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.”
Trying to figure out which of Swift’s songs are about which of her relationships has become a pop culture pastime. “When the guessing game starts, it’s really funny,” says the star, who always declines to name names (although Gyllenhaal is widely believed to be Red’s central, fiery inspiration). “It’s like, off to the races! I sit back and laugh and think, ‘They’ll never know.’”
Speculation aside, Swift’s songs confirm that she has repeatedly felt burned. Blame it on the bad boys she often seems drawn to. “There’s a really interesting charisma involved,” she says of the allure. “They usually have a lot to say, and even if they don’t, they know how to look at you to say it all. I think every girl’s dream is to find a bad boy at the right time, when he wants to not be bad anymore.”
She’s the first to admit that her romances tend to develop—and end—rather swiftly. “I don’t think there’s an option for me to fall in love slowly, or at medium speed. I either do or I don’t,” says the chart topper, who calculates that her longest relationship to date lasted six months. “I don’t think it through, really, which is a good thing and a bad thing. You don’t look before you leap, which is like, ‘Yay, this is awesome! Let’s not think twice!’ And then you’re like, ‘We used to be flying. Now we’re falling. What’s happening?’” It comes with the territory when life moves as fast as it does for her, she adds. “I’m never in the same place for more than, like, three days at a time. Things can change from one minute to the next.”
Not everything happens at warp speed, though: “I don’t get over people fast,” she says. Nor does she expect to settle down anytime soon. “People think I want to get married really young—I don’t know why. I’m a romantic person, but that doesn’t mean I want to miss out on being in my young 20s.”
That includes making time for fun and snacks while writing songs. According to British musician Ed Sheeran, who cowrote Red’s “Everything Has Changed” with Swift, a trampoline was central to the creative process. “We would take breaks in between lines of the song to bounce around and think of more ideas,” he recalls. “Afterward she baked an apple pie. It was wicked.”
For the most part, Swift has handled her first six years in the spotlight with a preternatural grace. In August, though, she hit a rare public relations speed bump—that Kennedy wedding incident, which she won’t discuss (“It’s been talked about enough”)—and while she claims she doesn’t read gossip about herself, she’s now all too aware that everyone else does. “I don’t know necessarily how much privacy I’m entitled to,” she says when asked about the difficulty of living in the public eye, “but I know I don’t get much of it. At the same time, I asked for this. I could be playing in a coffeehouse—I’d be happy doing that, [but] not as happy, probably. Knowing that people are going to hear the music I make is the most amazing feeling. Knowing that there are dudes waiting outside my house with cameras, hiding in bushes, is a less awesome feeling.”
No one would accuse Swift, whose parents moved the family from Wyomissing, Pa., to Nashville when she was 14 so she could pursue a music career, of being ungrateful for her success. The loss of privacy, she notes, is “a small price to pay for getting to play stadiums.” Still, there are days when she’d rather not deal with all that being Taylor Swift now entails. She travels with one or two security guards at all times because, as she puts it, “I have some crazies that are after me.” As a result, she can’t remember the last time she went anywhere by herself.
“I have some days where I get frustrated,” she admits. “I kind of give myself this pep talk, like, ‘Are you in the mood for lots of social situations and pictures? If the answer’s no, stay inside.’”
Sometimes, just hanging at home with a little Chinese food and some crime-solving TV is exactly what she needs. “It’s just like this sense of”—she exhales deeply—“no one is watching me, no one is asking me anything. It’s calming.”
Maybe one of these days Swift will get around to taking an extended break—although the mere thought turns the volume in her head up to 11. “If I took a break, would I stop writing songs so much?” she wonders.
Or maybe she’d wind up having even more to write about. Who knows? She doesn’t—not yet. “I have so much to learn about life,” she says. “I know nothing compared to what I’m going to know someday.”
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Photos: Taylor Swift's Star Style