As of tomorrow, London becomes Taylortown for five nights when the first lady of country pop arrives at the O2. Taylor Swift might once have been of interest only to the nation’s teenage girls, but I can’t be the only cynic to be converted to her cause. In early videos she looked like little more than the latest country cliché, mooning around waiting for a goon in a pick-up truck. But over the course of four albums she’s transformed from a somewhat sickly cowgirl to a sharp pop dynamo.
Among the criticisms of the 24-year-old are her prim, homely demeanour and the fact that, according to her lyrics, she’s endured more doomed love affairs than the complete works of Shakespeare — and, boy, does she go on about it. She knows the caricature too well and sent herself up on the song Thug Story with R&B star T-Pain in 2009. On that she could be found calling herself T-Swizzle and rapping about baking cookies and caramel delight.
At 5ft 10ins and blonde, with download sales of more than 75 million and third place on the Forbes List of Top-Earning Celebrities Under 30, of course she’s popular with the boys. Though they dominate her lovesick, self-obsessed lyrics, musically she’s becoming ever more interesting, writing bright, fantastically catchy hits that appeal across the board.
Country music is normally a sound that sells buttons outside of the American heartland. Even Dolly Parton is doing only two nights at the O2 this summer. Her supercharged version is something very different. Despite all the break-ups, Swift is a lovable girl. Here are 10 reasons we’re glad she’s coming to the place she calls “Fundon”.
She can really play
How many strings do you have on your guitar? Only six? Taylor Swift has 12 and plucks them with the expertise of someone who’s been working at being accepted as a professional musician since she was 11. Sometimes when a superstar breaks out an acoustic guitar, you wish they’d stick to the fireworks and dance routines (hi, Madonna!). She’s the other way around, giving the complex choreography a game go but really looking at home only when she’s reunited with her instrument.
She’s dropped the country twang
Over the course of her four albums, this Pennsylvania native’s accent has lost its initial affected twang, and the banjos have all but vanished to be replaced by glossy pop sounds. As the world became her playground, Swift might have been expected to leave behind the town where she began her career but she’s still a Nashville stalwart — one who can now afford to donate $4 million to establish the Taylor Swift Education Center at the Country Music Hall of Fame. No wonder the country establishment still adores her. Last year she won the rare Pinnacle Award, given only once before (to Garth Brooks) at the scene’s biggest ceremony, the CMA Awards.
So uncool she’s cool
On We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together she’s resigned to the fact that her former boyfriend is listening to “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”. On You Belong With Me a boy fails to notice her because he’s too busy with the cheerleading captain. Swift would have you believe that she really is the gawky reject she portrays so often in her songs. She still writes her lucky number, 13, on her hand like, well, a 13-year-old. She lives alone with a cat called Meredith.
Experiences of being left out by the more popular girls at school still seem to sting. In song, she makes no attempt to be edgy — even the electronic dubstep growl on her recent single, I Knew You Were Trouble, is secondary to a gloriously pure pop tune. She has an effortless gift for melody and never chases the latest trends in sound; she’s writing about her real life, showing that she gets hurt and cries, not presenting her life as an aspirational fantasy. The authenticity she brings to her music makes fans warm to her.
She wins at losing
Last Sunday she went home from the Grammys empty-handed, a rare occurrence given that she already has seven of them cluttering up the place. Who could fail to sympathise at the range of conflicting emotions passing across her features when the big prize, the Album of the Year award, was announced? She went from a “Gosh, li’l ol’ me?” to a “Well done Frenchies!” face in milliseconds when she heard “The winner is, R…” and it turned out not to be Red but Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Then she carried on dancing to other people’s music and having a great time regardless.
The legends love her
Of course everyone loves everyone else in the fuzzy, friendly world of showbiz but Swift commands genuine respect from the previous generation. Neil Young and Kris Kristofferson are among those who’ve praised her, and she recently sang with Jon Bon Jovi at a London charity event. She duetted surprisingly shakily at the Grammys in 2010 with Stevie Nicks, who even then couldn’t speak highly enough of the nervous superstar’s abilities. “Taylor is writing for the universal woman and the man who wants to know her… And it’s women like her who are going to save the music business,” Nicks wrote in Time magazine. No pressure, T-Swizzle.
The clothes stay on
This lady’s not for flashing the flesh. Looking around the current crop of barely dressed arena superstars, you’d have to pick Swift as the best role model, the talented musician who relies on her songs for attention. The Grecian gown she wore to the Grammys looked positively demure. She doesn’t do the conventional country uniform of rhinestone-studded jeans and cowboy boots — hotpants are a relatively racy addition to her wardrobe but they’re usually paired with a primly buttoned blouse.
She forgave Kanye
Even the most casual fan will recall that Kanye West was an arse to Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009, invading the stage during her acceptance speech for the relatively minor category of Best Female Video to proclaim Beyoncé the rightful winner. Even Barack Obama called the rapper a “jackass” after that one but Swift rose gracefully above it all. She wrote a very sweet ballad about West called Innocent (“Who you are is not what you did”) and now has a photo of the incident framed on the wall of her Nashville home. Beneath it she has written: “Life is full of little interruptions”.
She grew up on a Christmas tree farm
Yes, really. Hers was a picture-book family life. Her dad changed jobs so that the whole family could move to Nashville and allow their budding starlet to pursue her songwriting dream. That beats paying for a few piano lessons by some distance. For more tales of Swift household happiness, see her songs The Best Day and Never Grow Up, which would bring a tear to the eye of any parent.
She makes her exes pay
Although recent co-writes with Swedish hit-maker Max Martin have helped her shift towards pop, she’s done the lion’s share of the serious work herself. She signed her first songwriting contract in Nashville at 14, and as long as she keeps meeting dastardly men she won’t go short of inspiration. Her habit of kissing and telling about relationships with stars such as Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer and Harry Styles has got her into trouble. Mayer was not pleased about her singing, “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?” on Dear John. “It really humiliated me at a time when I’d already been dressed down,” he said. Lately, she’s played down her reputation as a serial dater, and today is more likely to be seen palling around platonically with new mate and duet partner Ed Sheeran.
There’s more to come
At this week’s gigs you’ll mostly be hearing songs from Red, an album that came out in October 2012, but she’s promised new songs and a fifth album before this year is out. She has spoken of working with the Swedes Max Martin and Johan “Shellback” Schuster again, so mainstream pop is definitely on the agenda. But we know from what’s gone before that she’ll continue to deal with the enduring, universal themes of love and loss with a voice that is singularly hers. Unless you’ve been dating her, that’s definitely something to look forward to.