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Taylor Swift: A young singer's meteoric rise

At 21, Taylor Swift is at the top of the music charts, filling arenas with her catchy melodies and thoughtful lyrics. But, as Lesley Stahl reports, that's not the only thing that makes the singer-songwriter extraordinary. Swift has an uncanny knack for business and a willingness to take brave risks when it comes to her career. And, unlike many starlets and pop stars, she's committed to serving as a role model for her millions of young fans.

The following is a script of "Taylor Swift" which aired on Nov. 20, 2011. Lesley Stahl is correspondent, Shari Finkelstein, producer.

Five years ago this fall, a 16-year-old girl released her debut country music album and dreamed of making it big. Well, today that girl at 21, is as big as it gets. She has sold more albums over those five years than any other artist in any genre. Taylor Swift's has been a meteoric rise.

She seems to know, even at her young age, just the right notes to hit - in her songwriting, and in her business. In an era of declining record sales, Taylor Swift appeals to people that pay a lot for music: girls and their moms. She's held onto her country fans even as she's gotten huge in pop. And then there's her image. In a welcome deviation from the all-too-familiar story of early success gone wrong, she has been in the spotlight without a single public misstep.

Behind the scenes at a Taylor Swift concert
Taylor Swift at 21
Taylor Swift: Writing "Love Story"

Take a look at the crowd at the Staples Center in Los Angeles - where Taylor Swift sold out four shows within minutes.

[Taylor Swift on stage: Well hello, Los Angeles...(huge screams)]

The decibel level here reminds you of the Beatles! It's almost as if she's their spiritual leader, with her message that you can be a good girl, a nice person and still have fun.

Taylor Swift writes her own songs, about love and heartbreak and being the ordinary girl next door. She's been called "the poet laureate of puberty."

Lesley Stahl: Are they great songs in your opinion?

We spoke to Bill Werde, editorial director of Billboard.

Bill Werde: Maybe if she looked different, like let's say she wasn't young and cute. I think people would be talking about her as a great songwriter.

Lesley Stahl: So, you think that the persona and the fan base and all that almost diminishes--

Bill Werde: Yeah, I definitely think it does. You know, I think that it's hard for critics to look at an arena of screaming 12-year-old girls and say, 'This is really credible songwriting.'

Lesley Stahl: But you say it?

Bill Werde: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, no doubt.

All Taylor Swift's songs are autobiographical. "Love Story," grew out of a teenage argument she had with her parents over a boy. They thought he was a creep...

Taylor Swift: And he was but I, at the time, just thought he was amazing.

She started thinking Shakespeare...

Taylor Swift: And I got this pre-chorus in my head that said, "You were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles and my daddy said stay away from Juliet."

She raced in to work out the chords on her bedroom floor...

Taylor Swift: Maybe it's-- (sings it with right chords) and you're just like, oh, okay, well that's that.

[Music video - "Love Story"]

Taylor Swift: I had to fight for that song. Because when I first played it for, you know, my family, a few people-- they were just sort of like eh-- (makes noise).

Lesley Stahl: But you believed in it. You trust yourself.

Taylor Swift: Yeah, it's almost more fun that way when-- when you have something to prove.

"Love Story" went to number one on both Billboard's country and pop songs charts: the first song ever to do that. Proving doubters wrong is a big theme in the tale of Taylor Swift.

She started singing when she was still a toddler. She fell in love with country music and not as a coal miner's daughter from Kentucky. She's a stockbroker's daughter from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania - who at age 10 began nagging her parents to take her to the mecca of country music.

Taylor Swift: It was just on repeat. Just like a loop constantly. Like, 'How about we go to Nashville, can we go to Nashville, can I take a trip to Nashville? Hey.' So I looked up this tourist brochure about Nashville. 'Can we go see Nashville?'

Spring break 2001, they finally gave in and headed to Mecca, says her mother Andrea.

Andrea Swift: We started driving up and down music row. And at that point, she would say, 'Mom. Mom, pull over. That's Mercury Records. Let me out!'

She was 11, toting CDs of herself singing karoake songs.

Lesley Stahl: And she'd run in?

Andrea Swift: She would walk up to the receptionist, and hand them a demo CD and say, 'Hi, I'm Taylor. I'm 11. I want a record deal, call me.'

Lesley Stahl: Anyone call?

Andrea Swift: No. Sadly, no.

She spent the next few years performing every chance she got - even in a bar when she was 13.

Taylor Swift: I remember there was all these like rock-n-roll dudes and like biker guys. And I'm like, "This is a song that I wrote about the guy who sits next to me in class." And it was just like, you know, sometimes i ended up in the wrong venue. But it was still-- it was learning to talk to a crowd, regardless of whether it was the crowd that's going to be most susceptible to liking your music.

Somebody at RCA Records liked her music and offered her a one year development deal. That's when the Swifts moved to Nashville. Taylor was finally where she belonged. Or so she thought.

Taylor Swift: I would go and turn in songs, and more and more, I would just get suggestions that I write-- that I sing other people's songs. And, you know, I just didn't want to.

Andrea Swift: And at that point she said, 'My contract's coming up, Mom, I need to just walk.' And I thought, 'You're kidding.'

Lesley Stahl: How gutsy was that for a 14-year-old?

