When Taylor Swift showed up over the weekend as both host and musical guest on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” the 19-year-old country-pop star delivered the show’s highest ratings of the season so far.
Tonight she’ll be vying with country music veterans -- all men -- for the title of entertainer of the year at the Country Music Assn.'s annual award ceremony in Nashville. Should she win, she will be the first woman to win that title since 2000, and she’d become the youngest recipient of the CMA’s top prize.
It will cap a week in which her 2006 debut album, “Taylor Swift,” also set the 21st century record for longevity on the Billboard 200: It has now spent more than three years on that listing of the nation’s bestselling album releases.
The Pennsylvania-born Nashville transplant, who sold more albums in 2008 than any act in any genre, also gracefully weathered a high-profile celebrity bullying incident in September when rapper Kanye West snatched a microphone out of her hands on national television in what should have been her moment of glory for taking best female video honors at the MTV Video Music Awards.
A savvy young lady
How has the singer, songwriter and, more recently, producer with the wavy blond tresses and a penchant for sundresses and cowboy boots become so spectacularly successful?
She’s done it by cannily employing the four T’s of pop music: talent, tenacity, technology and teens. And she’s done so without relying on overt sexuality, which makes pop music’s new teen queen a family-friendly performer and role model whom many parents enjoy as much as their teenage kids.
The elder of Scott and Andrea Swift’s two children, Taylor Swift grew up in Wyomissing, Pa., knowing from childhood she wanted to be a songwriter. At 11, she talked her parents into taking her to visit Nashville.
She recalls going door to door and announcing, “Hi! I’m Taylor. I write songs and I think you should sign me!” the ever-enthusiastic Swift told The Times shortly after her first album was released.
She didn’t land a deal then, but an executive she met on one of those early trips, Scott Borchetta, then at DreamWorks Nashville, was impressed by her forthrightness, as well as the song samples he heard, and asked her father to keep him informed about her activities.
That’s where her tenacity paid off. Periodically checking back with publishers and labels while continuing to write songs regularly at home in her bedroom, Swift was offered a deal when she was 14: not as a recording artist, but as a fledgling songwriter for Sony/ATV Music Publishing. That was enough for the Swifts to sell their home and move to Hendersonville, Tenn.
By this time, DreamWorks Nashville had folded, one of many labels that went under in the mid-2000s. Borchetta, widely respected for his skills in music promotion, had a vision of a label at which he could implement the new strategies he felt were needed in light of the changing, and shrinking, music business.
Other labels began to approach Swift, but most saw her only as a fresh-faced singer. Borchetta, on the other hand, liked the honesty in her songs of teen romance and heartbreak, and felt she had the potential both to connect with existing country music fans and possibly attract younger listeners who weren’t necessarily committed country enthusiasts.
He made Swift an offer allowing her to record her own songs, and even to have a voice in how those recordings would be produced -- highly unusual for a 15-year-old with no track record. But Swift had impressed him with her dedication to her songwriting duties -- and her flawless fluency in the language of the new generation: the Internet and MySpace.
It was a gamble for both.
Borchetta’s label, to be known as Big Machine Records, hadn’t opened its doors yet, and 2005 wasn’t an ideal time for a start-up record company. Swift joined staffers, sitting on the floor of the spartan office, stuffing news releases and copies of her debut CD into envelopes for mailing.
“Obviously, creative control is the most important thing for me,” Swift told The Times last year, “or I wouldn’t have left the biggest label in Nashville for a label that didn’t have any furniture.”
Her first single was a savvy love letter to one of country’s biggest stars, a song called “Tim McGraw,” which because of the name-dropping title caught the ears of hard-to-reach radio programmers and started the album’s climb toward gold and then platinum.
Writing her ticket
Unlike many teen musicians who have tried to sound preternaturally grown-up, Swift fully embraced the agonies and ecstasies of life as a teenager, in some ways similar to what Chuck Berry had done during the nascent days of rock ‘n’ roll a half-century before her.
She had realized early on that “There are thousands of girls going up and down Music Row who are gorgeous and who have amazing voices and who can sing higher and louder than me,” she once said. “Somehow I had to find a way to stand out and be the different one.”
That, she figured, would be through songwriting.
