- 23 May 18
She’s the biggest pop star in the world – beloved by millions but not above the occasional controversy. As Taylor Swift prepares to touchdown in Croke Park, Ed Power looks at her incredible rise to global superstardom, how she’s managed to stay on top, and talks to those who’ve been present during her remarkable journey, including Dublin producer Jacknife Lee.
One of the most important conversations in Taylor Swift’s life took place in Burbank, California in early 2014. Swift was at the headquarters of her record label, Big Machine, for a playback of her next album, provisionally titled 1989.
Part-inspired by Swift’s relocation to New York from Nashville, her home for the previous decade and cradle of her career, the LP was a departure from the singer’s girl-next-door country rock. The palette was pop, the tone wistful and wondering. As the final song faded, Scott Borchetta, the label boss who had overseen Swift’s ascent from country radio obscurity to global fame pressed stop and tried not to grimace.
“This is extraordinary – it’s the best album you’ve ever done,” he told her. “Can you just give me three country songs?”
She looked him in the eye and didn’t blink. “Love you, mean it,” said Swift. “But this is how it’s going to be.” Borchetta knew better than to argue the case.
Swift was just 24 – 1989 was named for the year of her birth – but already a veteran, one who had reshaped glossy Nashville music in her image. Unlike Borchetta she also had a sense that, having achieved success in a lucrative yet essentially marginal genre, it was time to move on. She was very publicly growing up. Writing about having your heart broken on prom night – a lament inevitably accompanied by twanging guitars – was no longer a comfortable fit.
The incident speaks not only to Swift’s uncommon levels of prepossession, but also her canniness in negotiating her celebrity. Dealing with fame in your teens and early twenties can be torturous. And yet Swift emerged from adolescent stardom not only unscathed, but with a heightened sense of where she needed to go to take her career to the next level.
So it has continued ever since. After the bright-eyed wonderment of 1989, she retuned last summer with the darker, self-questioning Reputation – an interrogation of mega-fame and the compromises it has forced upon her. She is about to take the record on the road, with a tour that includes two highly anticipated dates at Croke Park in mid-June. The concerts will see her follow in the footsteps of U2 and Springsteen – confirming her promotion to popular music’s highest table.
“It’s no small feat, and I know that,” she has said, speaking of the challenge of playing venues on the scale of the Dublin northside bowl. “When you walk out onstage in front of 65,000 people, it can bring you to tears. If you really take it in at the end of a song and you hear that many people screaming, it will make you cry.”
Swift is, as with all the most interesting pop stars, a jumble of contradictions. Her Lisa Simpson image would seem to be grounded in a genuine belief in living cleanly and simply. However, she has also demonstrated considerable wiliness through her career and, as with Michael Jackson, combines a meek off-stage persona with a flair for superlatively caustic lyrics.
That was most forcefully demonstrated on 1989 stand-out ‘Bad Blood’ – a throwing down of the gauntlet against fellow pop A-lister Katy Perry, after the two clashed over the availability of backing dancers. Swift can forgive rubbish boyfriends and shattered dreams – but don’t stand between her and her touring schedule.
And Perry can consider she got off lightly compared to the subject of ‘Mean’ from 2010’s Speak Now. “You can take me down / With just one single blow,” Swift sings. “But you don’t know what you don’t know / Someday I’ll be living in a big old city / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” (The song is generally considered to be a shot at Bob Lefsetz, an LA entertainment lawyer turned music blogger. He was a prominent critic of Swift’s singing style.)
“She did something so horrible,” Swift told Rolling Stone when asked about ‘Bad Blood’, though she declined to name the subject of the song (it was Perry who in the end went public with the feud).
“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re just straight-up enemies.’ And it wasn’t even about a guy! It had to do with business. She basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour. She tried to hire a bunch of people out from under me. And I’m surprisingly non-confrontational – you would not believe how much I hate conflict. So now I have to avoid her. It’s awkward, and I don’t like it.”
