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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Taylor Swift - Songs for a Teenage Generation

It’s Sunday, September 16, 2012, and you know what that means?  It’s time for another “Sweethearts of Country Music” feature.  I must say that when I first came up with the idea to feature more country music artists in this blog, I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of a reaction it would get.  I mean, I consider myself largely a rock and roll/pop/rhythm & blues kind of guy, so I readily admit that doing studies on a genre of music that I never really listened to was a bit of a challenge.  But, you know something?  I enjoy a challenge. 

As it so happens, it looks like you all seem to approve of this theme month as well, and I’ve gotten a few compliments on it.  And, you know what else I discovered?  I’m starting to get a whole new appreciation for country music as a whole.  How about that, huh?

Today’s artist is one that could be considered a modern crossover princess.  Not only has she had hits on the country music charts, but she has also managed to score quite a few hits on the pop charts as well.  She has sold millions of albums, and has won a slew of awards for her hard work. 

And she’s only twenty-two years old!

But there’s so much more to her than just her music and her awards.  It could be just my opinion, but today’s featured artist seems to be one of the most grounded young starlets today.  She may have been bestowed with tons of honours and accolades, but she hasn’t let that go directly to her head.  Her priorities aren’t about making sure she has the most expensive handbags or wanting to film a self-serving reality series.  She just wants to make good music that her millions of fans can appreciate, reflect on, and be inspired by.

But, when you’re greeting her in person, it might not be such a good idea to do this.

Boy, she went down hard, didn’t she?  Luckily Taylor Swift is such a good sport, and she has been back on Ellen DeGeneres’ show since that incident.

And Taylor Swift is the subject of today’s blog, as “Sweethearts of Country Music” month continues.

If you haven’t heard of Taylor Swift, you’re either dead, or have been in a coma for the last six years.  Ever since the young country singer broke into the music charts with the 2006 single “Tim McGraw”, she has had one hit right after the other.  She’s already released three successful albums, with a fourth album, “Red”, slated for release in October 2012.  She has sold 22 million albums, and has had fifty million song downloads worldwide.

So, where did Taylor’s story all begin?

Well, it began in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania on December 13, 1989.  On that day, Taylor Alison Swift was born to Scott and Andrea Swift.

TRIVIA:  Taylor was named after another famous “Taylor”...singer James Taylor.

Anyway, Taylor spent the first few years of her life in Pennsylvania.  Her first home was at a Christmas tree farm in Montgomery County.  When she was nine, the family relocated to Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, where Taylor attended elementary school and junior high.  During her summer vacations, she and her family would stay at a vacation home located in New Jersey.  Taylor Swift would later admit that a lot of her songs were directly influenced by the time she spent at her family’s vacation home in New Jersey.

Taylor Swift didn’t jump into the world of music and entertainment right away.  Her first love was horseback riding, and when she was a young girl, she actively competed in horse shows.  It wasn’t until Taylor was nine years old that she soon developed a love of singing and performing.  In those days, Taylor was keen on musical theatre, and performed in the Berks Youth Theatre Academy.  She performed in such productions as “Grease”, “The Sound of Music”, and “Bye, Bye Birdy”, and frequently went to New York City for vocal and acting lessons.  Unfortunately for young Taylor, she had many auditions that ended without a callback.  Eventually, Taylor decided to focus on a different style of music, hoping that it would get her noticed.

She decided to focus on country.

Throughout her pre-teen years, Taylor Swift often performed at various festivals and events in order to get her name out there.  She performed everywhere and anywhere...carnivals, coffeehouses, street fairs, karaoke contests, even Boy Scout meetings!  She was young, but she was also determined to succeed.  It also helped that she loved singing and performing.  When she was eleven, Swift ended up winning a talent contest singing a LeAnn Rimes song, and the prize was a beauty...she won the opportunity to appear as the opening act for Charlie Daniels!  For someone who was into the country music scene, this was a grand opportunity.  It would only be the first of many for Taylor Swift.

When Taylor watched a special on Faith Hill on television, Taylor was determined to go to Nashville...the place where Taylor believed dreams came true.  During one Spring Break, Taylor’s mother took her to Nashville, where she took a demo tape to several record labels...all of whom rejected her.  The whole experience was a sobering fact for the young singer, and she quickly realized that the only way she could get noticed was to think outside of the box.  One way that she accomplished this was by volunteering to sing the American national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of sporting events.  It was perfect for Taylor because it allowed her to sing in front of thousands of people without a record deal.  She also learned how to play the guitar at a young age in a rather unusual manner...she learned a few chords from a computer repairman! 

When Taylor turned fourteen, her family relocated to Hendersonville, Tennessee after her father asked for a job transfer.  Taylor recalled the experience as a huge sacrifice for her family to make, but she was also quick to point out that at no time did her family suggest that the move was to help Taylor establish a career...they instead promoted the move as a chance to live in a nice community with friendly people.

