Superstar-singer next door Taylor Swift performs sold-out show Saturday in Tacoma

Taylor Swift has record-breaking album sales and 7 Grammys, yet fans relate to her for songs’ universal themes

Staff writerAugust 30, 2013 

Ask a teen why they like Taylor Swift and they’ll rave about her music. Ask a parent, and they’ll likely praise her for the lack of cussing. But ask Taylor herself, and she’ll echo what Tacoma musician and teacher Paul Eliot points out. He says the 23-year-old country pop megastar writes about universal issues, issues that get her 46 million Facebook likes, seven Grammys and thousands of fans to her summer Red Tour that’s sold out the Tacoma Dome on Saturday night.

“I find her to be universal,” says Eliot, head of performing arts and songwriting instructor at Tacoma’s School of the Arts. “She’s musically very simple: Her chords and harmonic progressions are always inside the box. But her storytelling is universal ... she’s singing about things every teen is thinking.”

And that would be because she’s singing about things Taylor Swift is thinking. “Sitting on a bedroom floor crying is something that makes you feel really alone,” she said recently in a Rolling Stone interview about why 55,000 fans came to her New Jersey show. “If someone’s singing about that feeling, you feel bonded to that person.”

Adds Eliot: “She’s singing from her life. That’s part of the country genre, but it’s so relatable. That’s what kids like, and what I like too.”

Eliot ought to know. Apart from being a fan himself – he’s coming to the concert with half a dozen other SOTA teachers – he uses Swift’s songs in his classes, deconstructing them as examples of how to write a great song using a simple structure.

“It’s very clean and clear, with no surprises,” he says. “With the difference between verse, chorus and bridge, she’s very clear, by the book.”

Swift’s also got a talent for writing catchy songs with simple harmonies, adds Eliot – which helps beginner songwriters. “We tend to start writing songs simply, staying in key,” he says. “She does too. It’s a great example of how to write a tight song in simple harmonies. My musical taste is that I’m always trying to find the perfect 31/2 minute song. This is it.”

In her short career, Swift has set a lot of records: youngest winner of Grammy Album of the Year, only female artist to have two albums hit more than 1 million in sales in a single week, first artist since the Beatles to log more than six weeks at No. 1 with three consecutive studio albums. The lead song from “Red” – the ubiquitous “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – set new records for digital sales. She’s also landed numerous accolades from the media (Billboard, Time magazine, Rolling Stone) to the Teen Choice Awards and country music’s Entertainer of the Year.

Of course, there’s the unavoidable fact that she also sets records with boyfriend numbers. But despite this, she pulls in young fans and their parents who like her clean language and dress standard. Even Ed Sheeran, who opens all her shows for the tour, has cut out a lot of his swearing in respect for her crowd.

“She wears clothes that cover her up,” Eliot says wryly. “Parents have an easier time about that.”

All this, despite the fact that Swift has just as much country in her songs as pop. The I-V-VI-IV pop chord structure is just as prevalent in her songs as the more countrified I-IV-V-I, points out Eliot. The country effects, such as the steel guitar riffs that open almost every song, or the close vocal thirds in “I Almost Do,” or the cute ukelele jingle in “Stay Stay Stay,” sit right next to pop/rock sounds such as the dirty reverb ending the chorus of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or her overall bright, clipped synth drums.

And it’s attracted a whole new generation that normally would stay away from country music in droves.

“It’s opened a door to other cool country music,” Eliot says. “She’s provided that gateway. A lot of people in the country music business think she’s not country enough, but she’s bringing more new people to country than anyone else ever.”

Besides, Eliot adds, the days of music specialization are over. “The most interesting work is being done in the borderlands,” he says.

For most of her Dome fans Saturday night, though, it’ll be enough that she’s up there doing a high-energy show, playing her guitar and singing in that breaking, Suzanne Vega-type voice about issues every young (and old) person feels: love, loss, sadness, joy. So when she comes out with the lines “Oh, oh, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22/Everything will be all right, if you keep me next to you,” they’ll get it – whether they’re long past 22 or only half that age.

Red hot

When Taylor Swift’s fans sweep into the Dome on Saturday night, it’ll be for a few good reasons – simple songs, heartfelt stories, and language even a parent can love.

What: Taylor Swift, Red Tour

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Tacoma Dome, 2727 E. D St., Tacoma

Tickets: Show is sold out. Check for late-release tickets.

Information: tacomadome.org, ticketmaster.com

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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