Taylor Swift is about to release the re-recorded version of her fourth studio album, Red. There are other, more industry-savvy writers who have articulated why, including Taylor herself, but the important point is this; ‘Trouble’ may well be on the radio again, and I, along with a crowd of the dedicated and curious, will be listening to this 2012 country-pop masterpiece with fresh ears in 2021.
It’s difficult to explain why this is such an event, outside the thrill and catharsis of one of pop’s great song-writing minds finally owning her early work. It could well be the same phenomenon that sent familiar shivers down some people’s spines when they heard Olivia Rodrigo’s hit single ‘Good 4 U’ explode into its pop-punk chorus for the first time. Cultural moments, in everything from movies to sunglass styles, seem to be running in ever-shorter popularity cycles, but nostalgia for the album which contains ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, a song that was played seven separate times at my 16th birthday party, doesn’t quite sum it up.
Check out Taylor Swift’s video for ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’:
Pandemic-driven patterns of media consumption led a lot of us down the comforting paths of things we loved a while ago. Some people fired up their old Sims games or re-watched The Office. Taylor Swift went back to making guitar music with folklore and evermore, and also released the first of her re-recorded masters, Fearless (Taylor’s Version). If being in my bedroom listening to ‘You Belong With Me’ again felt like a joyful homecoming, the experience of re-recording it must have been surreal.
The versions are pretty exact. Taylor has even said they went bar for bar, but sometimes her increased vocal strength couldn’t be hidden, the Nashville accent wasn’t as strong, or a guitar sound was a different kind of bright. It was enough to give this listener, at least, tiny moments of feeling like I’d missed a step walking down a familiar staircase.
Red, in turn, was the album of my mid-teens, and Taylor wrote it as a 21 and 22-year-old. The shared-life, autobiographical nature of her songs has been expanded on ad nauseam, and this, in combination with 15 years of interviews and now a Netflix documentary, has created a strange pile of stories in the public consciousness about this person most of us have never met.
This level of access over such a long period to a person who makes very widely-circulated work, gives the act of 31-year-old Taylor re-recording her 22-year-old (‘happy, free, confused and lonely’) self’s songs a specific resonance.
The younger Taylor who sings that she “knew you were trouble when you walked in”, was yet to experience some of the most publicly scrutinised break-ups (both romantic and platonic) of her life so far. The writer of ‘Begin Again’ is yet to even meet the man who inspired Lover who also co-wrote on folklore and evermore.
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Check out Taylor Swift’s video for ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’:
The writer of ‘The Lucky One’ hasn’t lived the cruel summer after which she chooses the “rose garden over Madison Square”, writing a record about running away to the woods. This younger Taylor doesn’t know about the heights of her colossal popularity and subsequent fall from grace, or the bloodbath at the end of her contract with Big Machine Records, and has no impediments, personal or pandemic-related, to touring the world full time.
All of us accumulate pain alongside life experience, and the Taylor Swift Discography Cinematic Universe (TSDCU if you will) has traced arcs of both. The public-persona cleanse of Reputation, and Lover’s album closer ‘Daylight’ declaring that she “once believed love would be burning red/but it’s golden”, as well as the family-connected pain articulated in ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’, are examples that spring to mind.
At the same time, Swift has stepped enthusiastically into the role of narrator on folklore and evermore, building a protective, obscuring line between real and invented stories. If ‘folklore’ spoke to the early-pandemic moment by being emotional, gentle and raw, Red feels like an articulation of something a lot of people are now missing; a chance to be young and stupid without the imminent threat of doom.
There is something satisfying about Taylor faithfully singing her old songs, without irony. It’s indisputable that Swift is prolific, but the songs “from the vault” (meaning that they were written, but not released at the time), also show how good she is at assembling albums.
It’s a joy for fans to soak up more of her work, and for artists who were children or small-time players when Red came out to feature on the vault songs, but also for the quality of the shape of the original to be made so clear. It underscores that she has always been good at making pop choices, infusing a potential extra layer into the declaration in folklore’s single ‘Cardigan’; “I knew everything when I was young”.
Jack Antonoff, Swift’s long-time collaborator, spoke in an interview with Rolling Stone about being an artist in the age of virality, and the key task of making music for his “people”; the ones who get what he’s trying to do. Taylor is a master of the craft of pop stardom (after Red, came 1989; an era of inescapable, chart-topping pop dominance).
Check out Taylor Swift performing ‘Red’:
These re-recordings speak, arguably, more to Antonoff’s approach; making music for her people. For fans who want to hear everything she’s ever written and for her collaborators, including The National’s Aaron Dessner, and several country and indie darlings per album if Red (Taylor’s Version) and Fearless (Taylor’s Version) are anything to go by. They are also, obviously, for Taylor herself, and the act of coming into ownership of the body of work she has built a career on.
I am biased, because, armed with the experience of my high-school heartbreak being soundtracked by this album, a journey back into the world of Red was always going to come at the right time. But this cultural moment feels ripe for it too; current pop darling Olivia Rodrigo has publicly said that she negotiated her contract to own her masters citing Taylor as an influence for doing so.
Billie Eilish, on her stunning sophomore Happier Than Ever, closes the title track with a cathartic scream of “just f***ing leave me alone”, something I feel like a 22-year-old Taylor Swift, hounded by the press and, at that point, with no “Explicit” ratings to her name, must have wanted to unleash on multiple occasions, especially at the various men who have allegedly sought to take advantage of and talk down to her over the years. Beyond hypothesising about her feelings, the world has irrevocably changed since 2012, and lots of us don’t have as clear an avenue to give compassion to our confused younger selves as she does in this act of return.
For those learned in the lore, the potential of the ten-minute version of ‘All Too Well’, a collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and how all the easter eggs fit together are morsels that we cannot wait to sink our teeth into. How the release of Red (Taylor’s Version) speaks to our cultural relationships to nostalgia in this time is interesting too; we are being ravaged by disease, on a warming planet, in an age of colossal wealth inequality, and our response has been to bring tie-dye back and embrace the mullet.
We seem to have decided, thank God, that nothing is embarrassing; not 90’s sunnies, not huge jeans, not guitar music, not pop, not huge dramatic heartbreak. This is the right time to feel your feelings, to swear not to get back with your ex, to scream and to dance. Life feels very short and fragile, which is a great vantage point to be grateful for moments of great feeling; where love, for all sorts of funny people and things, glows bright, burning, red.