She is, in fact, so ubiquitous in pop culture now that it’s hard to remember a Swift-free landscape just a decade ago. When Big Machine Records released Taylor Swift, full of suburban-teen longing and angst, the boys Swift was singing about were unknown fellow high schoolers (or figments of her adolescent fantasies). Those feelings, packaged up with twangy melodies and classically structured songwriting, spawned five consecutive chart hits, including “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on My Guitar,” and scored Swift a Best New Artist Grammy nomination.
Aside from its strong commercial performance, Taylor Swift served as an honest introduction to what we’d get from Swift for the next 10 years. If you don’t like her now, well, it’s not like she hasn’t been telling us precisely who she is since the beginning. From the very first single, “Tim McGraw,” which is also the album’s opening track, Taylor Swift shows Swift’s obsession with the impermanence of relationships -- an astounding number of her songs foresee the end of a relationship, a future without it, often when it’s just beginning. But tracks like “Picture to Burn” also betray a bitter streak when she’s scorned. She’s a Romeo-and-Juliet romantic who’ll push you off the balcony if you betray her.
It’s a character she’d hone on the follow-up, Fearless, through Speak Now, the poppier Red, and the very pop 1989. As her love interests became more famous, she switched the name-dropping from fan-girling over Tim McGraw to subtly hinting that lyrics might refer to Jonas Brother here or a One Directioner there. She became, essentially, the perfect pop star of our time, a mastermind of tabloid publicity with the country-honed storytelling chops to feed the narrative through song.
And it all began with Taylor Swift being Taylor Swift on Taylor Swift.
1. "Tim McGraw”
Swift wrote the song in math class during her freshman year of high school, humming the melody to herself while thinking about her boyfriend at the time. She knew they were going to break up when he went off to college in the fall; they shared a love of McGraw. And thus she came up with the marketing gimmick that likely helped the song break through -- the unknown newcomer name-dropping a successful artist in her genre. It was presumably unwitting, though given Swift’s savvy since then, you never know; from a 2016 perspective, this technique looks like a precursor to her now-legendary ability to spin tabloid romances into coy hit songs. As a single, it hit the Billboard 100, peaking at No. 40, and established Swift as a singer-songwriter to be reckoned with. The video demonstrated that she was young and pretty and relatable, showing her in lush, romantic scenes straight out of a swoony teen romance. These were tropes that would serve her dear-diary approach in the future.
2. "Picture to Burn”
Welcome to another of Swift’s defining song types: the woman-scorned track. She’d later perfect this art form with the chanting and drumbeats of “Bad Blood,” but the country-radio translation here includes some electric guitar, banjo, and a “stupid old pick-up truck you never let me drive” (not to mention a bit of excessive twang in Swift’s vocal delivery). Oh, and here’s a lyrical nugget she’d also return to many times to come: “Go ahead and tell your friends I’m obsessive and crazy.” The blessing of Swift as a lyricist is that she admits she’s a bit intense in relationships -- it’s this emotional vulnerability and self-awareness that make her a great lyricist, even if she sometimes denies these qualities in interviews.
3. "Teardrops on My Guitar”
This track’s chorus serves as nothing less than a thesis statement for Swift’s songwriting: “He’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar.” So specific that the object of her affection has a name -- Drew -- and yet so universal: the boy you love loves someone else. So perfectly tuned to teen longing. No wonder it was the best-performing single from the album, peaking at No. 13 on the Hot 100. The guitar of the title also has the nice, subtle effect of underscoring Swift’s identity as a songwriter -- she's not just a teen star singing adults’ lyrics.
4. “A Place in This World”
“I’m just a girl … tryin’ to find a place in this world.” This is the last time Swift could believably sing such a regular-kid statement, and surely her fans ate up every word. I’m here from the future to tell you, Taylor, that you will do okay.
5. "Cold As You”
Not a total dud, but hardly a standout. On the emotion spectrum, it hits a mushy spot between the wistfulness of “Teardrops on My Guitar” and the anger of “Picture to Burn,” without an interesting unifying concept like “Tim McGraw.” With lines like, “you do what you want ‘cause I’m not what you wanted,” she’s working out wordplay skills that will later serve her better on songs such as “Mine” and “Red.” But at this ballad tempo, we need something more to grab onto than, “I’ve never been anywhere cold as you.”
6. "The Outside”
This creeps awfully close to pop, aside from the occasional sound of a steel guitar, and it introduces another of Swift’s favorite themes: being an outsider. In this song, she’s literally on the outside looking in at a group of kids, feeling excluded. It’s an idea she’d return to later with lyrics like, “She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” in “You Belong With Me.” And though she certainly looks more like the cheerleader type, she has said she wrote “The Outside” when she was just 12, feeling shunned for being different -- taller than other girls, and more apt to spend a weekend singing at a festival than attending a sleepover.
7. "Tied Together With a Smile”
She opens with a line that feels like it addresses the listener directly: “Seems the only one who doesn’t see your beauty is the face in the mirror looking back at you.” It’s a trick -- a good-natured one -- that makes a certain kind of pop song extra-appealing, whether it’s Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” or One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” You find yourself singing it to yourself later because the lyrics make you feel great. No one needs this message more than the teen girls who made up Swift’s original fan base: You’re more beautiful and wonderful than you realize.
8. "Stay Beautiful”
Forget Drew from five tracks ago. “Cory’s eyes are like a jungle/He smiles, it’s like the radio.” The similes might be a little messy, but we get it. This paean to a cute boy has the added punch of Swift’s trademark way of always looking at her present life from the sage vantage point of the future: “And when you find everything you’ve looked for/I hope your love leads you back to my door/Oh, but if it don’t, stay beautiful.” This ditty’s light-hearted approach tells us that Future Taylor knows she’ll be just fine without her Cory, and we’ll be just fine without our Corys, too.
9. “Should’ve Said No”
The opening steel guitar riff is basically a sped-up version of the “Tim McGraw” opening, and the lyrics make this song your basic why-did-you-cheat-on-me jam -- a less-interesting kiss-off song than “Picture to Burn.” That said, listeners love a good kiss-off song, and this relatively ho-hum track still charted, peaking at No. 33 on the Hot 100 as the album’s final single.
10. "Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)”
Swift’s evocative storytelling gift is back in full force on this one, about a couple who originally meet as family friends at ages 7 and 9 and grow up to fall in love, much to their parents’ delight. The details make the song -- turning up creek beds and riding in trucks at 2 a.m. -- but you’re right there with her if you’ve ever been in a similar situation. (Mine was named David.) Spoiler alert: This isn’t the last time a guy is going to get down on one knee in the last verse of a Taylor Swift song.
11. “Our Song”
The concluding track pulls out all the tricks. Mellifluous lyrics begging to be sung with a twang: “I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car.” And then, immediately, the sweetest imagery ever: “He’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel, the other on my heart.” The central conceit has Swift lamenting to a beau that they don’t have a song. His answer is beyond romantic: Their song is the sound of him tapping on her window when they’re sneaking out, of her voice on the phone, of him wishing he’d kissed her on their first date, “And when I got home, before I said Amen, asking God if he could play it again.” Then, just when you think it couldn’t get cuter, she adds the meta coda you’ve been waiting for: “I grabbed a pen and an old napkin and I wrote down our song.” It’s the perfect ending to this debut effort -- and a hint that there would be plenty of similar songwriting in her future.