About a third of the way through Taylor Swift's Friday night set, the young country-pop singer transformed the stage at a sold-out Staples Center into a high school library. While projections of bookshelves lighted up the two-tiered set, Swift sat at a table with a scruffy, square-jawed dreamboat and, in an endearing monologue, lamented his dudely inability to see the obvious.
"Every day, like clockwork, he would sit down and talk to me . . . about his girlfriend," Swift said, to peals of commiseration from the heavily teenage and female crowd. "But I wrote a song about him."
The song was "Teardrops on My Guitar," from her self-titled 2006 debut, and whoever this "Drew" was -- the one in the lyrics who didn't return Swift's affections then -- it's a safe bet he's kicking himself now.
That kind of real and immediate identification with her audience's specific travails is a big reason why Swift was the top-selling artist of 2008, on the strength of her debut and its 2008 follow-up, "Fearless." Plenty of contemporary country singers mine high school memories for material, but the 19-year-old Swift is documenting them in something close to real time.
Her fans don't just believe in her savvy songwriting and gracious, magnetic stage presence. They trust her as a peer. And if the unerring pleasures of her set -- and the crowd's Beatles-sized reactions -- were any indication, they'll be trusting her for a long time.
Unbelievably, the Staples show was part of her first headlining tour. She's been pulling the rug out from under headliners like Rascal Flatts as an opening act for some time now, and sales like Swift's afford a young singer an enviable production budget. There may never be another singer who can re-create an entire Edwardian castle scene (from her video for "Love Story") for just one song on her debut top-billed tour.
But while Britney Spears, another recent Staples guest, dissolved into the mania of her "Circus" get-up, Swift had a preternatural command over her spectacle. Much of this is due to the very adult strength of her writing. There's a Loretta Lynn insouciance to vinegary singles such as "Should've Said No" and "Picture to Burn."
Her identification with similar sentiments in pop and R&B; peers like Beyonce and Justin Timberlake (she covered his hit "What Goes Around . . . / . . . Comes Around" in a witty mid-song interlude) is a telling generational trait. When John Mayer arrived for a cameo to duet with Swift on his dorm-seduction staple "Your Body Is a Wonderland," nothing felt particularly amiss, even if Swift's originals were much smarter.
Swift has obviously studied the examples of classic country's first ladies. The narrator of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" would have recognized her own predicament in more pained singles like "White Horse" and might have applauded Swift for having the good sense to move on already.
But Swift ultimately is a romantic, reveling in lyrical details like the feel of a "balcony in summer air" and her frustration at the bloodless love of someone who "talks business with my father."
Swift's only real competition on the 2008 album charts, the rapper Lil Wayne, is an interesting foil for her. While Wayne has turned his erratic, hyper-productive brilliance into performance art, Swift's success is a reminder that the old rules of songwriting and performance hold as true as ever.
When she stood beneath a cascading waterfall to close her encore, she looked every bit the pop star but also every bit a teenager -- drenched, giddy and with a bit of explaining to do when she gets home past curfew.