"She blows me away," 74-year-old country music veteran Kris Kristofferson said backstage recently at Club Nokia, where Swift shared the stage with him and two other country standard bearers, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill. "It's amazing to me that someone so young is writing such great songs," Kristofferson said. "She's got a great career ahead of her." Performing alongside Kristofferson put her on a plane with another songwriter who etched out a career more in spite of, than as a result of, his technical skills as a singer.
Nashville that she's decorating herself, a step toward independence that her success is allowing her to take on a scale few of her fans can possibly relate to. She focuses instead on the emotional complexities of her transition on the new album in "Never Grow Up."
Swift quickly established a strong public persona as a typical teen wrestling with many of the issues her fans face. She's let them watch and listen in as she has navigated her way through life, first through the hyperdramatic waters of teenhood, and now into the onset of adulthood. She's tackling more sophisticated themes now than the ones that occupied her attention while she was just another high school student whose biggest worry was whether she'd have a date for the prom.
KIIS-FM's Ivey suggests Swift's transition from teen idol to adult pop star is developing far more organically than those of many other female singers who found fame early. He credits it to the songs she's written out of her own experience.
"She's different than poor Hilary, Miley, Christina or Britney," Ivey said. "Britney and, to some extent, Miley…. I love them both, but they had to go from being kids to humping a pole. It was a jerky A-to-B. This isn't."
In "Mine," Swift offers her side of dialogue with a boyfriend in which they wrestle with paying bills and their uncertainty over life and love. "Mean" is a biting and witty retort to critics who have skewered her singing ability, most vocally after her rocky duet with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammy Awards. The ballad "Dear John" elucidates the hard choice of cutting ties with a love interest whom she discovers has "a sick need to give love and then take it away." She lets her inner brat show in the title track, which takes the theme of her hit "You Belong With Me" to the next level as she sings of interrupting the wedding of a beau she thinks is marrying the wrong girl.
Another example of her expanding choice of subject matter comes in "Innocent," which she introduced at the recent MTV Video Music Awards.
"This is a song I wrote about somebody who came into my life in the most freakish, unexpected, abrupt way," she told a visitor while listening to some rough mixes in a black Lincoln Navigator parked in the Capitol lot. In the song, she describes a person as "32 and still growing up/Who you are is not what you did/You're still an innocent." Writing the lyrics, says Swift, "taught me a lot about being able to step back from a situation you don't know what to do with, and put yourself in somebody else's shoes."
Kanye West, as it happens, was 32 at the time of last year's infamous VMA incident at in which he grabbed the microphone from Swift's hand after she'd won the award for best video. Was "Innocent" indeed her reaction to that situation? She answers obliquely.
"These songs are about different people in my life," she said. "Every song is about someone, and that person is going to know who they are." (Last week she acknowledged to Billboard that the song is about West.) The question remains whether writing songs about incidents that happen on national television will resonate with her fans like those about first loves and high school disappointments.
Music is No. 1
She's tried her hand at acting, with a guest appearance earlier this year on CBS' "CSI" series and a featured role in the romantic comedy "Valentine's Day." But Swift's priority remains her music, even as she's evolved from a kid who started knocking on record company doors in Nashville at age 11 to a certified country-pop star to a merchandising brand that has included a line of inexpensive sundresses she designed for Wal-Mart, a series of American Greetings cards she designed and wrote, and a soon-to-be-introduced line of luxury cosmetics for CoverGirl.
"When we get into a room to make music, it's pretty much like the first day we worked together," producer Chapman said in a separate interview. "As far as her writing and her art, she's just been getting better and better.
"She's got the [songwriting] craft down," he said. "She's constantly editing the lyric as we're working on the song, trying to make every line feel right. She'll write herself into a corner, then write herself out pretty quickly. It's pretty fascinating to be around her when she's in that mode."
"She's still the same Taylor I met when we first started working together," Chapman added. "If I haven't seen her change as a person, then she's handling this massive success pretty well."