You Must Remember This: Taylor Swift Has Built a Mega-Selling Career Out of Carefully Observed Moments

The last song on Taylor Swift's most recent album, Speak Now, is a stadium-rock shout-out to her band called "Long Live." It's a fist-pumping victory lap that revels in its own ridiculousness, with Swift comparing her platinum-selling self and her photogenic cohorts to "a band of thieves in ripped-up jeans," and telling them, "I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you."

But as goofily grandiloquent as the song gets, it starts with a simple reminder to herself: "I say, remember this moment/In the back of my mind." This is something that preoccupies and in some ways defines Taylor Swift as a songwriter: an awareness of the ephemeral, a determination to register and hang onto fleeting feelings and impressions, a pre-emptive nostalgia for a present (and sometimes even a future) that she knows will some day be in the past. On the title track to her 2008 album, Fearless, she urges a lover to "put your eyes on me/In this moment now, capture it, remember it." And her very first single, "Tim McGraw," which hit the Billboard Country top 10 in 2006, is about the way music connected to a time and place becomes its own kind of memory: "When you think Tim McGraw/I hope you think my favorite song/The one we danced to all night long."

That Swift is only 21, and that she has been writing like this since she was about 14, can seem kind of funny if you're any amount of years older. Listening to someone born in 1989 ponder the passage of time could easily provoke a certain amount of condescension. But if you remember the tumult of teenage-hood or young twentysomething life, you know that a few years can feel like forever ago. Swift was 17 when she wrote a song called "Fifteen," but there's nothing put-on about its emergent maturity and the sense of distance she already had from her younger self. "When you're 15 and somebody tells you they love you/You're gonna believe them," she sighs. She concludes, "I didn't know who I was supposed to be at 15."

Of course, Taylor Swift has long since figured out who she's supposed to be: the biggest pop star in America, give or take a Gaga. She sold more albums in the U.S. last year than anybody else, and the tour that brings her to Knoxville this Friday has sold out arenas and stadiums from Boston to Houston. (The show at Thompson-Boling Arena sold out in minutes. Earlier this week, tickets were being listed for resale online for anywhere from $50 to $330.)

Her stardom is such that a lot of people who have never heard her music know her name and, often, have an opinion about her. Her long blond hair, her love of poofy dresses, and her penchant for increasingly hard-to-swallow displays of "Oh, my!" surprise when she wins trophy after trophy on assorted award shows have made her easy to caricature. But those prom gowns and that too-cute stage patter are just the packaging on what is already, after three albums, an impressive and deceptively complex body of work.

It's true that Swift writes fine ear candy—some tracks come at you hook after hook after hook, saving their best melodic moves for artfully constructed bridges that build back into her big, winning choruses. But she has more than a talent for a tune. The key to her appeal is a disarming directness in both her lyrics and her often unfairly maligned singing. Her voice is thin and plain, and on television broadcasts you sometimes hear her straining to find the key. But she shades her phrasing with fully articulated emotion—exuberance, desolation, regret, and contempt all come through clearly.

So does her development as a writer. She is unusual in modern country (where she started) and pop (where she now resides) in many ways, but the most obvious is in her self-assurance as a composer. She has had the kind of career that almost doesn't exist anymore: She started making the rounds of Nashville labels and publishers when she was still in middle school, peddling her own material. She was eventually signed by the nascent independent label Big Machine, which paired her with some more seasoned songwriters for polishing.

Swift had a writing credit on all 11 songs on her self-titled debut, but solo credits on just three. On Fearless, that balance shifted to seven out of 13 tracks (including the massive hit "Love Story"), and she has sole authorship on all 14 songs on Speak Now. And it's not just that she's doing it herself: Her songs and ideas have gotten richer and more varied, and their settings now range from backporch twang to guitar rock to stormy, gothy stomp.

She can still be a sucker for a cliché, like the dead roses that symbolize a break-up in "Back to December." But that same song, one of the best she's written, is built on a complicated sense of regret: at having walked away from someone who loved her, at her own lack of confidence ("the dark days/when fear crept into my mind"), and especially at the knowledge that it is too late to do anything about it. She goes even deeper in the album's other great goodbye, "Last Kiss," where a mournful, echoing piano figure underscores the sense of absence and loneliness. "I still remember the look on your face/Lit through the darkness at 1:58," she begins, summoning another of those moments she can't help cataloging and clinging to. But he's not there anymore. In a nod to heartbreak in the age of Facebook, she sings, "I watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep/And I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe." It's impossible to know how many times that song has been played in how many dark rooms since Swift released it last fall, but it's safe to guess the number is high. It doesn't matter which of her many high-profile beaus it was written about; like most of her songs, it universalizes her own experiences.

That is likewise true when she is smitten ("Fearless"), fed up ("White Horse"), horny ("Sparks Fly"), pissed off ("Dear John," "Better Than Revenge"), hurt ("Mean"), or forgiving ("Innocent," in which she assures the blundering Kanye West, "It's okay, life is a tough crowd"). Speak Now generated a lot of tabloid talk about which songs were aimed at whom, but it is Swift's candor and her ability to see several points of view at once that resonate, not her sometimes comically questionable taste in boys. (John Mayer?) She builds entire dramas out of carefully considered moments, like the first time you run into an ex in a crowd ("The Story of Us"), or the tantalizing hours between seeing someone across a room and finding out whether they have a girlfriend ("Enchanted").

All of her talents come together most remarkably on Speak Now's quietest song, "Never Grow Up." What starts as a lullaby to a baby in a cradle turns out to be a warning to her younger self at various stages. Knowing the kinds of hurt and disappointment that lie ahead—for anyone, including mega-selling pop stars—Swift urges the impossible: "Don't you ever grow up, just stay this little." But it isn't a song of self-pity; it's a recognition, again, that everything and everyone changes. She sees herself at 14, "on your way to the movies/And you're mortified your mom's dropping you off." But, she sings tenderly, "Don't make her drop you off around the block/Remember that she's getting older too." The song's bridge is another litany of those things she wants to keep with her even as they fade into the distance: "Take a picture in your mind of your childhood room/Memorize what it sounded like when your dad gets home/Remember the footsteps, remember the words said/And all your little brother's favorite songs." Then comes the kicker, the thing that makes holding onto any of this both necessary and futile: "I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone." There is no reaching for solace here, just a sudden and adult grasp of the inevitable.

That premonition of loss haunts even the celebratory "Long Live." Swift looks into the future, beyond the current moment of triumph, and imagines a time when she and her friends have parted ways. "Promise me this," she asks them, "If you have children someday/When they point to the pictures/Please tell them my name."

Taylor Swift doesn't have to worry about being forgotten any time soon. But it is not surprising that she imagines the possibility. As she keeps reminding us, nothing lasts.