Singer Taylor Swift touches base with devoted fans
Taylor Swift touched base with her most devoted fans for her crossover pop album, writes Randy Lewis
They come from Bakersfield, San Diego, Long Beach and elsewhere across the southland, about three dozen young women plus a handful of young men who have caught the eye of the gathering's host with posts about her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media sites.
Enticed by vague invitations to be part of "an amazing opportunity", they are shuttled in luxury vans through the winding roads above Beverly Hills on a recent Saturday afternoon to a two-storey mansion where they nosh on pizza and other snacks before being invited into the warmly appointed living room.
Just moments after they've settled into couches, chairs and nine overstuffed pillows scattered across a large Persian rug, arguably the biggest pop star on the planet pops through a doorway, a fluffy white kitten clutched to her chest. "Hey, guys," Taylor Swift says to screams of delight.
A few minutes later, Swift is explaining how her guests have been selected based on comments they've posted on social media sites. "You guys have been individually hand-picked - by mostly me," she says. "I'm obsessed with Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr. Why I wanted to have you here at this secret session is to play the entire new album for you."
This is just the first of several of Swift's "secret sessions" during which she personally previewed her fifth studio album, 1989, for groups of fans ahead of the album's release late last month (others were held at her homes in Nashville, New York and Rhode Island).
That's a major departure from the veil of secrecy surrounding her two previous blockbuster albums, Speak Now in 2010 and Red in 2012, both of which defied the music industry's downward trajectory of recent years by selling more than a million copies each in their first week of release.
One reason for these sessions is to ensure her audience stays with her as she continues her transition from country star to pop. Starting in the mid-2000s relentlessly working her MySpace page, she's done the same with other social media platforms to establish a Permabond-like connection with fans over the past eight years.
The big question facing 1989 before its release was whether Swift could go platinum a third time: Billboard projections put first-week sales in the 800,000 neighbourhood. So far, no album released in 2014 had sold more than a million copies: the closest was Coldplay's Ghost Stories, which came out in May and sold 383,000 copies.
The 24-year-old singer has proved the pundits wrong: 1989 sold more than 1.2 million copies in the opening week, deposing Ghost Stories as bestseller of the year.
Swift is always cognizant of the business side of her career and is well into a media blitz supporting her latest collection with guest appearances on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Good Morning America and The View, plus NBC's The Voice. She was omnipresent on the radio for a week as more than 900 iHeartRadio-affiliate pop stations across the country carried programmes spotlighting the singer and her new album.
The latter exposure may compensate for reduced airtime she'll likely receive from country radio, where Swift established her career starting with the 2006 release of her debut album Taylor Swift. She has called 1989 her first "official pop album", and much of it has been created in collaboration with pop-R&B producer songwriters Max Martin and Shellback, Ryan Tedder and singer-songwriter Jack Antonoff of Fun.
"I think if you respect, admire and love a person - or in this case, a musical community - you'll be honest with them and very upfront about what's happening," she says of her continuing musical evolution.
The singer, who's dressed simply in a cream-coloured sweater, chunky heels and plaid miniskirt, adds: "Looking back, I think when [her 2012 single] I Knew You Were Trouble spent seven weeks at No1 on the [pop] singles chart, a lot of the world should have seen that as a warning flare. It showed that this part of my music is really working, and that it's something I'm really passionate about,
"I don't think the country music community was shocked that I made a pop album. I think they were shocked that I was honest with them about it. There was this huge fear that they may be about to hear an album from me that sounded alien to them."
Swift's transformation from precocious teenage country-pop singer and songwriter into a full-blown pop star, which began in earnest on Red, is fully realised in 1989. New songs burst with hooks and with choruses so catchy the living room audience begin singing along before some songs end.
One of the brilliant aspects of Swift's rise to pop stardom is the way she's managed to convince millions of fans, the majority of whom are women her age or younger, that she's one of them. Never mind that she's a multimillion-selling recording artist who writes, performs and often produces monstrously successful hit singles and albums. She's also one of the few pop culture figures who can score the cover of Elle, People and Rolling Stone magazines while presiding over a multimillion-dollar music empire.
To be sure, Swift has no shortage of haters. Her relatively thin voice is technically no match for powerhouses such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, and anonymous internet commenters toss out barbs for the perceived trail of A-list broken hearts that she's left behind including musician John Mayer, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Taylor Lautner, and One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles.
One of the new album's sassiest tracks, Blank Space, was sparked by what was being written about her in the tabloids. In the song, she brags that "I've got a long list of ex-lovers/They'll all tell you I'm insane/Looking at that face/You look like my next mistake."
"I pride myself on being self-aware," she tells her living-room audience. "But I've also noticed there's this drastic fictionalisation of my personal life in the press. They'll write that I'm needy, that I push people away then pull them back. I found all this fascinating. So I thought, 'What if I were this girl - this damaged starlet thing? I'm going to write a song as if I were her.'
"I started writing [it] as a joke but it ended up being everyone's favourite," she says.
Since her split with Styles last year, she's "put dating absolutely out of my mind. There are a few reasons, the most important of which is protecting my own happiness and my own freedom," she says.
"If you have a problem with what's being written about you, you always have the option to do something about it, and that's what I've done."
The unexpected result, she says, is not just a reduction in tabloid speculation about her love life but the change in her own need for romantic engagement.
"I don't think I ever expected to feel this good about life without there being any element of romance in sight," she says. "Now I find I'm very excited about life itself. Life can be romantic if you choose to look at it that way. Lonely doesn't have to play into being alone."
Besides, she's well aware that at the drop of a hat she can fill her living room with 40 of the most supportive friends a pop star could want. "I just knew I really wanted to do something different for this album," she says, sitting on one of the picnic benches in her backyard just before the session.
"We've got so much big, crazy stuff planned, I wanted to balance that by also doing something with more of a human connection. It's really, really fun. It feels like a party, or a sleepover or something."
Los Angeles Times