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When Kanye West bum-rushed Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs, the world rallied around Swift not because Kanye was a “jackass,” as President Obama so succinctly summarized, but because the singer/songwriter conveyed the fragility of adolescence on her 2008 breakthrough, Fearless, so successfully that she inspired instinctive protectiveness even among those who never spent much time with the record. Not timid or a tart, Swift seemed like a genuine girl on Fearless, perhaps treating her songs a little too much like diaries, but that only made them more affecting. If anything, Swift ramps up the confessions on her 2010 sequel, Speak Now, but circumstances have changed: few listeners, if any, would have a clue about the identity of the boy who belongs with Taylor, but now that she’s a superstar, anybody with a passing familiarity with pop culture can discern which songs are about Kanye, Taylor Lautner (her ex), or Camilla Belle (the actress girl who stole Joe Jonas out from under our heroine). Not that Swift takes great pains to disguise who she’s writing about -- not when she’s writing “Dear John,” an elegant evisceration of lecherous lothario John Mayer. Such gossip mongering is titillating but fleeting, suggesting that the charms of Speak Now are insubstantial, but Swift’s gift is that she sets the troubled mind of an awkward age in stone. She writes from the perspective of the moment yet has the skill of a songwriter beyond her years, articulating contradictions and confessions with keen detail and strong melody. Tellingly, underneath all her girlishness -- and Taylor makes no apologies for being girly as she baits mean girls, dreamily thinks of stolen kisses on a sidewalk, or fantasizes about stealing away her ex-lover at the altar -- there’s a steely strength. She walks away proudly from breakups and never dwells on mistakes; she moves forward. The same could be said about the sound of Speak Now itself, which is no great progression from Fearless but rather a subtle shift toward pure pop with the country accents, such as the Dixie Chicks foundation of “Mean,” used as flavoring. But that blend of pop and country, while certainly radio-friendly, is nearly as distinctive to Taylor Swift as her songwriting voice. She may be not a girl, and not yet a woman, but on Speak Now she captures that transition with a personal grace and skill that few singer/songwriters have.
Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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