Scott Borchetta: Gutsy? No, how 'bout unheard of?

Scott Borchetta was an executive at another label.

Scott Borchetta: You don't have artists walking out of one of the biggest record companies and saying, 'You know what, I don't think I need another year of development, I'm gonna go.' Alright.

Lesley Stahl: She did it though.

Scott Borchetta: She absolutely did it, at 14.

Borchetta heard Taylor, liked her songs, and offered to sign her as his first artist on a new label he was starting. She took the risk and it paid off.

Borchetta: As of this week "Speak Now" has sold five million copies worldwide.

"Speak Now" is her third multiplatinum album and she's been on a worldwide, 76-city tour to promote it. The show is an extravaganza with aerialists and fireworks onstage. And frantic darting about below: as Taylor runs in and out of quick change rooms and braces herself inside this glass contraption, preparing to be tossed in the air.

Taylor Swift: I'm praying that I'm not going to break my leg. I'm like, 'Dear god, I'm very clumsy. I'm not a gymnast, I'm not graceful. Please don't let me break my leg.' That's what's going on.

Like big-time musicians today, Taylor makes a bundle on her tours. She's become a brand, with merch, as they say, like T-shirts and show programs. Product endorsements, like for Cover Girl. She even owns her own buses.

Lesley Stahl: Taylor Swift is big, big business.

Scott Borchetta: Yes, she is.

Lesley Stahl: I've seen figures.

Scott Borchetta: They're big.

Lesley Stahl: $100 million to $120 million, just on this tour.

Scott Borchetta: I've seen those figures.

Lesley Stahl: That's like a major corporation.

Scott Borchetta: Taylor Swift is a major corporation

And who's at the helm? Look who we found running the management meeting.

[Taylor Swift: It's like they messed with the color.]


[Taylor Swift: It was bluer in that other edit, and this one is a little warmer, but it's not where it was in the original.]

Unlike other stars of her caliber who sign up with management companies, Taylor created her own. As CEO she manages herself!

[Taylor Swift: It's fine, just cause it's subtle...]

But it's Taylor's way of tirelessly courting her fans that may be the key to her success. Remarkably, she spends an hour before every show, meeting and greeting and charming.

She was a pioneer in using social media to connect personally with her fans: posting funny video blogs she edits herself with glimpses of her offstage life, making her fans feel like they're part of her close circle of friends.

And she's orchestrated her concerts too - to get as close to her fans as any performer we've ever seen. Halfway through the show she walks through the audience and sings three songs to the people in the back.

All while members of her team search the crowd for the most enthusiastic fans, and reward them with gold! An invitation to hang out with Taylor after the show.

Then Taylor heads back to the stage through the crowd. Touching and hugging all over again and when the crowd roars, her expression of awe - again and again - can be, well, hard to believe.

Lesley Stahl: Are you really surprised, or are you just kind of putting it on?

Taylor Swift: I'm really surprised every time I see a crowd like that. 'Cause I never thought I'd get to play to a crowd like that.

Lesley Stahl: So when you go [imitates her making face], it's real?

Taylor Swift: Does it look like that? Great.

[Excerpt from "Thug Story" video]

One of the things her fans love about her is that she laughs at herself, as in this video with rapper T-Pain...

[Taylor Swift: I knit sweaters, yo!]

Poking fun at her squeaky clean image... and turning her uncoolness into cool!

[Taylor Swift: You guys bleeped me and I didn't' even swear.

T-Pain: she didn't even swear.]

Taylor Swift has won just about every music award there is, including the industry's highest honor: the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2010.

But the few setbacks in her meteoric career have come, ironically, on those award nights. As when Kanye West grabbed the mike from her and the time she sang a live duet with Stevie Nicks at the Grammies... off key. One nasty review said she had killed her career overnight, and was "too young and dumb to understand the mistake she'd made."

Taylor Swift: The things that were said about me by this dude, just floored me and like leveled me. And I-- I don't have thick skin. I hate reading criticisms. Like you never-- you never really like get past things hurting you.

But then Taylor did her thing, and turned the wound into a song, the hit single "Mean."

And in the music video Taylor broadened it beyond herself - to a boy in a locker room reading a fashion magazine, a girl who shows up wearing something different. The song has taken on a life of its own - a sort of anti-bullying, anti-meanness anthem.

There's a deep deep connection here. As one of her fans told us: "Taylor lets us know it's okay to be ourselves."

Lesley Stahl: Scott Borchetta says, 'She's a cultural leader and she knows it.'

Taylor Swift: Well, I definitely think about a million people when I'm getting dressed in the morning. That's just part of my life now. And--

Lesley Stahl: You're a role model and you know it.

Taylor Swift: I think it's my responsibility to know it, and to be conscious of it. And it would be really easy to say-- you know, I'm-- I'm 21 now. I do what I want. You raise your kids. But it's, that's not the truth of it. The truth of it is that every singer out there with songs on the radio is raising the next generation. So make your words count.

Lesley Stahl: What is it like to achieve your dream so early?

Taylor Swift: You know-- it's great.

Lesley Stahl: The answer is it's great.

Taylor Swift: You know, it's not bad. And it just means that I have a lot of time to figure out how I'm going to prove myself over and over and over again and-- and I have time to do it.

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