Belfast Telegraph

Swift response

After transitioning seamlessly from country to pop, it seems like the Shake It Off star has been around for ever. And it looks like her new album, Lover, will silence her critics once and for all, says John Meagher

Pop juggernaut: Taylor Swift at the Billboard Music Awards this year
Pop juggernaut: Taylor Swift at the Billboard Music Awards this year
Lover is out now

By John Meagher

It is said that the best stockbrokers have mastered the art of the calculated risk. 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 14, 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 was transferred to his company's stockbroking division in Tennessee, while Taylor - 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.

If Mr 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 Beyonce 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 only 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.

We will see that in practice this weekend with the release of her seventh album, Lover.

It is considered one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year, one that the accountants in her new record company, Republic Records, will be hoping will sell in good, old-fashioned pre-streaming numbers.

It may feel as though she's been around for ever, but Swift is not yet 30. She reaches that milestone on December 13.

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 meltdown in the intervening years. This is a pop star who's as 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.

However, Swift's greatest gift is her willingness to reinvent, to keep her music fresh, to try new things.

Taylor Swift with ex Calvin Harris
Taylor Swift with ex Calvin Harris

Advance promo copies of Lover have not been made available, as is often the case these days 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, constitute about as strong an advertisement as her fans could hope for the new album.

At 18 tracks, it's the lengthiest of her career to date and features collaborations with the Dixie Chicks - idols to the young Swift when she landed in Nashville - and Brendan Urie, the frontman of 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, yet it's a sign of both his gifts and hers that they sound thrilling and not by-numbers.

Taylor Swift with ex Tom Hiddleston
Taylor Swift with ex Tom Hiddleston

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.

Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift's speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards in New York
Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift's speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards in New York

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 Beyonce was a more deserving winner.

Years later he referenced the incident in song when he bragged, "I made that b**** 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.

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.

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.

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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