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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Taylor Swift!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of Taylor Swift's album covers

Taylor Swift was born on December 13, 1989. Swift is a singer and songwriter who began as a teenage country singer with pop crossover appeal and has become one of the world’s biggest pop stars.

She was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and her parents named her after singer James Taylor. Swift knew at a young age that she wanted a career in music, but her initial interest was in musical theater. She began performing in local youth theater productions when she was nine and was regularly traveling to New York for acting and singing lessons.

Swift was inspired by the female country singers of the 1990s—she cites Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, and Faith Hill as important influences—to focus on country music, and began spending her weekends performing at local music festivals.

She made her first trip to Nashville at the age of eleven, submitting demo tapes to several record companies. These tapes were made up of karaoke recordings of her favorite country songs. The lack of interest convinced Swift that she needed to be more than just another singer, and she began to learn the guitar and to write her first songs shortly thereafter.

In 2004, Swift’s father transferred to his company’s Nashville office, and Swift began working with established songwriters and performing in local clubs. In 2005, she signed a contract with a new independent label, Big Machine Records. Big Machine wasn’t big at all, and when Swift’s first single was released in the summer of 2006, she and her mother helped to stuff the envelopes with CD singles to be sent to country radio stations.

3 taylor swift albums

That single, “Tim McGraw,” made it into the top 10 of the country chart (and the top 40 of the pop chart), an encouraging start for a 16-year-old newcomer. And when the album, Taylor Swift, was released a few months later, it did even better. It generated two #1 country hits, “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No.” “Our Song” made Swift the youngest artist ever to single-handedly write and perform a #1 country song. Swift was named the year’s best new artist by the Country Music Association and was nominated for the same award at the Grammy Awards.

Swift’s next album, Fearless, was an even bigger success. It was the best-selling album of 2009 and won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. It generated two more #1 country hits—“Love Story” and “You Belong to Me”—both of which also made the top five on the pop charts.

“You Belong to Me” put Swift in the spotlight in a more uncomfortable way when it won at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009. Swift’s acceptance speech was interrupted by Kanye West, saying that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” Swift was visibly upset; Beyoncé, in the audience, seemed mortified; and West was publicly scolded and criticized not only by other musicians but by President Obama.

Swift began taking small acting roles in 2009, making her TV debut as a troubled teenager on the crime drama CSI, and serving as both host and musical guest of Saturday Night Life, receiving generally good reviews for the enthusiasm with which she threw herself into the show’s comic sketches. She had her first movie role the next year, in the ensemble romantic comedy Valentine’s Day.

Swift was the sole writer of all of the songs on her 2010 album Speak Now, which brought another pair of #1 country hits in “Sparks Fly” and “Ours,” and two more Grammy Awards for the song “Mean.” She won yet another Grammy the following year for “Safe and Sound,” a collaboration with the band The Civil Wars that was included on an all-star collection of songs inspired by (but mostly not heard in) the film adaptation of The Hunger Games.

Some of the songs on Speak Now were clearly more pop than country, and one of the singles from the album, “The Story of Us,” wasn’t even sent to country radio.

The trend towards pop continued with the 2012 album Red, Swift’s most pop-sounding record yet. It's lead single, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," became her first #1 pop hit. She hadn't lost her country appeal yet; "Never Ever" also became her biggest country hit to date, spending ten weeks at #1 on that chart.

But Swift left country behind completely with 2014’s 1989 (named for her year of birth), which she described as her “first pop album.” It was inspired by 1980s synth-pop, filled with synthesizers and drum machines. The first two singles from the album dealt with the same topic—Swift’s reaction to the gossip about her personal life—in different musical styles. “Shake It Off” was bubbly, bouncy dance-pop; “Blank Space” was darker and more brooding. They were back-to-back #1 pop hits, making Swift the first woman ever to replace herself at the top of the charts. The album won 3 more Grammy Awards, including Swift’s second Album of the Year award. (It also led to an unusual project from alt-country singer Ryan Adams, who released an album-length cover of 1989, interpreting all of its songs as folky acoustic tunes.)

Swift’s take on gossip and celebrity seemed more bitter on 2017’s Reputation, her last album for Big Machine. It was an angrier album, more influenced by electronic dance music, and it included guest appearances by Ed Sheeran and Future.

Swift’s relationship with Big Machine had grown strained over the years, in large part because the label refused to let her buy the master recordings for her albums. In June of this year, Big Machine was purchased by music manager Scooter Braun. Swift and Braun have had an uneasy relationship for several years, in part because of the hostility between Swift and Kanye West that began with the Video Music Awards incident; Braun was West’s manager for several years. Swift has announced plans to re-record all of the six albums for which Big Machine owns the masters, in order to regain control of her music.

3 Taylor Swift albums

Swift’s most recent album, Lover, was released earlier this year. It debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart—her sixth straight album to do so—and in its first week, it outsold the other 199 albums on the chart combined. And with recent rule changes that count streaming plays and YouTube views towards the singles charts, all of the 18 songs on Lover entered the Hot 100 singles chart the week the album was released.

Swift has continued to act occasionally, with a voice role in the 2012 animated film The Lorax and a supporting role in 2014’s The Giver. She has her largest film role yet in the film version of the musical Cats, which will be released later this month. She also collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber to write a new song for the film version; her character doesn’t sing “Beautiful Ghosts” in the movie, but her version will be heard over the closing credits.

Swift has occasionally returned to country music for one-off collaborations. She teamed with Tim McGraw (the subject of her very first single) in 2013 for “Highway Don’t Care,” and with Sugarland in 2018 for “Babe.” She’s also written songs for Kellie Pickler (“Best Days of Your Life”) and Little Big Town (“Better Man”).

Songwriting may be Swift’s greatest strength. The critics have generally praised her writing more than her singing (though there is general agreement that she’s a better singer now than she was at the beginning of her career), and Swift says she thinks of herself primarily as a songwriter. Her songs are often rooted in her own experiences, which leads to gossip about which of her highly-publicized romances is being written about in each song. Swift has generally refused to talk in much detail about her songs, though, saying that “these are real people. You try to give insight as to where you were coming from as a writer without completely throwing somebody under the bus.”

Swift has been a generous philanthropist. She is often among the first to respond with a sizable donation to relief efforts after a natural disaster and has also been a supporter of arts, LGBT rights, literacy, and the #MeToo movement.