Top of the Pops

Top of the Pops

Top of the Pops

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 1 2009 1:28 PM

Top of the Pops

 

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Last Thursday, the 19-year-old singer-songwriter Taylor Swift played Madison Square Garden. A headlining show at the Garden is a watershed moment for any musician. For Swift, it was exclamation point on the obvious: singing smart, catchy songs about teenage romance in the suburbs, she has become the biggest pop star in the United States. 

Over the past couple years, Swift has been a one-woman bulwark against the complete implosion of the record industry. In 2008, she was the biggest-selling artist in America, with combined sales of her 2006 self-titled debut album and her 2008 release Fearless topping 3.6 million. This year, Fearless has moved another 1.6 million copies; its sales totals are second only to the Michael Jackson compilation Number Ones . Swift has released eight singles, all of which have reached the country Top 10 and the Top 40 on the pop charts. She's had four No. 1 country singles; her latest hit, " You Belong with Me ," climbs to No. 2 this week on the Billboard Hot 100.

There have been other milestones. No female artist has had as many hits from a debut album since Billboard began keeping an album chart in 1964. This year, Fearless held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart for a total of 11 weeks, the longest run in a decade. Three of Swift's singles have topped two million mark in paid downloads, a first for a country artist. And so on.

Swift's triumph is on the one hand a measure of her ability to scramble categories and defy music biz dictums. There's never really been a country teenpop starlet before. She is surely the only country artist in history to open concerts by rapping Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and to close her shows with cover versions of hits by Beyoncé and Rihanna. At Madison Square Garden, she segued from her ballad "You're Not Sorry" into Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around ... Comes Around."

Like every megastar worth her salt, Swift has built a multi-platform brand with calendars and a clothing line ; $39.99 will get you a vaguely sinister-looking " Taylor Swift Singing Doll " that croons Swift's 2007 hit " Our Song ." But while Swift manages her career with the ruthless pragmatism of a CEO, her do-it-yourself approach to music resonates with the codes of authenticity championed by rock purists. She writes (or co-writes) all her songs, plays guitar, answers to no Svengali, and doesn't rely on a high-priced corps of studio musicians and producers. She records for an independent label and speaks to a devoted audience in an eccentric, sui generis voice that mixes high-Nashville earnestness with the Esperanto of the foodcourt and the chatroom.

It was that voice that resonated at Madison Square Garden. The concert was a high-tech extravaganza, with video montages and backup dancers, costume changes and an onstage rainstorm. But the music cut through the spectacle. Swift's vocals have occasionally been wobbly, but at the Garden she sang with punch and confidence. What really shone, though, were the songs themselves—the rigorous architecture of hits like "You Belong with Me," "Should Have Said No," and " Love Story ," whose melodies arc inexorably towards the payoff of huge sing-along choruses.

The night before Swift's Garden show, Britney Spears' "Circus Tour" played the same room. Taylor would appear to be the anti-Britney; she has plugged a gaping hole in popular culture with music aimed at young women that manages, miraculously, to be both cool and wholesome. But if songs like "Love Story," which ends with a white dress and a wedding, offer comfort to parents, Swift is not a milquetoast. She is famous for seeking revenge on ne'er-do-well ex-boyfriends in song, and for naming names. Introducing one song, she told the Garden audience that an ex made a big mistake when he "cheated on a songwriter." The sellout crowd—almost entirely female, and under 18 years old—roared, but I suspect they were cheering less about the vengeance than the songwriting. How cool must Swift seem to a 12-year-old fan—a tall, gangly girl with a guitar who can turn the exultations and defeats of her emotional life into art while whipping her blond mane around like a dervish?

Swift's bond with her fans came into sharpest focus in the evening's highlight, when the singer waded through the crowd to the center of the arena to sing an acoustic version of "Fifteen," a ballad about muddling through the heartache of freshman year in high school. (See embedded video above.) It's not Swift's catchiest song, but it's her best—an excruciatingly honest diary entry that climaxes with a confession about Swift's real life best friend, Abigail: "Abigail gave everything she had to a boy/ Who changed his mind/ And we both cried." I've seen a lot of amazing live music over the years, but few moments of symbiosis between performer and audience like an arena full of girls singing along to Swift's gentle pep talk.

When the mini-set was over, Swift plunged into the crowd and made her way back to the main stage, where she received the longest, most ear-splitting ovation I've heard at a concert. (A friend likened the din to the famous screeching sound effect in Hitchcock's The Birds .) Like a diva, Swift milked the moment for all it was worth; but as the cheering grew louder, and louder still, it seemed less about Swift, per se, than an expression of communal might. Girl power is real, and it is loud.

Dana Stevens responds , explaining why moms like Taylor Swift.

Jody Rosen is critic at large for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.