During the 13 months that Taylor Swift canvassed the globe on her 2011-12 "Speak Now" tour, she was joined onstage by a steady parade of celeb musician friends and admirers: Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber in L.A., Usher in Atlanta, Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn in her home base of Nashville, Selena Gomez and James Taylor at Madison Square Garden in New York.
On the surface, the guest appearances were simply a bonus for fans -- a little something to generate extra sparks, Twitter and water cooler buzz about those shows.
But the move seems to have had an unanticipated side effect on the star -- and her latest album, "Red."
"I reached a moment in making this album where I just wanted to get into the studio with people who do things differently than I do and see how they do it," said Swift, 22, during a recent break in rehearsals in North Hollywood. "It was really more of an experience decision. I really never want to get stuck making the same album more than once."
"Red," Swift's fourth album, is an unapologetically big pop record that opens new sonic vistas for her thanks to collaborations with pop-world heavyweights including Max Martin and his frequent songwriting and production partner Shellback, Ed Sheeran, Jeff Bhasker and Semisonic singer Dan Wilson. "Red" will be released worldwide Monday.
The new alliances manifest in the big-beat pop chorus of the album's first single, "We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together," which she wrote with Martin and Shellback, who produced it. The title track, her essay on a best-of-times, worst-of-times relationship, opens over a simple banjo accompaniment but quickly kicks into rock overdrive with pounding drums and a throbbing bass line. The song "22" applies a strong dose of Auto-Tune to mechanize her vocal over what sounds like programmed electronic drums. And she's gained considerable attention for the peppery syncopated rhythms in "I Knew You Were Trouble" and the hints of dubstep she, Martin and Shellback weaved into her tale of yet another star-crossed romance.
With only the most fleeting traces of the country music with which she launched her career, the album creatively too takes her deeper into the pop world than "Speak Now," for which she proudly wrote all 14 songs single-handedly. It became the first album in more than 5- 1/2 years to sell more than 1 million copies in its first week of release when it came out two years ago. It has since sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Her aim on "Red" was to genuinely collaborate rather than simply add musical window dressing to what she'd been doing all along.
Case in point: "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" reaching No. 1, for two weeks, on the Billboard 100 pop chart, one of the few commercial peaks she hadn't yet conquered. It's also become a bona-fide hit in England, a sign of the solidifying international appeal she's been building for several years, a rarity for Nashville-based musicians.
Meanwhile, Swift continues to be a lightning rod for attention, positive and negative. For every award she collects, such as her six Grammys including the album of the year for "Fearless" and multiple entertainer of the year accolades from the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, she weathers withering blows from listeners and music critics who dis her vocal abilities, even her enthusiasm whenever good news comes her way.
"I never have the moment where I feel like it's too much," she said. "But there's definitely the moment where I get sad that I feel like sometimes people don't believe in anything being genuine anymore. That no matter what, there's someone questioning everything that I say or do."
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