Those who have worked with Taylor say that one factor in her success has been her parents. Early in her career, Swift was presented as a rags to riches performer – a girl who grew up on a Pennsylvania Christmas tree farm and upped sticks aged 12 to knock on doors in Nashville.
That’s true, in so far as it goes – but the Christmas tree farm was purchased by her father Scott, a mutual funds manager, from a client, and the family moved to Tennessee only after he secured a transfer to the Nashville offices of Merrill Lynch. And her mother Andrea has been her stalwart advisor, unofficial manager and image shaper – going on the road with her daughter and selecting mega-fans to meet their idol backstage.
“Her parents had a lot of money. That kind of helps!” says Chuck Ainlay, the veteran Nashville producer and engineer who worked with Swift on her first three albums. “They put her in that place and gave her the confidence to move into the business the way she did.”
“Her dad… is very, very ambitious,” agrees Dublin producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee, who had a songwriting session with Swift at his home studio in Topanga, Los Angeles. “Goal oriented. Businessman to the marrow. The first thing he asked me was if I drove to the venue, and if I did did I own stock in Mobil. I said I didn’t.
“He then asked if I brushed my teeth and if I did, did I own Colgate. I said I didn’t and he said ‘You’re an idiot’. He’s behind her. Knows money and what it means. He’s a go-getter. The mom is the family face, and makes sure everyone is having a great time – that the fans get treated well. Taylor is a product of both; she’s thoughtful and savvy with money. Own your own stuff.”
Lee was introduced to Swift via Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, another Irish transplant to Los Angeles, and a long-time collaborator of the Dubliner.
“We met through Gary’s friendship with Ed Sheeran,” he recalls. “Taylor was a fan of Ed’s. They were on tour I think. Taylor came to Topanga. Body guards, big black car. We wrote a song in a couple of hours and sang it sitting on the sofa. She had a handheld microphone. Then we had pasta for dinner and hung around with my kids.
“She left and I finished the song off. Owen Pallett [Arcade Fire/Final Fantasy] did some strings very quickly. Went to see her live a couple of times with my daughters who were fans of hers then. Now they like Snail Mail and Tyler the Creator.
“It was out of my field of expertise and interest, but I was intrigued and my girls were thrilled. Taylor was nice and very professional. She knew what she wanted and there was no fucking about. She was seeing Harry Styles at the time, so he came to Topanga on her recommendation. She wrote a few songs with him, and it was the same thing – quick. But this time it was more directed by the management and label. They were after something specific. I wanted more acoustic and gentle, almost Americana, and they wanted bombast. They got what they wanted, and that was the extent of my foray into teen-pop territory. It was fun.”
“She was always very assured,” adds Ainlay, who was introduced to Swift when she was 15, and working on her first record. “Even at that age. She had already done some modelling. It was like she knew she was going to be a hit artist… The songwriting style was immature but it seemed honest and real. Her voice was fragile but seemed to really get the emotion across.” He recalls Swift’s label and management trying to push her to work with writers they had singled out as a good fit. She had her own ideas – and wasn’t slow about speaking up.
“She had a sense that [the direction in which she was being prodded] wasn’t really the right thing for her. She had been writing with [writer and producer] Nathan Chapman and said, ‘I like what I’m doing with Nathan.’”
When Chapman reached out to Ainlay, the producer wasn’t sure what he was getting into. He typically works with stalwarts such as Mark Knopfler, for whom he has recorded since the later days of Dire Straits.
“You never really know what to expect when you start working with a young girl. She was literally 15, I remember. I recall being so impressed with the music. She came in to listen to the first mix I had done. She sat down behind this big console – it was a very large control room – very intimidating. But she didn’t seem to be intimidated by the situation at all. She gave really good comments. I remember coming home telling my wife, ‘This girl has something – she could be a hit.’”
