She was born sometime in the 1950s, maybe earlier. Her exact age isn’t important, because she’s forever young, a perpetual woman-child. And although she may be sexy, that part of her appeal is minimally played up or hardly acknowledged. Millions have become enraptured by her innocuous songs lamenting unrequited love or promising unwavering devotion.
She’s the American Pop Music Sweetheart, and as tastes in pop music seem to change by the hour, there’s always a lucrative market for her. Today, Taylor Swift is perhaps the best current embodiment.
On “Red,” her new album (and the name of her current tour, which comes to the Colonial Life Arena Saturday), Swift changes her groove, so to speak. She breaks from the conservative world of country, a place where she only tentatively resided anyway, and moves into unabashed pop territory.
There aren’t any garish declarations of sexual independence, a route several former sweethearts have taken over the years when trying “something new.” At 23, Swift still shrewdly occupies the sweetheart role, as she upends expectations of it and garners industry kudos.
“She’s an interesting case. For one thing, she has a lot of respect among a lot of people as a good musician,” said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “She’s a singer-songwriter. She’s not just singing somebody else’s Tin Pan Alley songs. But at the same time, she does fit into this kind of American sweetheart image, though that’s always a hard image to maintain.”
The American pop sweetheart is a contrivance of innocence. And, historically in pop music, young white women have been the main embodiments.
Patti Page was perhaps the earliest example, as her career exploded in the early ’50s just before rock stormed the scene. Unlike other pre-rock pop stars, Page survived the cultural tsunamis of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, scoring 15 million-selling singles between 1950 and 1965. They included the enormously popular “Tennessee Waltz” and the extremely bland, but favored “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window.”
Page’s career boomed as TV was becoming more accessible in American homes. And her image -- wholesome, camera-pretty and squeaky clean -- was easy to market during the segregated, highly conservative Eisenhower years.
In the early ’60s, with rock in full swing and just before Beatlemania, there was Leslie Gore, famous for the adolescent heartbreak classic “It’s My Party,” playing the sweetheart role.
Olivia Newton-John, a British import by way of Australia, came along in the ’70s and, like Swift, courted the pop and country worlds with huge success. Her 1978 role in “Grease” presaged Newton-John’s awkward segue from sweetheart to sexy pop superstar.
In the 1980s, with the concurrent rise of MTV and Madonna, two culture-shifting forces that provided splashy visuals for hotly sexualized female pop stars, the American pop sweetheart role was integrated.
Whitney Houston, whose career was painstakingly strategized by pop impresario Clive Davis, was the first black American pop sweetheart. With Glamour magazine-ready looks and an amiable, perky sound bolstered by a dash of gospel firepower, Houston was the crossover dream come to life. Her appeal reached teens and adults, unlike another ’80s American pop sweetheart, Debbie Gibson, whose audience was dominated by girls and teens.
But in the early 1990s, the careers of Houston and Gibson felt the sting of a backlash, as hip-hop, grunge and more aggressive, noisier styles invaded pop.
With the exception of early Mariah Carey, whose approach was similar to Houston’s, the American pop sweetheart role seemed temporarily vacant until later in the ’90s with the rise of two pop Lolitas, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. But with music and images that were uncomfortably sexualized, they were nobody’s sweethearts.
Then in 2006, at the height of the neoconservative George W. Bush years, Swift, a blond 16-year-old wunderkind from Pennsylvania, blew onto the scene.
She offered a cooling alternative to the overheated sexual shenanigans of older female pop tarts like Spears and Aguilera. She strummed a guitar and crooned songs of teen angst and lost loves that were melodically clear with indelible narratives. Universal truths also were woven into the lyrics, with a scope wide enough to appeal to almost anyone. Change the instrumentation and Swift’s songs could fit into any style, the hallmark of a strong songwriter.
“She’s really carved out both a generic and demographic space for herself,” said Thompson of Syracuse University. “There aren’t a lot of artists like Taylor Swift, which is one reason why she’s so popular. It’s also that she’s in this unique territory, generically protected by the kind of country roots that makes the whole thing she does not seem too precious, too schmaltzy or too forced.”
But inevitably there’s a break from the American pop sweetheart role. Some, like Page or Newton-John, are always remembered as such, no matter how hard the latter tried to turn the heat up on her image back in the early ’80s. Others like Gore and Gibson didn’t keep up with the times and quietly ventured beyond music. Carey embraced sex appeal before suffering a public meltdown and, later, re-inventing herself. In 2012, Houston’s personal demons claimed her life.
As for Swift’s maturation out of the sweetheart role, she and her handlers “have to identify what it is that made her so popular and what it is that if they change it could threaten her popularity, but at the same time have her continue to record relevant music that people are interested in,” Thompson said. “That’s easier said than done.”
During the whirlwind promotion for “Red,” much has been written about Swift and her exes, including actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Conor Kennedy, one of the youngest members of the political family. Swift told Katie Couric in a recent interview, “I don’t really know that much about love, it turns out.” Such sentiments provide inspiration for her brokenhearted melodies and ironically crystallize her place as an American pop sweetheart, forever suspended in that precious space between girl and woman.