Taylor Swift will hook you up with a mean hot chocolate. I say this because Radio Vulture spent the bulk of yesterday at the taping of “SPEAK NOW: Live from New York City,” a semi-live webcast promoting Swift’s brand-new album. The general idea was that a small group of selected fans would gather in a misty, pinkish wonderland of an events space to meet the star and hear a few songs. And since those fans consisted largely of young ladies who can’t drink, the open bar just to the right of the massive “Speak Now” ice sculpture, the crab legs, and the catered macaroni and cheese served shots of a pretty commendable hot chocolate, something like the center of a liquid soufflé.
These fans know Swift pretty well already. Her songs are, famously, coded versions of her own experiences; tonight she reminds everyone that they’re “messages to people in my life.” She says she’s made an effort to remain the same songwriter she was at 12, when she sat in her bedroom writing about her life. She’s now nearly 21, dates famous people, and still manages to write songs that speak directly to a high-school mentality. This isn’t to say the songs aren’t rich: The story on Speak Now’s first single, “Mine,” is beautifully layered, with a “careless man’s careful daughter” learning that not all romances end in tears. (It’s so well-done that it took me weeks to notice the chorus resembles one I strongly dislike — the refrain on the Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.”) Another tune, “Mean,” is about her critics, though it’s written so you could sing it smugly to bullies or high-school jerks. She has a way with this stuff. And while the kind of teenage music we’re used to — the kind that’s about difference or rebellion or cool — is spread out across countless acts and genres, Swift’s collected a huge mass of fans whose emotional worlds are more focused on the rosy, straightforward things, like kissing in the rain. This is why a significant chunk of the music business is waiting nervously to see if the things she’s written on this new album will sell well enough to infuse some cash back into their world.
You could almost feel bad relaxing with a glass of it, because Swift herself was working very, very hard. If you know anything about her, you’re probably aware of her ability to act like she just walked into a surprise party she only half-expected. She does it when she wins awards: Who, me? This is for me? She does it when confronted with an intimate gathering of preselected fans: Wow! Thank you so much for being here with me! She spends 45 minutes doing a meet-and-greet line and taking pictures with the fans and their parents; each one gets an effusive greeting and a hug. Taylor Swift is excited about one woman’s pregnancy. Taylor Swift, touchingly, fixes a little girl’s hair for the photo. Taylor Swift loves and supports you and does not even seem fake about it. Tears are shed. Various fans declare this is the greatest moment of their various lives, which is terrific, because they’re 14 and that makes sense. A lot of girls in the room have their hair styled in imitation of Swift’s blonde ringlets. One, who’s apparently done this kind of thing before, gives a preview to some of the others. “When you hug her,” she says, “it’s like this” — making a gesture of arms closing around nothing.
For an artist whose songs can frequently be seen as acts of revenge — the naming and shaming of anyone she encounters and winds up not liking — Swift is surprisingly surrounded by the trappings of the Good Girl. Her songs can seem eternally moony about boys, as if not much else matters. (I’m told her live show was once very focused on the message that you can do anything and should never let boys interfere with that, though that’s still sort of about boys.) She seems more adolescent than she actually is — all coltish and fragile — and certain of her songs and videos toy with Good Girl/Bad Girl archetypes in ways the world would be better off ignoring. (One writer, Riese Bernard, provoked a lot of debate by calling her a “feminist’s nightmare.”) After performing one song, she curtsies. After answering a fan, she says: “Thank you for your question. You look really pretty.” From the outside, it’s easy to see her as sort of infantilized. But from inside her world, and that of her fans, Swift is also sort of a conqueror, one who’s continually plowing through life, dispatching her enemies in song, offering stories and wisdom.
That’s what one fan wants to ask about: How does Swift take such constant joy in life? Swift makes the surprise-party face that indicates “constant joy in life” and says that’s a very sweet question. She says it’s about finding happiness in the little things. She says she has some very “high-stakes” happy memories, but cares more about finding happiness in small moments like … going to the grocery, and collecting all the ingredients to bake something for someone. She pauses before that example, and it seems like one of the most earnest things she’s said all night — her first example of stopping to smell the flowers is taking a little time off from hugging fans to bake something. I can think of people whose eyes would rightly roll out of their heads over that. But the fans nod. It is a well-known fact that Taylor Swift loves baking. She plays some new songs, and when she holds her hands above her head in the shape of a heart, the audience cheers and makes the shape back at her.