Monday 16 September 2019

Taylor Swift: How her rise to the top was planned with precision

After segueing seamlessly from country music to becoming one of the world's biggest pop stars, it seems as if 29-year-old Swift has been around forever. But it looks like her new album 'Lover' is likely to cement her place above Beyoncé at the pinnacle of pop

Taylor Swift launches her new album Lover on US TV programme Good Morning America (Evan Agostini/AP)
Taylor Swift launches her new album Lover on US TV programme Good Morning America (Evan Agostini/AP)
Taylor Swift performing at in Las Vegas in May
Country roots: Taylor Swift and her father Scott in Nashville in 2008.
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is said that the best stockbrokers have mastered the art of the calculated risk and Scott Kingsley Swift got to put that maxim into practice outside the trading floor some 15 years ago. It was the career of his then early teenage daughter that was at stake - and he knew exactly what was needed to take her stratospheric.

In 2004, when Taylor was just 14, going on 15, her dad decided to uproot the family from their comfortable life in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, and set about making his first-born child a country-music superstar in Nashville. Swift Snr was transferred to his company's stockbroking division in Tennessee, while Swift Jnr - who had already proved herself to be a superlatively talented singer back home - made an immediate impact, signing a six-album deal with Big Machine records.

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If Scott Kingsley Swift displayed a ruthless appreciation for what it would take to be a success, then Taylor is very much her father's daughter. She's not only become the globe's biggest pop star - rivalled only by Beyoncé and, for a time, Rihanna and Katy Perry - but she has managed her own career and its fortune-making potential with the sort of precision that industry veterans might dream of. Not for her the notion of letting someone else dictate the course of her career - she is said to be fanatical about nurturing every single part of the Taylor Swift brand.

And we will see that in practice this weekend with the release of her seventh album, Lover - one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year and one that the accountants in her new record company, Republic Records, will be hoping will sell in good, old-fashioned pre-streaming numbers.

Country roots: Taylor Swift and her father Scott in Nashville in 2008.
Country roots: Taylor Swift and her father Scott in Nashville in 2008.

It may feel as though she's been around forever, but Swift is not yet 30. She reaches that milestone on December 9. Despite being an industry veteran, she's still very much a millennial. And one who - unlike so many of her contemporaries - didn't go off the rails at the first blinding flash of the spotlight.

Granted, her introduction to the world wasn't as seismic as that of Britney Spears, but there have been no Britney-like meltdowns in the intervening years. This is a pop star who's tough as nails.

It's a steeliness that has been manifested time and again and is sometimes discernible in her songs, although its was the heartbreak and vulnerabilities she displayed on her 2012 breakthrough album, Red, that made her a superstar. But Swift's greatest gift is her willingness to reinvent, to keep her music fresh, to try new things.

Advance promo copies of Lover have not been made available - as is often the case now with A-list pop releases - but the four songs that have landed could not have been made by anyone but Swift. Each may be subtly different and machine-tooled to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, but they contain her own signatures and with the exception of the corny 'Humpty Dumpty' lines on the otherwise excellent single 'The Archer', they constitute about as strong an advertisement as her fans could hope for for the new album.

At 18 tracks, it's the lengthiest of her career to date and it features collaborations with the Dixie Chicks - idols to the young Swift when she landed in Nashville - and Brendan Urie, who's frontman of the US pop-rock band, Panic! at the Disco.

Its main producer is Jack Antonoff, who used to front the short-lived fun. - the annoyingly stylised band with the lower case f and full point at the end of their name who had one big hit with the Janelle Monae-assisted 'We Are Young' in 2011. Antonoff, perhaps best known as the ex of writer and actress Lena Dunham, has been a constant in Swift's creative life over the past five years and helped her fashion some of the best moments on her last two albums, 1989 and Reputation.

He has an instinct for slightly-off kilter pop and is seemingly keen to ensure that Swift's personality is never erased - not an easy task in an era where pop is becoming more and more calculated in the studio.

It's true that Swift knows a thing or two about calculated pop - her biggest hits have been co-fashioned with the veritable Swedish pop writer Max Martin, and yet it's a sign of both his gifts and hers that they sound thrilling and not by-numbers. Remarkably, Martin is third on the all-time list of artists with the most US number ones to their name. For the record, spots one and two are occupied by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, respectively. And of all his chart-toppers for artists including Spears, the Backstreet Boys and The Weeknd, it's his work with Swift that represents his career-best.

They first started working together on Red, the album in which she began her slow move away from country and into more mainstream pop, but her partnership with Martin - and Antonoff, too - really coalesced on the synth-heavy 1989. Released in 2014, its not just her best album but one of the finest made by a big-name pop artist this decade. It was a huge commercial success too, shifting 10 million copies in an age when virtually nobody can reach such a milestone number.

The Martin compositions - including the all-conquering 'Style' - are flawless, meticulously made and utterly irresistible modern pop songs. They signified an artist with boundless self-confidence, but there's gold-dust in the less-well-known tracks, too. 'Out of the Woods' and 'I Know Places' are more delicate, fraught songs - despite the glossy production - and it's fascinating to see how both were transformed by Ryan Adams on his wonderful track-by-track remake of the album, also called 1989.

Swift wobbled a little on its follow-up, the R&B-flavoured Reputation, but there's no shortage of glittering pop anthems, including 'Call It What You Want' and 'This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things', a deliciously catty tune that some say is directed at Kanye West.

The rapper and Swift have previous, as they say. West embarrassed both her and himself when he stormed the stage during her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Awards and ranted that Beyoncé was a more deserving winner. Years later, he referenced the incident in song when he bragged, "I made that bitch famous".

Swift didn't take the insult lying down despite efforts by West's wife, Kim Kardashian, to suggest that she had given prior permission to use the lyric. And, unlike so many of her contemporaries, she's not afraid to provoke rows with her peers. There's no love lost between herself and Katy Perry, for instance.

And she has also been keen to disrupt the disrupters. While everyone was jumping on the streaming bandwagon, Swift was pulling her albums off Spotify and the rest. She argued that artists receive a pitifully small fee per stream and she invited others to make a similar stand. Few followed her lead, but she was unwavering and for three years, Swift was the world's biggest artist not to appear on any of the platforms.

More recently, she hasn't held back in her condemnation of Scooter Braun, the artist manager and impresario who bought Big Machine music for $300m and, with it, the rights to her entire back catalogue. "This is my worst case scenario," she wrote on Tumblr, describing Braun as an "incessant emotional bully".

She had tried for years to buy the masters of her own music, but to no avail. Big Machine label boss Scott Borchetta was, she wrote, "someone for whom the term 'loyalty' is clearly just a contractual concept".

With all that in mind, Lover - her first on the Universal imprint Republic Records, having inked a highly lucrative deal - will be all the more important to her. Not only will she be hoping it sells by the truckload, but that it provides a springboard for the next stage in her career.

Few would bet against this stockbroker's daughter.

Lover is out now

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