Though she’s only 18 years old and has been in the public eye for a scant two years, Taylor Swift has enjoyed more success than any country-music star to date at crossing over into MTV’s demographic, culminating in a Best New Artist nomination at the network’s 2008 Video Music Awards. Swift didn’t win (the honor was appallingly bestowed on the craptastic Tokio Hotel), but she was all over the telecast, coming across as an exceptionally genuine young woman amid the seemingly more calculated likes of Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. It’s no surprise that Swift has connected with teens from across the spectrum, having made her fame with bluntly relatable compositions like “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “Picture to Burn,” hits from her self-titled 2006 debut, largely written by Swift herself, that treat high school romance neither as fairy tale nor tragedy, but instead as the mixed-up cycle of fun and frustration it really is. Swift retains that sharp, unsparing eye on her follow-up, Fearless.
It’s instructive to compare “Fifteen,” a standout here, with “All-American Girl,” the hit from country’s reigning blonde queen, Carrie Underwood. Underwood’s song begins with a twist—a father-to-be wants a son to groom athletically, and gets a daughter instead—but it’s a gentle twist, and the girl grows up to win the heart of the high school QB. It’s pure Nashville: life-affirming, but also ridiculously idealized. Swift, meanwhile, reminisces about being a 15-year-old who merely wanted to “stay out of everybody’s way” and talk shit about the cool girls with her best friend, and got a taste of young love’s myths only to realize she’ll “do things greater than dating the boy on the football team.”
There’s preternatural wisdom and inclusiveness in that line, qualities that shine through in Fearless‘s other great songs: in the pining of an overlooked Everygirl on “You Belong With Me”; in the clear eyes of a reborn realist on “White Horse”; and in the parental ode “The Best Day,” which skirts saccharine fantasy by acknowledging that the world outside of home can be a bitchy (“Don’t know how my friends could be so mean”) place. Swift may not possess the vocal power to fully sell her more lyrically generic material (Underwood’s great gift), but for the most part, this remarkably self-aware adolescent’s words don’t falter, masterfully avoiding the typical diarist’s pitfalls of trite banality and pseudo-profound bullshit.