How Taylor Swift’s Career Beginnings Foreshadowed Her Move to Pop, Continuing Country Influence
Today, Taylor Swift is a global pop superstar who headlines stadium shows and moonlights as a country hitmaker, to the tune of Sugarland's "Babe" and Little Big Town's "Better Man." But back in the late 2000s, she was a country superstar with big-time pop aspirations — and the drive, confidence and ambition to make her dreams come true.
"Oh, I'm just a girl / Trying to find a place in this world," Swift sings in "A Place in This World," a yearning song from her 2006 self-titled debut album. "Maybe I'm just a girl on a mission / But I'm ready to fly."
Truer words were never sung: Swift was just 16 when her debut record was released, but she had been working for years before that, after discovering a LeAnn Rimes album and falling for country music. "All I wanted to hear from then on was country," Swift told Rolling Stone in 2009. "I loved the amazing female country artists of the '90s — Faith [Hill], Shania [Twain], the Dixie Chicks — each with an incredible sound and standing for incredible things."
All of those artists were still topping the charts in the years directly before Swift entered the country music scene. But the gender parity that country music had been working toward at the end of the '90s had decidedly regressed: In 2003, the Dixie Chicks' one-week stay at No. 1 with "Travelin' Soldier" was the only time women topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart that year ... and the subsequent years weren't much better. In 2004, only four women reached No. 1 on that chart, representing just eight weeks in total, while 2005 saw three women top the chart for a total of six weeks.
The artists, both male and female, who did hit No. 1 on the charts early in the '00s tended to be familiar names: With the exception of new acts such as Gretchen Wilson, Rascal Flatts, Darryl Worley, and Big and Rich, chart-toppers included perennial big-sellers Garth Brooks, George Strait, Tim McGraw and even Elvis Presley. Newer artists had to fight for a spot at the table.
Swift's grounding was in country, but her tastes were holistic, which helped her see how needed her voice was.
On the album side, things started to shift in 2005 and 2006: A trio of music reality show veterans — Nashville Star's Miranda Lambert, and American Idol's Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler — released their debut albums and landed at No. 1 on the charts. This new wave of burgeoning superstars built on the empowerment foundation honed by '90s women, but spoke to situations relatable to younger country fans: deadbeat ex-boyfriends, for example, and the power of female friendship. Lambert and Pickler were steering their narratives from the songwriting side, too: The former wrote or co-wrote nearly all of her first album, Kerosene, while the latter received writing credits on half of her debut, Small Town Girl.
So, when Swift's debut arrived in 2006, she was in good company, with strong peers and collaborators, including her early co-writing partner Liz Rose. However, her approach was unique in that she was creating music teenagers could relate to that didn't pander to them or their feelings. It helped, of course, that Swift was the same age as many of her fans — and was also a fan of artists such as Dashboard Confessional, The Academy Is …, Boys Like Girls and Ryan Adams, just like they were. Her grounding was in country, but her tastes were holistic.
Perhaps even more important, Swift's broad tastes helped her see how needed her voice was. She brought a mature perspective — and a uniquely young, female perspective — that filled a void in not just country music, but music in general. Her music was entirely relatable to anyone navigating normal (and very specific) teenage concerns — and also to anyone who so acutely remembers the sharp emotional vulnerability of that time.
Taylor Swift Through the Years
On Swift's self-titled debut album, "Should've Said No" features a protagonist who's angry with someone who cheated on her — and clearly has no desire to take them back — while "Tied Together With a Smile" is about "a gorgeous, popular girl in high school," Swift told Entertainment Weekly in 2007. "Every guy wanted to be with her, every girl wanted to be her. I wrote that song the day I found out she had an eating disorder. There are a couple songs on the album like that, that are just watching other people and making observations."
Despite writing about serious topics, Swift was keenly aware that she didn't want to be pigeonholed as someone strictly focused on a younger demographic — or someone whose age should be the focal point. "I've never wanted to use my age as a gimmick, as something that would get me ahead of other people. I’ve wanted the music to do that," she told EW. "So we’ve never hidden the fact that I’m 17, but we’ve never wanted it to be the headline. Because I want the music to win."
In fact, Swift acknowledged that her age could be seen as a detriment: "I think the actual truth of the matter is that being 17 has been sort of an obstacle, just in proving yourself to radio and proving yourself to middle-aged people listening to the radio," she noted. "It’s just a number on my birth certificate. But I’m very respectful of that number, you know?"
From a business standpoint, Swift was certainly savvy beyond her years. In 2009, she talked to Rolling Stone about cutting ties with her initial label, RCA Records — who wouldn't commit to anything but a one-year contract — and signing with Scott Borchetta's Big Machine Records. "I base a lot of decisions on my gut, and going with an independent label was a good one,” she said. “I thought, 'What’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? What’s been done a million times?'"
She elaborated on the decision — and her ambitions — to EW: "I didn’t want to just be another girl singer. I wanted there to be something that set me apart. And I knew that had to be my writing," Swift explained. "Also, it was a big, big record label with big superstars, and I felt like I needed my own direction and the kind of attention that a little label will give you. I just did not want it to happen with the method of, 'Let’s throw this up against the wall and see if it sticks, and if it doesn’t, we’ll just walk away.' I wanted a record label that needed me, that absolutely was counting on me to succeed. I love that pressure."
The move, and Swift's stubbornness, paid off handsomely, Borchetta tells Rolling Stone: "Taylor and I made an aggressive deal on the back end," he admits. "I’ve written her some very big checks."
Swift always understood that representation is vitally important to inspire and empower others, and the results of that commitment have made country music a much more vibrant place.
Such sharp acumen gave Swift a self-assured edge that's often been maligned (or misunderstood), although it also distinguished her as a thoroughly modern artist: an internet- and industry-savvy musician who was protecting her own self-interests and career, and was in control of where she was headed. For young women looking to go into music, Swift was an aspirational figure.
Swift's ... er, reputation only increased with her sophomore effort, 2008's Fearless, which launched five mainstream top 40 hits, including three that reached the Top 10, including the No. 2 "You Belong With Me" and No. 4 "Love Story." Fearless made her superstar dreams come true: The album was certified diamond and spent 11 weeks atop the Billboard Top 200 and 35 weeks at No. 1 on the country charts. It was also the best-selling album of 2009, with a staggering 3.2 million copies sold during that year alone.
With those kind of numbers, Swift was obviously not just speaking to her loyalists, but a huge crossover audience. And her willingness to take risks was also key; after all, the week Fearless was released, CMT aired an episode of Crossroads featuring Swift and Def Leppard, an interesting and boundary-pushing pairing that nevertheless showed she wasn't afraid to try and reach more people.
However, collaborations such as that one presaged the modern country world, where elements from pop, hip-hop, rock 'n' roll and even electronic music are all integrated with traditional sounds. It's no accident that the pop mix of "Teardrops on My Guitar" is so seamless, or that "Love Story" fit so easily on crossover radio. Swift knew early on that country could be a springboard for anything she wanted it to be.
Above all, Swift's first two albums helped usher in a mainstream country music boom. Even if she leans more pop than country these days, her legacy can be seen in the dozens of women who have found success in her wake — women who don't hesitate to make country music in whatever form they see fit. Swift always understood that representation is vitally important to inspire and empower others, and the results of that commitment have made country music a much more vibrant place.
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