Given the chance, would you relive your high-school years? For most people, high school was an unmitigated disaster, an endless stream of disappointments and pratfalls. It’s true even for a teen star such as Taylor Swift – the difference is that she made it sound so good. Taylor Swift (2006) and Fearless (2008), Swift’s first two albums, turned the small-time dramas of high school into burnished spectaculars: your first crush was Romeo and Juliet, only with a happy ending; your first heartbreak was guttural, strings-backed tragedy. Swift became a genuine crossover star off the back of these gilded fantasies. Fifteen years into her career, Fearless – which made Swift the then youngest Album of the Year Grammy winner and has sold more than 12 million copies – still stands out as a rare display of raw talent and charisma.
This month Swift released Fearless (Taylor’s Version), a new version of the 2008 album, meticulously re-recorded over the past year or so, which mimics the original as closely as possible. In addition to the original 19 songs, Taylor’s Version arrives with a re-recorded standalone single from the era – 2010’s “Today Was a Fairytale” – and six new songs “from the vault”, tracks written at the time but not put on the final album. Taylor’s Version is not a reimagining of Fearless or a remixing. It is a 1:1 re-creation, designed to sound imperceptible from the original tapes.
The reasons behind Swift’s decision to re-record are complex. In mid-2019, news broke that Scooter Braun – a talent manager and minor industry celebrity due to his associations with Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and long-time Swift antagonist Kanye West – had bought Big Machine, the Nashville indie label where Swift spent the early portion of her career. With that purchase came the entirety of Swift’s pre-2019 back catalogue. The catalogue is laden with symbolic and emotional value and is unarguably one of the richest in country and pop music history. But it’s commercially rich too: 2010’s Speak Now, 2012’s Red, 2017’s reputation, and, most significantly, Fearless and 2014’s 1989 – both boffo hits and Album of the Year Grammy winners – are some of the bestselling albums of all time.
Swift alleged she had no idea the sale was occurring, and that she had been trying to buy back her master recordings for years. According to her, Big Machine owner Scott Borchetta had offered her a contract that would allow her to “earn” the rights to each of her albums with each new album she delivered for the label. In a blog post, Swift alleged that Braun had bullied her throughout her career, and that Borchetta knew this. She saw the sale to his company, Ithaca Holdings, as a calculated and antagonistic move. The details of the sale are disputed, and hard to clarify.
The question of ownership is significant because whoever owns a song’s master can dictate its usage. Braun would be able to license the songs for use in any commercial media he wanted, and could reproduce Swift’s albums with impunity. The purchase of songwriting catalogues has become big business for venture capitalists of late: bodies of work deemed “classic” or significant are now hot property, with artists such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan selling stakes in their songwriting catalogues to investment firms. With more music than ever being produced, the thinking goes that these songs will only increase in value, and will retain value even in times of market volatility. In a strange wrinkle, Braun’s acquisition of Big Machine is now something of a moot point – late last year, he sold the company for $300 million to private equity firm Shamrock Capital, relinquishing his stake, although Shamrock also refused to cede ownership of Swift’s masters.
Swift has long been a staunch advocate for the rights of songwriters – most famously, she once threatened Apple with the removal of her music from its streaming service unless it paid royalties to all musicians during its launch period. Her response to this situation has been similar: she has decided to pursue an aggressive and labour-intensive strategy of devaluing the original songs through re-recordings such as Fearless (Taylor’s Version).
In making perfect replicas of the original songs, she essentially asks any listeners – or potential licensees of a hit such as “Love Story” – to take a side in this public battle. As if to prove their commercial value, Swift has debuted many re-recordings in commercials – “Love Story” in the ad for a dating app, and “Wildest Dreams” from 1989 (Taylor’s Version) in the trailer for a new kids’ film. This is the kind of strategy that could only be undertaken by someone with Swift’s limitless resources. Although it is designed to illuminate issues of ownership in the music industry, Swift is flexing commercial and cultural might in the type of genuinely bonkers display rarely made by celebrities anymore. As with many of her career moves, there is something both inspiring and distinctly petty about the whole affair.
The tension of an underdog’s journey being played out by one of life’s real winners is perhaps what makes Fearless such a perfect choice for the first re-recording. In its original form, Fearless was the first time Swift was anointed as a true superstar, and the last time she was perceived publicly without any significant degree of cynicism. The hits it yielded – “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me” – combined hopeful teen naivety with ruthlessly catchy songwriting, establishing Swift as both a wide-eyed innocent and a beyond-her-years professional, a perception that would go on to be memed and critiqued endlessly.
The weight of prophecy was so heavy on Fearless that certain lines on Taylor’s Version take on a surreal, vindicated quality. Lyrics such as “Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now” from “Fifteen” and “This is a big world, that was a small town / There in my rear view mirror disappearing now” from “White Horse” ring strangely when sung by 31-year-old Swift. While affirmations in their original version, here they take on a winking quality simply because of the form, as opposed to any new vocal affectation.
Swift’s meticulousness makes Fearless (Taylor’s Version) a remarkably smooth listen. Her voice is one of the only discernible differences between Taylor’s Version and the original; it’s fuller now, and more beholden to the more staccato pop cadences of her later work, a change that will likely only come to the attention of the most diehard fans. The mix on Taylor’s Version is more spacious than the 2008 original, giving the impression of a good remaster, or even a headphone upgrade.
The “vault” tracks shine too, although they perhaps feel less essential than Fearless proper – “Mr. Perfectly Fine”, for example, hinges on a pretty flimsy lyrical motif, but is as melodically distinct as anything else on Fearless. The same propulsion and finesse of “You Belong with Me”, Fearless’s most indelible track and perhaps the best pop song of the 2000s, is present on these vault songs, and proves that Swift’s hits were the result of hard-earned craftsmanship, rather than flukes.
These are records that reflect a profound innocence and a distinctly teen point of view; anyone in their right mind would be protective of that. So while Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the kind of unwieldy career move that most people could never relate to, the emotional aspect remains universal – the kind of fantasy anyone would want to keep.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 17, 2021 as "Swift payback".
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