Taylor Swift: The Garden In The Machine
The album spawned five Top 10 singles, including the #1 hits “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No” – both of which Swift wrote without the guidance of a co-writer. It also established her as one of only a handful of new female voices to break out at country radio in a decade that was almost completely dominated by males. That radio success didn’t come easily. Not only was Swift a female artist, she was a teenage female artist. And unlike LeAnn Rimes ten years before, her breakout wasn’t built on the novelty of a little girl with a bombastic voice singing a huge, adult song (“Blue”). To the contrary, Swift’s songs aimed to communicate with her social peers – and there was concern at radio about how that music would sound spliced into a format whose audience is firmly adult.
So, Big Machine turned to other avenues, including the Internet. Perhaps aided by the fact that she grew up as a member of the Internet generation, Swift was the first country artist to fully make use of available technological tools like MySpace (Facebook was only open to college students back then). And she used the website not only as a distribution medium, but as a way to build a connection between herself and her fans. She would write her own blog posts, leave comments on her “friends” accounts and personally respond to the messages that were sent to her. Before long, she had built a fan-base that radio couldn’t ignore.
The success of Taylor Swift set the stage for a highly anticipated follow-up album. That album was titled Fearless, and it sold nearly 600,000 copies in its opening week. Fearless charted 13 different songs on the Billboard Hot 100 (a record) and won the Grammy for “Best Album” – making Swift, yet again, the youngest artist to claim one of music’s biggest accolades.
Liz Rose was again the most frequent co-writer on Fearless, but Swift wrote more than half of the album by herself. And whereas Taylor Swift seemed fully engulfed in the passions of teenage life, Fearless found a songwriter making bold steps into adulthood. Although the material found on the two albums shared themes, much of Fearless examined those themes through a more nuanced and less naive lens. On the song “Fifteen,” for example, Swift spoke to her audience not as a student, but as a seasoned survivor of those tumultuous high school years.
Fearless would go on to blast Swift into the music world’s stratosphere, and mark her emergence as a pop icon. “Teardrops On My Guitar” had been a minor pop hit, but Fearless’ lead single, “Love Story,” climbed all the way to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was a different song from that album, however, that would ultimately – though indirectly – lead to Taylor Swift becoming a household name.
“Yo, Taylor,” said Kanye West, as he grabbed the microphone from a stunned Swift. Swift had just won the MTV Video Music Award for “Best Female Video,” for her song “You Belong With Me,” and was beginning her acceptance speech when the rapper interrupted her. “I’m really happy for you, and Im’a let you finish, but Beyonce (Knowles, who was nominated alongside Swift in the category for her video “Single Ladies”) had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time.” Kanye-Gate, as it would come to be known, thrust Swift into the pop culture spotlight. The clip played over and over on TV, and flooded social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, implanting Swift’s face into the public consciousness. And although it shook her personally, it had a profoundly positive impact on her career. At least in a way.
With superstardom, there are always associated costs. For instance, Nashville-based artists enjoy a relative safety bubble. Music City is a small community, in which all walks of the music industry live, work and shop together. Meanwhile, the non-music population is used to seeing stars out and about, and doesn’t make much of a fuss when Vince Gill pops into The Pancake Pantry, or when Keith Urban drops by the Green Hills Starbucks. Perhaps more importantly, the press contingent in Nashville is small, seasoned and respectful.