Life in the Swift lane
Life in the Swift lane

The prevailing media narrative surrounding Taylor Swift's personal life paints her as a voracious man-eater or lovelorn tragic. Neither is correct, nor completely untrue.

An equally significant dichotomy exists in her professional life.

To some of her fans, she will always be a precociously talented country singer, while to others she's a mainstream pop megastar; both viewpoints are valid if not wholly accurate when taken in isolation.

But for the 48,000 predominantly young girls at Detroit's Ford Field last Saturday, she was simply a beloved girlfriend sharing heartfelt stories about love and loss.

As with any good story, meaning is an entirely subjective concept and Swift's unfolding narrative is no different.

The facts, however, are beyond dispute. The 23-year-old is the only female artist in history, and the first of either gender since the Beatles, to top the US Billboard chart for at least six weeks with three consecutive albums. In 2010, she became the youngest artist, at 20 years old, to take home American music's most coveted prize - the Grammy for album of the year.

Since the release of her eponymous debut in 2006, she has notched over 26 million album sales, won over 150 awards and regularly sold out 50,000-seat stadiums, sometimes in less than half an hour.

Her fourth LP, Red, has sold nearly six million copies and, when she brings her show of the same name Down Under at the end of the year, she'll become the first female artist to attempt a stadium tour of Australia since Madonna's Girlie Show tour in 1993.

For fleeting moments during the Ford Field performance, Swift seems taken aback by the audience response and, even if some theatrics were involved, one can't deny her dramatic career trajectory.

Indeed, it's perfectly summarised in a video montage played at the concert; a two-year-old at the piano with mum, a first guitar at nine, talent contests as a tween and then four of seven career Grammys at 20.

Of course, the real story is in the details.

At 14, she moved to Nashville with her parents - her father a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch and her mother a mutual fund wholesaler - signed to RCA Records with a development deal.

"When I moved to Nashville, I had a lot of dreams of making a career out of this but I didn't think it would look like this - I didn't think it would be a stadium career," Swift says. "I thought 'I want to write my own songs and I don't care if I'm on a small record label, I don't care if I don't sell as many records, I just want to be able to write my own music'."

It was that steadfast commitment to being a songwriter that saw her leave RCA when the label wanted her to record other people's songs to kill time until she turned 18.

To this day, it separates the singer from many of her high-profile pop contemporaries who rely on faceless songwriters to deliver hits. More than that, it has engendered a deep connection to her fan base, who intrinsically relate to her highly personal odes to relationships and the inevitable break-ups that follow.

And that's despite the vast stylistic difference between the country-tinged music (Love Story, You Belong With Me et al) of Swift circa 2006-09 and the pop brilliance of last year's hit, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

"I will always be thankful that I was given a shot to make music at that level in my teenage years because I had a lot to say," Swift says of the former. "When I look back at all the things I created at 16, 17, 18, I see it as a creative stepping stone process."

The process prompted Swift to collaborate with hit makers such as Max Martin, Jeff Bhasker and Jacknife Lee to make Red, a 16-track opus that has the singer expanding the scope of her ambition considerably.

Genuine stadium rockers such as State of Grace would do Coldplay proud while the pseudo-dubstep of I Knew You Were Trouble makes pigeonholing Swift increasingly difficult. Both are key planks in her new live show; a multi-stage, visual spectacular complete with pyrotechnics, costume changes and a troupe of dancers.

Rolling Stone said it was the "slickest, smartest and just plain best mega-pop statement of our time" and, if sold-out stadiums are anything to go by, it is hard to argue.

Such success, and an endorsement deal or two, has made Swift rich. Very rich.

Forbes listed her 2012 earnings at US$57 million, a figure she should eclipse this year, and recent reports say she bought a Rhode Island mansion for $US17 million - and paid cash. But it has also made her a prime target for the haters and purveyors of gossip.

Her love life is a matter of renown and past boyfriends allegedly include Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, a Kennedy and, more recently, One Direction's Harry Styles.

"It's a little strange that my life, from the time I was 16, has been documented," Swift agrees. "So, imagine if you hang out with a person once, but you never saw them again because you didn't really get along that well - imagine that being labelled as one of your relationships that you've apparently been in.

"And then you become friends with this guy and you hang out a few times and you relate on a few things - that's one of your boyfriends, too. To me, that's a little bit irritating that they all of a sudden start stacking up all of this apparent information and it turns into fact through the telling of these stories over and over again.

"And everybody kind of thinks they have you figured out but going too far down that rabbit hole is what's damaging, that's why I don't read about myself anymore. I don't really know who I'm rumoured to be dating right now; I know I'm not dating anyone but I'd rather not know who I'm apparently rumoured to be dating, because it's gotta be somebody."

The ongoing joke, of course, is that all will eventually become grist for Swift's songwriting mill; President Barack Obama referenced Swift's modus operandi at the Washington Correspondents dinner last month.

To be fair, Swift does little to extinguish the cliche.

"People say I write a lot of break-up songs," she tells the audience in Detroit. I do write a lot of break-up songs and, you know what, I like writing break-up songs."

The ensuing screams of adoration place Swift somewhere between love guru and treasured confidant as far as her fans are concerned and she wouldn't trade that for anything - including a little privacy.

"I remind myself on a daily basis that I had the option to stay where I was and to play in the local coffee house every single week and it just reminds me that there really isn't a terrible price that I've had to pay.

"There are so many incredible perks to doing this; the connection you get when you look out into a stadium full of people who know the words to the songs that I wrote alone, in my bedroom, at three in the morning - that in itself pays for every bit of the stuff that's made up about you, or the rumours, or the fear that the perception of you is wrong."

Perception is an elusive commodity in the music business so it usually pays to look beyond the headlines.

Before and after the Detroit gig, Swift spent time with the fans, posing for photos, signing autographs and joking around like she would with friends.

A conversation with her mother, Andrea, reveals Swift once held a 15-hour meet-and-greet session in Nashville without taking a break.

It's the sort of dedication that typifies Swift's career thus far and makes it completely atypical by nearly every measure you care to apply to modern musicians.

And if she keeps it up there's every chance the rapidly evolving narrative of her life will have a fairytale ending. Prince Charming, or not.

Taylor Swift plays nib Stadium on December 11. Pre-sale tickets available at frontiertouring.com/taylorswift from May 14. Tickets for the public on sale on May 21.

The West Australian

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