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Teen country sensation Swift is like, totally, acting her age

by BY J. FREEDOM DU LAC THE WASHINGTON POST | March 18, 2008 at 2:01 a.m.

— So teenagerly, this country super-starlet Taylor Swift.

Totally 18 going on 18. Totally acting - and songwriting, and singing - her age.

"What's Taylor like?" says veteran country singer Vince Gill. "She's like the back seat of my car when I take my kids to a movie. Everything is 'awesome,' 'she was like,' 'they were soooo.' It's really refreshing."

No sense rushing Swift into old age, right? Probably wouldn't be as much fun, for her or for us. Definitely wouldn't be good for business, which has been, well, awesome.

Swift's smartly crafted songs about high school crushes, puppy love and teen heartache have made her a sensation. Her self-titled debut album - released in 2006, when she was just 16 - has sold more than 2.5 million copies and was one of the 10 best-sellers in popular music last year. And she hasn't even finished high school. (She's still being home-schooled.)

Swift is a huge hit on MySpace - 41 million song streams and counting - and on the radio and television, too. "Our Song," a lively relationship anthem that Swift originally wrote for a ninth-grade talent show, spent six weeks at No. 1 on the country chart; the accompanying video had a record-setting run on CMT, where it was parked at No. 1 for seven weeks. "Teardrops on My Guitar," a confessional about a guy who is blind to Swift's feelings for him, is a crossover smash, with the video even landing on MTV, a network historically averse to country music.

"She's attracting not just the traditional country audience, but a noncountry audience as well," says Jay Frank, a CMT senior vice president.

No surprise, then, that Swift won the Horizon Award at November's Country Music Association Awards. She delivered an exuberant acceptance speech in which she memorably declared: "This is definitely the highlight of my senior year!"

Totally!

"I'm just a teenager, you know?" Swift says. She was a presenter at the Grammy Awards and a nominee for best new artist. The award was won by troubled British R&B singer Amy Winehouse, who is perhaps the polar opposite of the squeaky-clean, straight-A, all-Americangirl Swift.

But Swift had her great Grammy moment from the December news conference to announce the nominees. Her name is called. She appears to be overwhelmed, fighting back tears, freaking out, hugging the other, much older artists, most of whom look like they're still asleep.

"I'm not going to try to act like some adult who has it all together and isn't fazed at all by that," she says. "I am. I'm completely affected by it. I don't like it when people who are young act like they're 40. That's taking too much on. Putting up a shield and trying to act like you're so mature or whatever - I don't try to act ma-ture. Some people might say I'm mature for my age, but it's not something I'm trying to do, you know? I'm just me."

Swift regularly updates her MySpace page, and her personal life is not off-limits. In fact, it's one of her favorite topics. Especially dating. Or not dating, as it were.

"I've never been the kind of girl who needs a boyfriend," she writes. "I believe that love will find you when you're not looking for it. So I've been actively not looking for it for about 3 years now. ... It probably doesn't help that I write songs about every guy I talk to."

Kinda true. Her breakthrough hit, "Tim McGraw," was about a relationship with a boy who was about to leave for college. Her current single? The sneering kiss-off "Picture to Burn."

"It's about a guy I liked who didn't like me back, and I got really mad, you know?" she says. In her liner notes, Swift offers a dedication: "To all the boys who thought they would be cool and break my heart, guess what? Here are 11 songs written about you. Ha!"

So: Step carefully, boys.

"I don't want to have to find the right guy right now. I'm fascinated by my career and I'm not too fascinated by guys right now. I know that'll change ... but right now isn't the time for that," she says. "My friends are like: 'Oooh, look at him, he's cute.' But I have these blinders on. ... Music is my boyfriend."

She's a willowy thing, 5-foot-11 in her bare feet but probably 6-1 in her stylish cowgirl boots. She's wearing a loose-fitting dress with spangly trim. Piercing blue eyes, spring-loaded blond tresses, pouty little lips, an upturned nose. Anaffinity for mascara, too.

She grew up in Wyomissing, Pa., on a Christmas tree farm, where she became enamored of words, writing poetry and, during one summer vacation, a 250-page novel. "She wrote all the time," says her mother, Andrea. "If music hadn't worked out, I think she'd be going off to college to take journalism classes or trying to become a novelist. But her writing took an interesting twist when she picked up the guitar and applied her writing to music."

At 13, she landed a development deal with RCA and her family moved to the Nashville, Tenn., area. Her deal with RCA soon fell apart, but industry veteran Scott Borchetta was planning a new label, Big Machine Records, and wanted Swift as a centerpiece.

"She played some songs in our first meeting and I was just killed on sight," Borchetta says. "She's the full package, somebody whowrites her own songs, and is so good at it, so smart; who sings, plays the guitar, looks as good as she looks, works that hard, is that engaging and so savvy. It's an extraordinary combination.

"My fear is that she'll conquer the world by the time she's 19. She'll get to the mountaintop and say: 'This is it?' Because she's just knocking down all of these goals that we didn't even have for the first album. ... My job at this point is really to protect her and not burn her out."

Swift is tireless, focused, determined and weirdly enthusiastic.

"Maybe this makes me sound like a robot, but there is nothing more interesting to me than my career," she says. "I feel sooooo lucky to have found something I love sooooo much. I don't have an identity without music. It probably sounds crazy, but I want to do everything I can to keep this precious thing intact."

Style, Pages 27, 32 on 03/18/2008

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