Due to her age and marketing, Taylor Swift runs the risk of being lumped in with High School Musical and Twilight: country music for the tween set. It doesn't help that she dated a Jonas Brother. But what separates this 19-year-old singer-songwriter from that trend is the second part of that hyphenate. Swift doesn't just write her own songs; she writes her own very good songs. Betraying her age, her lyrics are decorous and often melodramatic — pure high school poetry — yet they convey real pop insight into the pangs of first and second love.
Her 2006 self-titled debut was a slow burner, charting four hits and haunting the Billboard album charts with unusual persistence. As intriguing as that introduction was, her follow-up improves on it. On Fearless, Swift has grown more expressive and distinctive as a vocalist. Her voice may lack the nuance of Carrie Underwood and the sass of Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, which means some bigger numbers like "White Horse" and "Change" don't quite soar as intended, but despite her limitations, Swift may have more presence in her songs, allowing some dreamy pathos into the stadium chorus of "The Way I Loved You" and the sleepy lull of "The Best Day."
"Fifteen" already has been widely quoted for its knowing take on adolescent vulnerability. "'Cause when you're 15 and somebody tells you they love you," she sings achingly, "you're gonna believe them." But "Breathe" may contain the album's most telling lines: "I can't breathe without you, but I have to."
Swift is that rare thing: a dreamer and a realist, a normal girl stuck in a world that's mundane compared to her romantic fantasies. On "Love Story," which could have been inspired by a summer reading list, she daydreams about playing a small-town Juliet to a bad-boy Romeo. It ends, of course, with a proposal and a happy ending. Yet that tendency to idealize is tempered with an adult's realism: She wants the perfect storybook love but will settle for the more complicated real-world romance. On Fearless, the heartbreaking difference between the two makes the teenager sound like an adult. — Stephen Deusner