From the very first words out of her mouth, you knew she had something, but you didn’t know what, precisely, and you didn’t know the half of it. Neither did this dope.
He said the way my blues eyes shined
Put those Georgia stars to shame that night
I said, “That’s a lie”
A shrewdly unromantic qualm from Taylor Swift, then a 16-year-old native of Reading, Pennsylvania, transplanted to Nashville and mounting the bloodiest, most fearsome charm offensive the town has ever known. Those lines kick off her debut single, "Tim McGraw," the leadoff track on her self-titled 2006 debut album. She knew the whole of it, even then. Lock up your sons.
We’re six lines into the first verse and the dope’s already flop-sweating in the rearview mirror, reduced to his woeful bro-country clichés. Even the de rigueur Chevy plug doubles as a neg; the word "just" is there only because "in a decade I’ll own a $17 million seaside mansion in Rhode Island" didn’t fit the meter.
"Tim McGraw" is an A-plus country song, or a B-minus coffeehouse-folk song deftly coated in twangy country dust. It’s about listening to the radio and reminiscing about necking whilst listening to the radio with someone who’s about to be way, way, way out of your league. The chorus ends, "When you think Tim McGraw / I hope you think of me." It sure sounds romantic, the way Taylor sings it; it may strike you as considerably more menacing now. It likewise serves as a fine tribute to McGraw, a bona fide country superstar, but it’s also the equivalent of handing him a golden shovel, so that he might more stylishly and efficiently dig his own grave. The future had arrived; the past was necessary now only to give the future context.
Ten years, now, of this person. It’s a lot. She’s a lot. Let’s try and set the vast majority of it aside here. On October 24, 2006, she was a mere upstart, an exuberant aspirant, a minor critical darling, a slow burn. Taylor Swift debuted at no. 19 and wouldn’t even first top Billboard’s Country Albums chart until the following year, but once it caught on, it proved impossible to dislodge. More than 5 million copies sold, now. She looks impossibly young on the cover, with a voluminous and high-maintenance haircut, angelic amid butterflies.
Relax: This is not a contrarian thing. It’s not her best record. It’s probably her worst. It’s treacly and slick and irritatingly starry-eyed, as one might expect from a collection of songs about someone’s freshman year of high school. Some of the relationship stuff was vicarious, even. Representative lyrics: "I don’t know what I want / So don’t ask me / ’Cause I’m still tryin’ to figure it out." But it’s all still winsome and keenly observed, and as yet unsullied by the tabloid bullshit that would subsume both her and us soon enough. As Rookie boss Tavi Gevinson would put it many years later in a full-catalog track-by-track breakdown for The Believer, rhapsodizing the amiably vapid shuffle "Stay Beautiful":
Yeah, that. It’s a pleasant reminder of a simpler, more innocent time. No squad, no marquee paramours, no problematic veneer. Taylor was not yet famous enough to trigger an unsavory argument about who, exactly, had made her so.
Country music needed a jolt back then; Swift was the third young woman to provide it. Miranda Lambert (steely, deep-souled, briefly underrated) and Carrie Underwood (sunny, deep-voiced, instantly massive) both put out their first full-lengths in 2005; the latter’s Some Hearts was the biggest album of ’06, in any genre. ("Before He Cheats" is still the jam.)
Swift’s debut was softer, quieter, more vulnerable, more intimate. For many, its most impressive (and unorthodox) feature was that she had a direct hand in writing every song on it; verily, the record would make stars out of both her primary cowriter (the great Liz Rose) and her Big Machine label benefactor (the rich Scott Borchetta). As a live act, she caught her first big break opening for the colossally doofy Rascal Flatts, then one of country’s biggest acts; she replaced Eric Church, who launched his own excellent career as an untameable überbadass by getting kicked off that tour.
Taylor Swift was a teapot in a tempest, a lightly banjo-tinged record you’d imagine emitting from a teenager who’d go on to brag on record about how many James Taylor albums she owned. There are a couple of sassy, electric, mildly blaring kiss-offs, in the persons of "Picture to Burn" and "Should’ve Said No," but they’re most effective as contrast. Here she is, though, wrecking shop at the ’08 Academy of Country Music Awards, at first with only an acoustic guitar and a hoodie.
By 2008, as she readied her sophomore album, Fearless, she was often found strumming a Swarovski crystal–encrusted guitar and/or giving quotes like this to The New York Times:
It’s both relieving and a little unnerving that on Taylor Swift — and Taylor Swift alone — none of those exes were famous. The unnerving part is that a few of them were made famous, very much against their will.
"Teardrops on My Guitar," one of the slower and more melancholy (and better) numbers, begins thusly:
That’d be Drew Hardwick, a total civilian whom we know only because Taylor Swift sang about him; we last heard from him in December 2015, via the monumentally unpleasant headline "Drew Hardwick, Subject of Taylor Swift’s ‘Teardrops on My Guitar,’ Arrested for Child Abuse." This does not exactly enhance one’s enjoyment of the song now; it turned out to be, somewhat inadvertently, her first musical assassination. But not, of course, her last.
Far less fraught is "Our Song," which is, for the record, both the youngest and the country-est Taylor Swift would ever let herself sound: It’s all about the taffy-pulling way she pronounces the word "late" in the line "’Cause it’s late and your mama don’t know." It’s abundantly clear throughout this album that she’s a soft-rock-inclined folk singer hell-bent on becoming a pop star; Nashville was merely the most convenient way station. Stream the album’s deluxe version now — only on Apple Music! — and you’re treated to the bonus track "Teardrops on My Guitar (Pop Version)," with "Pop Version" here defined as "they added drum machines." The thirst was ever present; it would not go unquenched for long.
Taylor Swift is notable now both for what it hath wrought (Taylor Swift) and what it hath not wrought (sustainable Taylor Swift clones). It’s a funny thing. Underwood and Lambert are still, by far, the biggest current female country stars, now that TS has abandoned the field; by many standards, they are also, dismayingly, the only two big current female country stars. Naturally, lots of labels took a shot at replicating Taylor’s early success; here is a spirited and thorough Times rundown ("Country’s New Face: It’s Young and Blond") of promising newcomers like Veronica Ballestrini, Jesse Lee, Jennette McCurdy, Jessie James, Mallary Hope, and Katie Armiger. What all those names have in common now is that you don’t recognize them, save for the one from iCarly. In the end, this was a fiercely rising tide that lifted only the one yacht.
Oh, what a yacht, though. Enjoy this record for what it is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. "Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)" is plenty cheesy, but its small-town-first-love fairy tale is a lovely alternate-universe vision of Swift’s arc if she’d never left town, and if the very first dope she’d fallen for had been worthy of her. It’s indeed heartening to think about where she was when she wrote these songs, and a little terrifying to think about who all the people she wrote these songs about are now. Taylor Swift is sweet and wistful and gentle, but its subtext is perfectly clear. I will be super famous very soon. You better hope I remember you fondly, because I will likely be the only reason millions of people remember you. And when you hear me, I hope you think of me.