Hearing the name Taylor Swift has the ability to conjure up many different images for people – pop titan, country bumpkin and celebrated songwriter are some of her many personas. Her musical journey hasn’t been an easy one in many ways, but her talent for songwriting has carried her to where she is today.
Beginning as a country artist through and through, southern imagery and a drawled vocal style marked her debut self-titled album ‘Taylor Swift’. The first the world was to hear of the sixteen year old songwriter was single ‘Tim McGraw’, a risky song title considering the stars iconic status within country music. The risk paid off and people fell in love with the earnest, blue-eyed girl singing about heartbreak. Despite her reputation for only writing about love, Swift touched on serious topics on her debut. From ‘Tied Together With a Smile’ which Swift wrote about a friend suffering with an eating disorder, to ‘The Outside’ which is about being bullied and ostracised, she was clearly able to tackle sensitive topics with poise and a singalong hook.
Although she had been signed as a songwriter to Sony/ATV at the age of 15, Swift’s debut album was where she really cut her teeth writing and performing whilst cultivating a reputation for being relatable to young people in a genre that typically catered for older listeners. Being a country musician as a young girl was revolutionary at a time when the industry was predominantly made up of male performers. Swift’s ability to write about her own growing pains in a way that made young girls relate opened up a whole new demographic in country music.
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Moving on slightly from her country roots, second album ‘Fearless’ had slightly less of that country accent and a glossier finish than her debut. Of course, the song everyone remembers from this album is ‘Love Story’, a romantic country-pop song that has Swift describing her own relationship framed by the cornerstones of Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet. Writing the song after her parents told her they thought a boy she was dating was bad news, the dramatic comparisons to the most well-known star-crossed lovers in history encapsulates the teenage drama and puppy-love feelings perfectly, and went a long way in attracting Swift’s fan-base made up of predominantly teenage girls.
The other song that everyone remembers from ‘Fearless’ is ‘You Belong With Me’, and for more unfortunate reasons besides its addictive hooks and needle-point precision when describing teenage feelings of love. The infamous incident happened at the 2009 VMAs when rapper Kanye West stormed on stage whilst Swift was accepting the award for Best Female Video for ‘You Belong With Me’ to steal the microphone and protest that Beyoncé should have won the award. Stunned, Swift let West finish his piece and then her time was up. It was a pop culture event that would go on to considerably affect Swift’s career as she was reminded time and time again of what happened. Later, West would go on to release a song entitled ‘Famous’ which includes the lyrics “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that b**** famous” which address the media interest Swift gained afterwards.
Should Swift have been a manufactured pop star void of organic and real talent, maybe West’s interruption would have been the pinnacle of her career, but using the somewhat strange platform she had been given, she showcased her music and has gone on to become one of the biggest pop stars the world has ever known just through virtue of her own hard work and talent.
Moving on from ‘Fearless’, ‘Speak Now’ was an incredibly important album for Swift to write. Entirely penned by Swift alone, it wasn’t a commercial success like her last album (and with most of the songs being over 4 minutes long, it was unlikely) but it became a firm fan favourite. A particularly notable song from the album is ‘Innocent’. True to her nature, Swift had written a response to West in the form of song. Crooning in her soft vocals, the lyrics “life is a tough crowd, 32 and still growing up now” have a poignancy to them which demonstrate her forgiving nature and ability to turn any moment into a great song.
It wasn’t until after the release of fourth album ‘Red’, that Swift decided to take the plunge into pop music. ‘Red’ was an album full of great songwriting and massive pop songs (including her first collaborations with Max Martin), yet it was slightly fickle in that it went between country and pop music so often. Knowing that she’d have to focus on country or pop at some stage in her career, Swift announced her fifth album ‘1989’ as her first fully pop album, and it was news that was met with mixed reactions however the album did well critically and commercially, selling one million copies in its first week of sales. The album features 80s style synths, drum machines and staccato pop melodies – it was a world away from her debut. Second single ‘Blank Space’ had Swift addressing her media persona directly, with lyrics that nod to her ‘clingy, boy-crazy’ image’. “Got a long list of ex lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane” is sung over synth pads and drum machines, where the contribution from Max Martin can definitely be heard, and this synth-driven sound is prevalent throughout the entirety of ‘1989’. On the album Swift still retains her skill as a songwriter, with single ‘Out Of The Woods’ particularly harkening back to the detail of Swift’s country lyric writing.
With five albums under her belt by the age of 24 it’s no surprise that Swift has decided to take a break from music for the time being, but that hasn’t stopped fans guessing which direction ‘album six’ will take. Will it be another pop album, or a rock album after she experimented with the style on her ‘1989’ tour? Watch this space.