When Swift takes the stage with the other performers for the acoustic “guitar pull” format at the September 23 benefit, the next-most-fresh-faced singer on the bill is Vince Gill, who is a third of a century older than she is. “We were smart enough to invite the kid,” Gill tells the sold-out hall, immediately addressing the disparity. “We dig her because she sold all the tickets.” Over the next two hours, Swift more than holds her own, singing well-crafted hits with confidence (and without the help of Auto-Tune, which she has been accused of using) in a format that emphasizes her deceptively simple lyrical acuity.
But there’s a thematic difference that becomes almost comical at certain points. The older performers seem intent on pulling out their most despairing material. Emmylou Harris sings an ode to melancholy she wrote in her forties, noting that she has survived into her sixties. Gill sings about the death of his homeless brother. And Swift, perhaps aware that she doesn’t have too many songs about depression and mortality in her catalogue, points out that almost all of her thwarted-romance songs begin with “So, there was this guy … ”
Back in her dressing room, Swift nearly hyperventilates as she tells her mom, Andrea, about her mutual lovefest with Kristofferson. “I felt like I was going to pass out! He said so many nice things about my songwriting … I can’t even remember everything he said; I blacked out a little bit.” The Swift you see on awards shows who looks honestly agape every time she wins something? That’s for real, and she has moments like that just about every week. Of course, there are those lying in Schadenfreude-fueled wait, too. As she tells a certain rap superstar in a new song, “Life is a tough crowd.”
So there was this guy. “I think a lot of people expected me to write a song about him. But for me it was important to write a song to him,” says Swift about Kanye West, who infamously stole her Best Female Video moment at MTV’s VMAs in 2009 (which in turn inspired the president of the United States to call West a “jackass”). “Innocent”—the song prompted by The Interruption, which she debuted at this year’s VMAs—is a tricky piece of songcraft: Some viewers took it as deeply sympathetic toward West, others as patronizing in its sympathy. But “Innocent” clearly provides a turning point in which Swift gets the upper hand by casting herself in a mature, even maternal light. The music video for the new album’s first single, “Mine,” may portray her growing up and having children, but “Innocent” is where she really plays mother to a baby.
What’s not clear from the song is how the MTV incident affected her own sense of innocence. “How it affected me,” she says, then pauses. “It doesn’t really add anything good if I start victimizing myself and complaining about things. Because I’m proud of that performance at the VMAs last year, where my fans helped me get through it. And there was a lot that went down backstage that I will always be thankful for, and the fans in the subway [where she sang “You Belong With Me” shortly after The Interruption] know exactly what happened that night. I feel everything. I’ve never had this thick skin that can’t be … It’s not like I am bulletproof in any sense of the word.”
Kristofferson and Twain notwithstanding, there are no real models for Swift’s career path in the end. A handful of other singer-songwriters have made great records before exiting their teens, from Laura Nyro to Fiona Apple, but none made great records so explicitly about their teens. In captivatingly nailing everything that is awesome and awful about coming of age—“in real time,” as she puts it—her nearest antecedent might be sixties-era Brian Wilson, the one true adolescent auteur before she came along. But he stayed in the sandbox, and she can’t.
Swift does have one great truth on her side in easing from teen apologist to grown-up troubadour: Adult life is just like high school. To that end, her new song “The Story of Us” (about a recent near-run-in with, most likely, ex-boyfriend Taylor Lautner) proves that show business is nothing but a glorified prom. “It was at an awards show”—presumably the People’s Choice Awards—“and there had been this falling-out between me and this guy,” says Swift. “I think both of us had so much that we wanted to say, but we’re sitting six seats away from each other, just fighting this silent war of ‘I don’t care that you’re here.’ I remember getting home and sitting at the kitchen table and saying to my mom, ‘It was like I was standing alone in a crowded room.’ That’s when my eyes glazed over and I got distracted and walked away to write. My mom is used to me doing that.”