It's a notoriously subjective thing to argue that any artist is "the biggest in the world." Even so, a sturdy case could be made that 20-year-old Taylor Swift is exactly that. The sweet country everygirl's first two albums have together sold 13 million copies around the globe since her 2006 debut. And her third, Speak Now, blasted to the top of the charts by selling more than 1 million copies its first week of release, making her only the second country artist—and the first female in that genre—ever to accomplish that feat.
Swift's appeal (especially among young, female fans) lies in her willingness to serve up earnest, confessional morsels paired with infectiously melodic hooks that blur the boundaries between country, pop and rock. And with this batch of 14 tunes, Taylor tells us in the liner notes that she's using them to deliver personal messages (mostly to celebrity ex-boyfriends) that she didn't get right the first time. "These songs are made up of words I didn't say when the moment was right in front of me," she writes. "These songs are open letters. Each is written with a specific person in mind."
The result? Taylor's tracks on Speak Now often feel like sneaking a peak at a teen's tear-streaked diary … or maybe cathartic e-mails she never sent. Except, of course, that Swift is now 20. This means Swift is smack in the middle of her transition from teen phenom to young adult artist. And that's a path littered with the shredded innocence of myriad starlets. How will Taylor Swift navigate this historically perilous transition? Like this:
"Mine" narrates the tale of a young woman who's scared to open her heart because of her "parents' mistakes." When she does so, she's delighted and surprised to find lasting love with someone who's committed to overcoming conflict. "Back to December" (written for Twilight star Taylor Lautner), apologizes for breaking his heart ("You gave me all your love and all I gave you was good-bye/So this is me swallowing my pride/Standing in front of you saying I'm sorry for that night").
Turning the tables but still making a good point, "Dear John" takes singer John Mayer to task for manipulating her ("Don't you think 19's too young to be played by/Your dark and twisted games when/I loved you so?"). Taylor regrets not taking friends' advice regarding the notorious lothario ("I ignored [it] when they said/Run as fast as you can"). "Haunted" finds her pleading with a former beau to believe "I still mean every word I said to you." "Last Kiss" wishes an ex well.
"Mean" vulnerably expresses how much a music critic's words have hurt her. "Innocent" extends an olive branch to Kanye West, who infamously interrupted Taylor's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Taylor insists that there's space for second chances, that his selfish choice doesn't have to define him ("Every one of us has messed up too/ … Today is never too late to/Be brand new/ … Who you are is not what you did"). "Never Grow Up," a tearjerker in the vein of Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," has Taylor reflecting on getting her first apartment and how her parents must feel as they think back upon the innocence of her early years.
I question this later, but if we take Swift at her word on "Speak Now," a woman's insistence upon breaking up a wedding in order to deliver an ex-boyfriend from a lifetime shackled to the wrong mate is a brave choice.
"Mine" implies a girl spends nights at her boyfriend's place ("There's a drawer of my things at your place"). "Sparks Fly" describes a paramour as "kind of reckless" and "a bad idea" who invites a woman upstairs ("It's just wrong enough to make it feel right/ … Gonna strike that match tonight/Lead me up the staircase"). "Last Kiss," allegedly written about Joe Jonas, hints at "sleepovers" too when it mentions "watch[ing] your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep." "Better Than Revenge" bristles with vituperative venom as Taylor hisses at a boyfriend stealer (supposedly Jonas' first post-Taylor girlfriend, Camilla Belle), "She's not a saint, and she's not what you think/She's an actress/But she's better known for the things she does on the mattress." Taylor obviously relishes the chance to unleash her lyrical lambaste here: "She should keep in mind/There's nothing I do better than revenge."
That penchant for wishing enemies ill also turns up on "Mean," where Taylor fantasizes about a critic's future ("And I can see you years from now in a bar/ … Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things/Drunk and grumbling on about how I can't sing"). Likewise, Taylor unsheathes her claws when she says a bride's dress is "shaped like a pastry" on "Speak Now." Taylor insists that the woman is an insufferable bridezilla, but it's also possible to interpret the singer's insistence upon breaking up the wedding of her ex-boyfriend as self-centered payback—especially because of the kinds of things she says on other songs.
Taylor Swift could be described as the poet laureate of the Facebook generation: She's reticent in face-to-face interviews, but she finds freedom—sometimes too much freedom—in her songwriting. In an interview with USA Today, she admitted as much: "I've never been shy about the fact that if you enter my life, you are basically willingly entering an album."
That's a lesson Lautner, Jonas, Mayer and West have all learned firsthand.
Still, in a conversation with Rolling Stone, Taylor said she understands her influence and takes her role model status seriously. "There are girls out there who are determining their thoughts and dreams and opinions about who they want to be. If I have a small part in that, I take it seriously. A lot of moms come up to me at the grocery store and say, 'Thank you for being a role model for my daughter.'"
Aside from the bad example those personal barbs set—and compared to Britney or Lindsay, Hilary or Miley—Taylor's doing pretty well at living up to her "role model status." So far she's sidestepped the brazenly sexualized path trodden by most of her peers. But there's evidence here that sexual situations are becoming more a part of her life … and therefore her music. "It's tame by country-radio standards," writes Rolling Stone reviewer Rob Sheffield, "but it's still weird to hear T-Sweezy sing lines like, 'There's a drawer of my things at your place.'"