Need a shirt with my face on it?” Taylor Swift is doing some Saturday afternoon shopping when she spots the tee, a cherry-red number that immediately takes her back to a much simpler time. “That’s from, like, my 2006 tour,” she says, running her fingers over its gently worn cotton. “That’s … awesome.”
The 22-year-old superstar loves pretty much everything about this particular Nashville shop, which sells vintage clothing, musical instruments, and a quirkily curated selection of knickknacks out of a house with a wraparound porch where customers can take a break from browsing to sit for a spell. And with Christmas approaching, it seems like a promising place to start looking for presents. “I like to get gifts that remind people I know them,” she says. “[Things] that I have a specific reason for giving them. I start thinking about it really far in advance.”
In the back room, two men’s sweaters catch her eye. “This would be baggy,” Swift says, holding up a cream, cable-knit V-neck—but she doesn’t seem to be shopping for a guy. “I’d wear it kind of off the shoulder.”
Who says a girl can’t holiday-gift herself? She certainly deserves it. Swift’s fourth album, Red, is a blockbuster that moved more than 1 million copies its first week, just as her 2010 album, Speak Now, did, making her the first female artist in Nielsen SoundScan history to hit that staggering mark more than once. Released last month, the boldly personal Red earned the six-time Grammy winner some of her best reviews yet, thanks to its lyrical maturity and ambitious forays into everything from earworm pop (“We are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) to U2-esque arena rock (“State of Grace”). Swift is no longer the wide-eyed country cutie pictured on that 2006 tour T-shirt; she’s a savvy young -woman who sees no reason to be boxed in by any genre. “You have to force yourself,” she says, “to evolve.”
And how. The onetime outsider—a songwriting savant bullied by mean girls in junior high and overlooked by the guys she crushed on has evolved into the ultimate insider, an entertainer Forbes ranked as the highest-paid celeb under 30 this year, with earnings of $57 million. She has more than 20 million Twitter followers, CoverGirl-endorsed beauty, A-list BFFs (Emma Stone and Selena Gomez), a couple of hit movies (Valentine’s Day and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax), and a growing list of high-profile ex-boyfriends (including actors Taylor Lautner and Jake Gyllenhaal, musicians Joe Jonas and John Mayer, and, as breathlessly documented in the tabloids earlier this year, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s 18-year-old son, Conor). A performer who takes pride in being a role model, she will be honored next month by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights for her commitment to social change, including advocacy against bullying and support for arts education and disaster relief.
So why can’t Swift shake the fear that she’ll somehow mess it all up? “I’m scared of this whole thing backfiring,” she says. “Or chewing me up and spitting me out, and all of a sudden, I don’t love it anymore.”
She worries so much that, naturally, she wrote a song about it. “The Lucky One,” a track from Red, tells the story of a performer who decides to walk away from stardom (“Chose the Rose Garden over Madison Square”). If someday it all gets to be too much, could Swift do the same? She doesn’t yet have an answer for that, but she does know she puts “a crazy amount of pressure” on herself to keep topping her own achievements. “My head’s never really quiet,” she says. “The only time I can get it to turn off is if I watch CSI or Law & Order, where I have to follow the crime. If I can’t turn my head off during that, I know I’ve really got a problem.”
“Nobody puts more pressure on Taylor than Taylor herself—in a good way,” says Liz Rose, who has cowritten a number of songs with Swift, including the Grammy-winning “White Horse” and “All Too Well” from Red. “As amazing as she is now, she was that amazing at 14,” Rose adds. “She’s just a force. There are emotions you don’t feel at 14 that you feel at 22, and her lyrics have grown with her.”
Despite writing about it so prolifically, Swift claims not to know much about love. “I tend to think things are love and then look back and reevaluate,” she says. How many times has she been in love? “I know how many people I’ve said ‘I love you’ to,” she says. “I could probably count it up, but I don’t feel like it.
“Part of me feels you can’t say you were truly in love if it didn’t last,” she adds. “If I end up getting married and having kids, that’s when I’ll know it’s real—because it lasted.