “a redhead named Abigail” is because Taylor Swift really did have a friend of that name at school. She “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind/ And we both cried”. There’s a whole story in that stanza, and Swift’s genius is to set that to melody and get to the nub of the emotion in the line. Fifteen is one of seven solo Swift-penned songs on Fearless, while others were co-written with songwriters like Liz Rose, who helped write Teardrops on my Guitar and six other tracks on her first record.

Amazingly, on Speak Now, nobody is credited with the songs apart from Taylor. Some would say this is to the detriment of the quality of songs, but hardly any musician – I can only think of Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Todd Rundgren, Prince, Stevie Wonder and forgotten pop maestro Emitt Rhodes, though I am sure there are more – has been trusted to write every note of music on their third album.

Speak Now was the ninth biggest-selling album of any genre in 2010, the second biggest-seller in 2011 and in 2012, the year fourth record Red was released, it was still among the top 50. And yet it was still classed as a Country album, being in that genre the best-seller of 2011 and third-best-seller of 2010.

I should reiterate that usually these Audio Essays have a Spotify playlist to accompany them, but Taylor Swift pulled all her music from the streaming service. Some writers noted that she did so around the time Google launched their new service, but this was coincidental. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in July 2014, Taylor wrote: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

At the end of March 2015, Jay-Z launched a service called TIDAL which costs 20 dollars a month and provides higher-quality fidelity in sound files. Along with Daft Punk, Jack White, Madonna and Beyonce, Taylor Swift has put her music on there.

Neil Young’s PONO service offers high-quality audio at a fee and perhaps every artist will one day stream their own music from a dedicated online boutique store or service, the true 360-degree experience. Finally, people can hear 1989 in a way that doesn’t mean they have to boringly go out and buy a CD, or lazily click the BUY button in a download store so that Taylor is remunerated, albeit scantily after all the reductions and advances to pay off, for creating at least two of the finest pop songs of the last few years.

You have to include We Are Never Ever Getting Back Togther and Blank Space in any discussion of Taylor Swift. Both songs were written with Max Martin, a sort of Swedish Paul McCartney who will one day get as many plaudits as McCartney or Taylor. McCartney would kill for the chorus of either of those songs, had he not written some nice ones himself.

Album number four, Red, came out in October 2012, so there was only half a year between the Speak Now tour finishing and the process for Red starting. In fact, the first single came out in August, and soundtracked summer 2012. Because she had written Speak Now by herself, she went back to co-writing (probably backed up by the finance of Sony and Big Machine) and in the end put out what I still call a too-long album.

It sold a million in a week, which albums never do any more because of streaming, yet was still billed as a country album, though the only ‘country’ thing about Back Together is the guitar loop that begins and runs through the song.

Thanks to the success of that tune, Taylor got her much-deserved UK breakthrough, only four years after I’d heard Our Song on the BBC radio show America’s Greatest Hits with Paul Gambaccini. The song went top five, blocked in its path to number one by Ne-Yo, Adele, One Direction, The Script, Pink and of course Gangnam Style. Back Together was one of the finest pop tunes of 2012, thanks to its bounce, its lyric, the attitude of its performer, the fact that it sounds like a jingle, and of course because it’s another strong anthem for the young woman.

The credits for Red are amazing. Max Martin, Dan Wilson (who co-wrote Someone Like You for Adele), Liz Rose, Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, Jeff Bhasker who co-produced the new Mark Ronson album and Butch Walker, who produced the Ed-Taylor duet Everything Has Changed. Butch has his sonic fingers over albums by Weezer, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Bowling for Soup and Katy Perry, but the Ed Sheeran song is, to be quite critical of it, treacly and bland.

Still bland, but blandness sells. Ed Sheeran got his US break, in part, by supporting Taylor on her Red tour which, oddly, featured additional support from Florida Georgia Line, an act on the border of country music and hiphop. She played most of the new record, peppered with older songs You Belong with Me, Mean, Sparks Fly and Love Story thrown in too. A fifteen-month tour played to 1.7m people, with the Australian gigs supported by great pop act Neon Trees and Australia’s 2015 Eurovision Song Content entry (don’t ask) Guy Sebastian, whom I’m led to believe is very big down there.

Her shows at the O2 arena, all five of them, were opened by The Vamps, very much a guitar-pop band whose fanbase is tweenagers between eight and eighteen. Taylor Swift is hitting that demographic with brilliant pop songs.

She’s just bought a place in New York, and already has one in Rhode Island. In fact, the Taylor Swift tax is so-called because the state of Rhode Island is putting up rates on anyone who owns additional property (ie, second homes) which has a market value over a million pounds. Need I restate that most 25-year-old women cannot afford even to make rent on a cardboard box, but Taylor Swift is not most 25-year-old women…

Following on from 15, Red contained 22, the best single released from the album, which makes reference to hipsters and friendship and being “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time”. Again, Taylor condenses a demographic into one line – stuck in the bridge of the song! In 2013, I was 25, but knew some 22-year-olds just graduating into the world of work and competing for jobs with the class of 2011 and 2012. I went back to school for no reason (well, freelance work was fallow that year) and had an idea for a book about why footballers, some of whom are my age, earn so much money even though they don’t have university degrees. I do have one; Taylor Swift doesn’t. Guess who owns their own house?

As of the end of March 2015, Taylor has put out 34 singles from her five albums. Teardrops on my Guitar went three times platinum, Our Song four times, Love Story & You Belong With Me seven times. Thanks to the movie The Hunger Games two of her tracks, Safe & Sound and Eyes Open, charted, but she had to wait until Back Together to have her first Billboard Hot 100 number one. Not bad at all for a country artist, only Shania Twain does that!

Ask anyone what they think Taylor Swift represents, people may point to her Instagram page, her great radio-friendly hits or that when she won a Grammy Kanye West got upset on Beyonce’s behalf. Beyonce is now part of the Jay-Z industry, which is a crass way to treat an artist who is innovative and released an album at the very end of 2013, a year before 1989 dropped.

As a final track on the first edition of 1989, having Imogen Heap co-write Clean is a great artistic step. Heap is not an easy artist but her work is very beautiful. It is hard to think that Taylor can top the pop anthems of Shake it Off, Blank Space or I Wish You Would. She’s friends with artists as diverse as Haim, Ed Sheeran and Jack Antonoff from Fun. It helps to have Max Martin and Mr Nashville Scott Borchetta on speed dial, and to be a bankable star on record and in the live sphere – the 1989 tour cycle kicks off soon.

I am excited to hear what Taylor does next. My mum, who is older even than me, is seeing her play a gig in Hyde Park over summer, doing all the hits. They say it takes ten years to become an overnight sensation, and it has now been a decade since Taylor moved to Nashville. Now in New York, and with millions of fans all around the world, it is not putting it too mildly that there is no bigger female popstar – including Madonna – on planet Earth than Taylor Swift.