“Taylor pretty much Hoovered up the market for teen girl angst songs by a peer group singer-songwriter,” Chet Flippo, veteran music journalist and editorial director for Country Music Television’s website, CMT.com, wrote recently. “It was a brilliant move, one of the smartest ever by a shrewd music artist, and it will not likely be repeated. Certainly not by Taylor . . . It’s hard to imagine her moving on to writing and singing heartfelt songs about being twentysomething, which she will soon be.”
Even if she does, she’ll have considerably more competition -- from Britney Spears’ salacious pop, Brandi Carlile and Colbie Caillat’s introspective folk-pop, and Beyonce’s crackling R&B; -- than she’s had exploring the facets of teenagedom.
While she’s proved respectful enough of music tradition to build a song deferentially saluting the image of one of country’s biggest stars, Tim McGraw, she’s also showed herself brazen enough in another hit, “Love Story,” to rewrite Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending.
The song gave her another No. 1 hit.
Where irony does show up in her world is in the realization that this young woman, named one of People magazine’s 100 most beautiful people in the world in 2008 and again this year, only a few years ago still thought of herself as an ugly duckling. She and her best friend, Abigail Anderson, would sit out school dances, throwing slumber parties for themselves while their classmates danced the night away in rented tuxedos and ball gowns.
“We kind of came to the conclusion in ninth grade that we were never going to be popular,” she recalled, “so we should just stick together and have fun and not take ourselves too seriously.”
Those experiences feed her art. Still shy of turning 20, earlier this year she wrote “Fifteen,” a bit of advice to those about the age of her younger brother, Austin, to help them better prepare for the emotional quagmire known as high school.
In fact, her ready sense of humor, along with her artistic honesty and general enthusiasm, have made her popular with television and movie producers. She’s guested on Oprah Winfrey’s show twice, and come February she’ll make her major film debut as one of the ensemble stars in the Garry Marshall-directed romantic comedy “Valentine’s Day” opposite her new beau, Taylor Lautner.
Count on her part being wholesome. While no prude, Swift has sidestepped the temptation to overtly invoke the kind of youthful sexuality prevalent among pop and R&B; singers. In fact, shortly after her breakup last year with Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, a rumor began circulating on gossip websites that she was pregnant. Her flat-out denial -- she called it “the most IMPOSSIBLE thing on the planet” on her MySpace page -- carried an indignant tone. It was one of the rare instances where she’s publicly expressed anything but sheer delight at how her career has unfolded.
Swift has demonstrated a gift for making friends, not enemies, even eliciting a couple of public apologies after the MTV Awards incident from the normally unrepentant West.
Both cases illustrate her skillful use of the Internet to neutralize gossip and speculation, but it’s also been a cornerstone in the building of her career. She cleverly has exploited the expansive audience she has carved out in the MySpace universe and on Facebook. She also recently logged the millionth follower on her Twitter account.
Keyed for success
Her passion for texting, e-mailing, Twittering and other au courant forms of e-municating is a big part of the connection she’s formed with fans.
In the spring when her publicist received an e-mail praising her performance at the taping of a CBS special honoring George Strait, Swift grabbed the BlackBerry and shot back a personal thank-you -- while the show was still in progress.
“Blogging has been really fun because I like to let people into my life as much as possible,” she told The Times while in Los Angeles at this time last year just before her second album, “Fearless,” was released. “I think it’s important for the people who keep you going and support you and have your back out there in the world to know that you’re thinking of them all the time.”
Her new-world model of success is a strong reason for her presence in the CMA’s entertainer of the year contest, a category designed to recognize “the act displaying the greatest competence in all aspects of the entertainment field [including] recorded performance . . . the in-person performance, staging, public acceptance, attitude, leadership and overall contribution to the country music image.”
“I think Taylor could stun people and win,” said Lon Helton, publisher of Nashville-based Country Aircheck, which monitors airplay nationally on country radio stations.
“One of the things that excites the record labels, now that young people who are inspired by Taylor have come to Nashville, is that they are often Internet savvy, and YouTube-, Facebook- and Twitter-savvy,” Helton said. “Many of them already have a little bit of a following in that world. Hopefully that will bode well in terms of digital sales in the future . . . Taylor really is just in the infancy of this phenomenon.”
‘The 43rd Annual CMA Awards’
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)