It’s not easy performing under a microscope in the TMZ era. Over the last generation, no athlete was observed more so than Derek Jeter, who thrived and somehow failed to commit missteps while scrutinized in New York. The Hall of Fame baseball player set an example on and off the field, which is extraordinary considering the circumstances.
The first time I witnessed Taylor Swift behind the microphone was when she delivered the national anthem before a Phillies game in 2001 when she was 11. Swift isn’t the Derek Jeter of music, but there are parallels. Both Swift and Jeter experienced great success at an early age and honed their craft throughout their 20s while accomplishing a great deal.
Each reached the upper echelon, and every move made has been analyzed, personally and professionally. Swift, 31, left her home, just an hour west of Philadelphia, for Nashville, Tennessee, when she was 15 in 2004 and released her eponymous debut album the following year. The self-titled project made noise courtesy of the single “Our Song,” a well-crafted tune by the precocious songsmith.
2008’s “Fearless” veered toward country-pop. “You Belong With Me” was a huge smash. The infectious and sweet love song was accompanied by an entertaining video, with Swift showing off her acting ability playing female rivals.
The clip won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV VMAs. Kanye West interrupted Swift’s speech with a protest in support of Beyonce.
Not even the enigmatic rapper could halt Swift’s chart dominance. Swift embraced pop with chart-topping albums such as 2012’s “Red,” 2014’s “1989” and 2017’s “Reputation.” “Shake It Off,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Look What You Made Me Do” are just some of the top singles that have propelled Swift into the pop stratosphere.
Before the pandemic, Swift was a rare recording artist who sold out stadiums. Swift had reached the pinnacle of pop.
I always thought that Swift could become the next Emmylou Harris, a gifted singer-songwriter who is the voice of progressive country.
While backstage before performing in Philadelphia in 2018 before her “Reputation” tour stop, I asked Swift if she could see herself morphing as a singer-songwriter. “Definitely,” Swift said. “I want to grow, and I want to challenge myself.”
While in isolation, Swift made the most of the pandemic by experimenting with folk. Swift isn’t quite following in Harris’ footsteps, but she made a number of winning artistic choices while creating a pair of laudable albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” in 2020.
Some critics have tagged Swift as calculated, but most recording artists have a plan to write, record and market their material. It’s not surprising since it is the music business. Swift has always aligned herself with ace songwriters/producers such as Jack Antonoff, Max Martin and Ryan Tedder.
With “Folklore” and “Evermore,” Swift again worked with Antonoff, but the key co-conspirator is the National’s Aaron Dessner, who has helped shape the spare songs, which are bittersweet and often dreamy. Dessner, who is one of the creative forces along with Justin Vernon, who fronts Bon Iver, enabled Swift to navigate the path from shimmering, baroque pop to introspective, gloomy folk.
The material, particularly “Exile,” the catchy and moving duet with Vernon, is a perfect sonic snapshot of the pandemic. Many recording artists have hunkered down to write songs during 2020. Swift was a rarity among high-profile artists who wrote, recorded and released not just one album but two during the challenging year.
It’ll be curious to see if this is the first chapter of Swift’s second act. Fans will know if that’s so post-pandemic when Swift tours. Will Swift go out behind “Folklore” and “Evermore” or return with a new album? If Swift opts for the latter, will she come back with a pop album full of the familiar sheen, or will it be another stripped-down affair?
Fans can hope Swift supports her 2020 albums with a jaunt.
The entertainer did craft a line of “Folklore” shirts, caps and other merchandise, which includes pins, one of which says “What a shame, she went mad.”
It doesn’t appear her massive fan base believes that Swift lost her mind. Both of her 2020 releases hit the top of the Billboard charts.
Swift can do whatever she wants. Perhaps Swift will keep it simple for her next tour. Swift, who is an underrated performer, could hold her fan’s attention without the endless eye candy, fireworks, lasers and video that’s been part of previous tours. Swift not only has a commanding presence, but she’s also adept at living in the moment onstage.
During a 2013 concert in Newark, New Jersey, there was a technical gaffe while Swift was in the middle of a duet with Ed Sheeran, who opened the show. The latter was lost, but Swift saved the day by guiding the emerging British singer-songwriter through the song like an old pro even though she was just 23.
The future is uncertain for the music business, but it remains bright for Swift – especially if she continues to challenge herself by crafting albums like “Folklore” and “Evermore.”
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