One of Taylor Swift‘s secret weapons in her early hit-making days was Nashville songwriting veteran Liz Rose, who co-wrote a number of Swift’s best and biggest early hits, including “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “White Horse” and “You Belong With Me.” The latter went all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and established the country star as a major pop player.
“It’s really fun to start a song, and you can just hand it to the room, and they all start singing it,” Rose tells Billboard of the enduring smash, whose explosive shout-along refrain we just named the 20th-best chorus of the entire 21st century. “You don’t get many songs like that.”
After Swift wrote third album Speak Now entirely on her own, she and Rose only collaborated once more — on 2012’s Red highlight “All Too Well” — but the latter has remained an in-demand country and pop songwriter, even winning a Grammy in 2016 for her work on Little Big Town‘s surprise crossover hit “Girl Crush.” Rose spoke to Billboard about her memories of co-penning (and later performing) one of Swift’s early signature hits.
Was the chorus the first part of the song that came together?
We always started at the beginning. It just flowed out, honestly. She’s so fast. And Taylor kind of knew — she came in with [sings] “You’re on the phone with your girlfriend…” And it just kind of flowed into that chorus.
Are there individual strengths that you and Taylor have as co-songwriters, where you put your emphasis on one part and she does another?
We were always back-and-forth. She comes in with the story and the melody — I truly believe that she heard the production in that song while we wrote it. And that song always amazes me, because when I do writers’ night and I try to play it, I always make the audience sing it — or I make girls get up to sing it.
And that chorus — it’s impossible to sing! I don’t know how she did it. Well, I mean, she’s young and she has a great voice. But the high-reaching [parts of the chorus]… usually I just stop and let the audience sing it. I’m like, “Y’all take this, I can’t do it!”
Was there a part of the chorus that once it came together, you guys knew you were good to go?
Oh, man, just the way it flowed so fast. And I loved the way that it was [only] half of the chorus the first time — have you noticed that? I just think that was so cool, the way we did that.
It does seem like something you guys did a number of times together — where the chorus does shift as the song goes on, and by the third chorus, there’s a key word or phrase that gets turned on its head a little. What do you think the power of doing that is?
It makes you want to stay until the end of the song. And I think that it makes a song more personal. It does it in [Fearless single] “White Horse,” and it does it in “You Belong With Me.” It just makes the listener feel like the writer and the artist care about the song — that they’re like, “Okay, you’ve heard it, but wait a minute — ‘cause I want you know that this really affected me, I’m gonna dig the knife in just a little bit deeper.” We were never through writing a song until we were through writing a song. Until the last line.
I noticed listening to the song recently that it almost sounds like a ‘90s rock song, the way the verses explode into the chorus. Was that something you guys were intentionally going for, or just how it came together?
I think it was there when we were writing it. We wrote it, like, the day before she cut it. And she, I believe, wanted to make sure she’d written everything she could write for the record before she finished cutting it. So I think she came in wanting to write an up-tempo [number], and came in with that story, wanting to write this really fun, fast, driving song. And you can hear it in the guitar, in the work tape.
Do you think this is the best chorus you and Taylor ever did together?
Absolutely. When I go out and do it — when I don’t even have to sing it [Laughs] — it’s pretty awesome! There’s a lot of joy in it. It’s really fun to do live, it’s really fun to watch young girls to 50-year-old women get up and sing it.
Do you have a favorite chorus of the 21st century, or a song that comes to mind when think of a great 21st-century chorus?
Oh, gosh. Well “Girl Crush,” of course. [Laughs.] But that I didn’t write? Taylor’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” I mean, that song is amazing. And [Florida Georgia Line‘s] “Cruise.” Think about what “Cruise” did, with FGL. Just that it makes you want to sing it, whether you’re a fan of theirs or not, it doesn’t matter. That song, it had a big impact on country music. And “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Miranda [Lambert], that Kacey [Musgraves] wrote. There’s some great ones.