Taylor Swift Tapes VH1 'Storytellers,' Lifts Curtain on New Songs from 'Red'

12:14 PM PST 10/17/2012 by Chris Willman
Frank Micelotta for VH1 Storytellers

The country superstar kisses and semi-tells during an intimate nine-song set at California's Harvey Mudd College.

Taylor Swift has made a career for herself as a kiss-and-tell kind of girl -- or kiss and semi-tell, since she usually refuses to name names in her confessional songwriting. So the idea of her taping a VH1 Storytellers raised some intrigue among fans, in case the format would lead her to reveal more about the subjects of her songs, who, in her adult dating life, have tended to be fellow celebrities.

But she was at her most circumspect Monday night in Claremont, Calif. talking about her tunes in front of an audience of almost 2,500 at Harvey Mudd College students. Any tabloid reporters who snuck in would have found the evening a wash. That’s not to say the co-eds themselves had any reason to feel cheated: Swift has a knack for seemingly being utterly intimate, guileless, and disarming in exploring the general details of turning her personal life into hit parade fodder, even when she’s being necessarily withholding. She didn’t have to name names to gain the confidence of a couple thousand new BFFs.

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The nine-song set was taped for broadcast on Nov. 11, ostensibly to promote her fourth studio album, Red, which comes out next Monday and will likely generate the year’s biggest first-week numbers. Anyone in the live audience hoping she’d debut unheard music from the CD had to be content with three of the four singles she’d already released from the album through iTunes, which have collectively sold a whopping 3.5 million units in advance of the full album’s release. She’s not any more likely to allow a new tune to be YouTubed before its time than she is to allow the word “Kennedy” to accidentally escape her lips on stage.

But regardless of how many fresh revelations there were, the evening was still a pleasure for anyone who realized that Swift was covering the middle performance ground she skipped in her career -- that is, playing a headliner set without huge production values. Like a savant who skips several grades, Swift proceeded in her late teens directly from being LeAnn Rimes’ or Brad Paisley’s opening act to putting on Madonna-scale arena spectacles. Seeing her chat spontaneously and sing and play guitar (and banjo) on a stage without trap doors -- while wearing the same knee-length white dress all evening -- proved she’d still stand as the Best People Person Since Bill Clinton even if she never had mastered the arts of the quick costume change and flying over a Staples Center crowd.

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After opening with “You Belong With Me,” Swift introduced “Red” as a song about thinking of a relationship as “the worst thing ever and the best thing ever at the same time.” (In other words, it’s her “My Favorite Mistake.”) If you study timelines, you might suppose that that fiery tune was written about the bad boy she fell in love (or lust) with prior to meeting the good guy who is the subject of the far more tender “Begin Again.”

Of the latter song, Swift said, “I think the worst part about a breakup sometimes, if one could choose a worst part, would possibly be if you get out of a relationship and you don’t recognize yourself, because you changed a lot about yourself to make that person like you. Which I never would do,” she said, tentatively, before adding the kicker: “Always do. And… I wrote this song about the idea that you could kind of remember who you used to be by meeting someone new who… celebrates the things about you that the other person used to criticize you endlessly for. That was an interesting thing for me to write about, the idea of actually moving on and there being hope after the crash-and-burn that always happens. Not always -- I believe in love! But I think that this was an important song for me to write personally.”

The closest Swift came to alluding to the recent tabloid attention she’s received came when she was introducing “Ours,” the mesmerizingly sweet final single off her previous album.

“It’s a song I wrote about someone that I really liked at the time,” she explained. “What kind of happens with my life, which has been interesting, is there are a lot of opinions about who you fall in love with. Which happens in everybody’s life -- you know, you fall in love with someone and all of a sudden your friends start chiming in. (But) in my case, it’s like, people I don’t know just make comments on it. The last thing that you want to hear when you fall in love is ‘They don’t look cute together.’ ‘He’s got tattoos.’… ‘He’s too short for her.’ ‘He’s too young for her.’ ‘He’s too old for her.’ Because I think that when people fall in love, it should just be about those two people. And when I was dating someone that people didn’t think I should have been -- because I shouldn’t have been dating him! -- anyway, back to the story... I wrote this song to let him know I didn’t care what anyone else thought.”

AUDIO: Taylor Swift Debuts Title Track From Upcoming Album 'Red' 

The Swift who doesn’t give a hoot about anyone else’s take seems slightly more credible than Taylor The Insecure, but she took pains to assure the collegians that the latter persona is a part of her. There was an extended riff on her overcoming a phobia of a certain “critic” (or blogger) with “Mean,” which unwittingly became an anti-bullying anthem, even though she says she only meant it as a personal catharsis.

And, answering a student’s question about whether she doubts herself, she answered, “I doubt myself 400,000 times per 10-minute interval. I have a terrifying long list of fears. Literally everything -- diseases, spiders… and people getting tired of me.”

That last fear is more stuff for her shrink than SoundScan prognosticators, judging from the response to the contest that led to the location for this particular Storytellers. Although the show is almost always taped on a soundstage, Swift held a contest in which collegians could garner support for having the show hosted at their school. Two students from Harvey Mudd College led the charge and succeeded in drawing Swift to sing at Pomona College’s gorgeous 1931 Bridges Auditorium before an audience drawn from all the Claremont campuses.

An anti-Swift contingent led a campaign to make a school for the deaf the contest winner, but everyone won, as the singer donated a healthy amount to the school that was inadvertently drawn into the prank. Another lesson for haters everywhere: Even trying to be “mean” to Swift only leads to greater positive vibrations in the collective karma.

Set List:

You Belong With Me
Red
Ours
Eyes Open
Mean
Begin Again
Our Song
Love Song
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

Twitter: @chriswillman

Pictured below (L to R): VH1's Lee Rolontz, Alex Colletti, Taylor Swift, Rick Krim and Bill Flanagan

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