Country's cross-generational appeal is now almost as ingrained as its nostalgia. And yet, it has rarely sated the teenybop market with an age-appropriate idol its numbers have earned. Enter Taylor Swift, a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old, blue eyes framed by blonde ringlets, her songwriting credits respectable at worst, her newfound niche overdue for occupancy. As country prodigies go, Swift's no more a LeeAnn Rimes, shamelessly flaunting her high-wattage pipes, than she is a Tanya Tucker, unwittingly trafficking in jailbait fantasies. On this very site, doubters have called her voice “immature,” while another listener pointedly avers, “you got some dues to pay first before you can sing about a broken heart.” But that's beside the point — she's self-consciously a teenager, young enough to fantasize about a future broken heart rather than mourn an actual one.
Even listeners sonically allergic to pop country should make room for “Tim McGraw,” last fall's big hit. “When you think ‘Tim McGraw,'” Swift sings to an old beau, “I hope you think our favorite song,” adding, “I hope you think of me.” A welcome addition to the noble tradition of songs-about-songs, “Tim McGraw” isn't really about “the haunting power of country music,” as Swift told Country Weekly, and you needn't have loved or even heard a McGraw song for it to catch you up. “Tim McGraw” is about the enduring power of any listener to imbue any music with personal meaning — Tim, he's just incidental, a metrically convenient trio of syllables for Swift's exercise in romantic nostalgia.
But if Swift anticipates a bittersweet nostalgia for heartbreak, she also anticipates memories of happiness as well. She sings “Mary's Song (Oh My My)” in the voice of a married woman who reminisces about when she was seven and her man was nine — eighty years ago. From there, she occasionally fades into midtempo competence, and falls for insights like “I'm just a girl/ Tryin'to find a place in this world.” But for more successful teencentric vignettes, there's “Our Song” (“He's got a one-hand feel/ On the steering wheel/ The other on my…” pause, before adding “heart”), reminding us that country music is the last genre where people listen to the radio in songs, while on the spunky “Picture to Burn” (“So go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy/ That's fine — I'll tell mine you're gay”) she imagines Avril as a fourth Dixie Chick. If those comparisons seem a few years outdated, that's intentional — like Garth Brooks smuggling soft rock into Nashville two years after the fact, Swift's importing, and revitalizing, the attitude of confessional teenpop years past its prime.
That same ‘tude subtly permeates the big hit as well. Maybe it's that slide acoustic guitar lick gently nuzzling against the verses the makes “Tim McGraw” seem so much sweeter than it is. But from the very start, Swift hushedly recognizes that her boy's line about the way her blue eyes shine is “a lie.” The last verse is a tart kiss-off, too, with Taylor boasting — what else? — that he'll hear her on the radio one day. The video makes the story clearer, as the dude, sitting in his truck, wipes away a tear as he listens to the radio. “Tim McGraw” isn't just for young girls to moon over a love they'll someday lose. It's a song about making boys cry. And that, girls, is something to look forward to.