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Taylor Swift: Teen Fad or True Musician?

Taylor Swift was the elephant in my cultural room this year. Perhaps that’s not the most apt metaphor for a tiny, flaxen-haired teenager, but there’s no doubting that Swift’s success was big and that I basically ignored her. So with the year coming to a close, I thought I’d try and rectify the situation.

It’s been hard not to pay attention. Swift’s second album, Fearless, released on November 11, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling almost 600,000 its first week in stores. Not bad — and not the end. Over a million sold in three weeks; back to the top spot after five weeks. She even outsold that long-awaited release by Guns ‘N Roses, not to mention Kanye West, Britney Spears, and the Killers.

Despite her popularity, the music media, me included, paid relatively little attention to Swift, especially when compared to others in her sales stratosphere like Britney or Beyonce. This is partly an image issue. Both in terms of her dress (she doesn’t show much skin) and subject matter (chaste teenage love affairs), there’s something Sweet Valley High about the nineteen-year-old Pennsylvanian. Aside from her possibly dating a Jonas brother, there’s just not that much juicy material.

But to relegate her to teen fad-land isn’t quite fair. Her songwriting skill marks her as a different beast than, say, the kids from High School Musical. True, while the melodies and arrangements on Fearless are all strong, they often come off like the aural equivalent of a pesky child tugging on your sleeve for attention.

Lyrically, though, she’s way mature. I can’t profess to know the inner workings of a teenaged girl’s mind, but when Swift writes, about a love rival, “She doesn’t get your humor like I do” (on “You Belong to Me”), or about her mother’s gift for consolation on “The Best Day,” there’s a level of detail and emotional honesty that you don’t find in most music, pop or otherwise. I’d love to see Swift work with someone like Rick Rubin, who could focus on her songwriting strengths and dispense with the saccharine window-dressing.

Swift has also undoubtedly been helped by some genre-blurring. Her appealingly conversational vocals have a mild country twang, but not so much as to dissuade blue-staters. Similarly, her songs are full of country music signifiers — banjo, fiddle, mandolin — but employ them as accompaniment to the crisp guitars in the foreground. The result is smack dab in that sales hot zone between Miley Cyrus and Carrie Underwood.

It’ll be interesting to see how long she stays there. At some point, whether it’s a result of commercial slippage or simply of growing up, Swift will change. Maybe she’ll become a country traditionalist (a la Leann Rimes) or make a pure pop move and go for the Britney bucks.

Until then, let’s just appreciate her for the rare thing that she is — a star who’s better than she has to be.