Just before Taylor and her family moved to Nashville, she had met with New York based music manager Dan Dymtrow, who ended up being a man who kickstarted Taylor’s career.  He ended up getting her a job working as a model for clothing company “Abercrombie & Fitch” as a model, and took her to meetings with various record labels.  At age fourteen, Swift was signed to RCA Records under an artist development deal.  She hadn’t even finished eighth grade when the contract was signed.  At first, Taylor enjoyed working with the experienced songwriters who were at RCA, especially Liz Rose, who would later admit that she was impressed by Taylor’s ability to create incredible hooks for songs.  But Taylor’s relationship with RCA Records (and Dan Dymtrow) was short-lived.  When RCA felt it was best for Taylor to wait until she was eighteen to release a debut album of independent material, the then 15-year-old Swift felt that it was too long to wait, and she left the record company, determined to launch her own career on her own terms.

And in 2006, a chance meeting with Scott Borchetta ended up being Taylor’s lucky break.  After seeing her performing at the Bluebird Cafe as part of an industry showcase, Borchetta immediately offered Taylor a recording contract to a brand new record label that he was starting up.  Taylor immediately signed herself onto Big Machine of the first artists to join the new record label.  Shortly thereafter, she began work on her self-titled debut album, “Taylor Swift”.

Little did anybody realize that this album would explode in popularity...after all, with songs such as the one below, it’s easy to see why this was the case.

ARTIST:  Taylor Swift
SONG:  Our Song
ALBUM:  Taylor Swift
DATE RELEASED:  August 22, 2007

Funny story about “Our Song”.  Did you know that it was a last-minute addition to Taylor’s debut album?  The song was actually written by Taylor when she was in her freshman year of high school.  She initially wrote the song as her entry for the school talent show, and Taylor wanted a message that her peers could relate to.  At the time, she was dating a boy, and he noticed that they didn’t exactly have a song that they could associate with their relationship.  So, Taylor decided to write one.  It reportedly only took her twenty minutes to jot down the lyrics.  Taylor performed the song at the show, and several months later, Taylor was surprised to hear some of her classmates singing portions of the lyrics, and it was really the first instance that Taylor Swift realized that she may have a future hit on her hands.

But when the record company executives were putting the tracks together on the album, they weren’t sure that “Our Song” would be a suitable addition to the album.  Taylor insisted that the song go on the album because she had the feeling that it was meant to be a huge success.  In fact, Taylor insisted that the song be the final song listed on the album, as she felt that the lyrics “Play it again” would inspire the listener to do exactly that.  Subliminal advertising at its best!

And “Our Song” was definitely a hit.  Not only did the song manage to be a Top 20 hit on the Billboard Charts, but it also ended up topping the country charts for six weeks between December 2007 and January 2008 - Taylor’s very first #1 hit single.

The main praises that critics had for the song was its great hook, and very personal lyrics.  And, certainly “Our Song” was a song that had a lot of personal meaning for Swift.  But if you were to take a look at Taylor’s massive singles catalogue, a lot of her songs are very personal, and have a little bit of Taylor’s life experiences inside each one.

Take “Teardrops on My Guitar” for example.  That song is about a girl who has feelings for a boy, but for whatever reason they go unnoticed.  It was also based on a personal experience that happened to Taylor as well.  “Picture to Burn” was a song that was written by Swift during a shift at an after school job about a boy she thought was cocky and narcissistic.  “Love Story” was a modern retelling of Romeo & Juliet, in which Taylor sang about a boy that she was crushing on that her family didn’t exactly approve of (except that in the song, neither one of them died, obviously).  “Fifteen” was a song about heartbreak, and was a song that was based on the experiences that she and her friend went through during their freshman year of high school.  Taylor actually had to get permission from her friend to record the song due to the personal references (which she agreed to).

And then there’s the song “Mean”, which was released in March 2011.  If there was a song that was the best description of autobiographical, it would be this one.  It was written at a time in which Taylor was getting attacked by the media following a performance at the Grammy Awards with Stevie Nicks.  During that performance, some people made note of the fact that Taylor sounded a bit off-key.  While some publications made note of it, and explained that even the biggest stars could have an off day, some critics were ruthless, and savagely attacked her in the media.

And that was something that prompted Taylor to write “Mean” a response to these critics who were offering up criticism that wasn’t exactly constructive.  Although the song was a personal message to the worst critics of the bunch, the song also became a sort of anthem that promoted the cause of fighting against bullies...a cause that is near and dear to this blogger’s heart.

And certainly Taylor’s had to develop a thick skin over the years.  She did have Kanye West interrupt one of her acceptance speeches at an awards show back in 2009, after all.

But I think it is Taylor Swift’s fearlessness to talk about her personal life in her music that makes her such a huge influence to her fan base...young girls who have used Taylor’s songs as a soundtrack to their own lives.  Certainly every teenage girl has gone through having teenage crushes that have gone unnoticed, dating a boy that makes the wrong impression on loved ones, experiencing teenage bullying, and high school angst.  Knowing that one of their favourite stars have also gone through these issues and survived must give them some hope that they will survive their teenage years as well.

I think that’s what Taylor Swift takes the most pride in...not the awards, the #1 hits, or the millions of albums she sells...but the impact that her music has had on her fans.  And I think that’s why so many people enjoy her. 

Coming up next week, we take a look at a legend in country music.  She’s the godmother of a girl who likes to live the “best of both worlds”, she has her own theme park, and she spent part of 1980 working a “nine to five” job.

That’s coming up on Sunday, September 23.

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