The confidence was, however, harder won that it might first seem. As songs such as ‘Shake It Off’ – essentially the chart version of Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down – and ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ attest, Swift has had issues with haters and bullies. This goes all the way to her early adolescence when she was ostracised at an exclusive private school in Pennsylvania – an experience that both steeled her for a life in music and explains the streak of vulnerability in her lyrics.
“Middle school? Awkward,” she told The New Yorker. “Having a hobby that’s different from everyone else’s? Awkward. Singing the national anthem on weekends instead of going to sleepovers? More awkward.
Braces? Awkward. Gain a lot of weight before you hit the growth spurt? Awkward. Frizzy hair, don’t embrace the curls yet? Awkward. Try to straighten it? Awkward!”
“I think who you are in school really sticks with you,” she continued. “I don’t ever feel like the cool kid at the party, ever. It’s like, smile and be nice to everybody, because you were not invited to be here.”
After the fact, it has become fashionable to view Swift’s Nashville roots as evidence of her careerism. In fact, she was taking an enormous risk in trying to find success as a country artist.
With the exception of LeAnn Rimes – of whom Swift was a fan growing up – young female singers rarely thrive in country music. Both performers and the audience tend to be older. The truth is that Swift genuinely adored this music – and that her ambition to break Nashville was artistic rather than commercially motivated.
Also unusual was the degree of soul-baring in those early songs. From the start, Swift didn’t flinch when discussing her romantic travails. She would call out her beaus in music – taking unsubtle aim at boyfriends John Mayer (a good decade older than Swift), Joe Jonas and Jake Gyllenhaal.
This honesty made her hugely relatable to her female fan-base, many of whom were wrestling with boy issues of their own (though they were unlikely to be chased by paparazzi as Swift was when seeing Harry Styles in 2014).
Just as crucially, though, she eventually recognised her love life was in danger of becoming a spectator sport and, circa 1989, started to withhold. She still sang about her feelings – but was now considerably less specific. To abandon an approach that had brought huge success attested to her self-awareness and her ability to balance artistic and career concerns without coming across as fatalistically cynical.
“The bigger pitfall is losing your self-awareness,” she told The New Yorker. “Even though I am at a place where my dresses are really pretty and the red carpets have a lot of bright lights and I get to play to thousands of people… You have to take that with a grain of salt. The stakes are really high if you mess up, if you slack off and don’t make a good record, if you make mistakes based on the idea that you are larger than life and you can just coast.”
Swift hasn’t always got it right. After Kanye West gatecrashed her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards she wrote a mawkish ballad called ‘Innocent’, which painted the incident as a crime against humanity rather than an eruption of boorishness by an eccentric rapper. Her decision to take her music off Spotify – and to then reinstate it the day Katy Perry was putting out her new album – felt gimlet-eyed, too. Nobody was persuaded by Borchetta’s claim that Swift wanted to protect “super fans” who risked being mocked for buying the album when everyone else was listening to it for free.
Generally, however, Swift has navigated her professional life with extraordinary acuity. She has also kept her fanbase onside as they have aged out of teen confessionals and, like her, started engaging with the world as young adults.
“Somewhere around the third album I remember thinking, ‘She’s going to have to move on from this,’” recalls Ainlay. “You know, writing songs for 12-year-olds. Otherwise she’s going to get too old for her fanbase or her fanbase will get too mature for her. She did do that – move on to another level.”
Of all the artists he’s worked with, the producer says he has rarely come across someone with Swift’s ambition.
“Her drive exceeds that of say Mark Knopfler… She is one of those, ‘I’m going to take on the world and win’ types. And she did. She has more drive than most artists I run into. The difference is that she has no problem with being a pop star. Some artists are more artistically inclined and want to do things for the sake of art… Now that she has matured, it seems she is coming to be a little more about the artistry and less about the stardom. But then she has already achieved that.” “Taylor knows her market,” adds Jacknife Lee. “She’s like a sniper.”
Taylor Swift plays Croke Park June 15 and 16.