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Taylor’s Version: The Fearless She Deserved

Review: gonna venmo Miss Swift for these therapy payments.

Thank you and goodnight.

Okay, okay, fine. I can give details. 

There are a lot of things at play in the release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). These re-recordings only exist because Taylor Swift, as of her 7th studio album Lover, is a newly independent producer. Having separated from Big Machine Records and Scott Borchetta, the producer who sold her first 6 masters to producer Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings in June of 2019, Swift has since spoken about wishing to re-record her old works in order to have full creative control over her own music. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is her first foray into that endeavor. 

Before we examine the music, some context:

Scooter Braun, as many of you may know, is a producer behind such music stars as Justin Bieber and Kanye West, with whom Swift has had a volatile relationship. For some background, the “masters” are the first recordings of an artist’s songs. Now that Braun owns these recordings, he can choose where and when Swift’s first 6 albums are played, he can give the rights to her songs to be used wherever he pleases, can decide when Swift herself is allowed to perform this part of her catalogue (allegedly he attempted to prevent her from playing old songs at the AMAs in 2019 when being presented with the “Artist of the Decade” award), etc. Essentially, he controls the rights. Swift alleges that this sale was made without her consent.

Furthermore, Braun’s connection to Kanye West continues to muddy the waters of her supposed “agreement” to the sale of her music. To be perfectly honest, I’m not particularly interested in the “drama” aspects of their history (Google “Taylor Swift Kanye West VMAs” if you want that); the most troubling part of their relationship is that Swift’s autonomy was allegedly violated by West in 2016 after he included a sexual line about her in his song “Famous” and featured a wax dummy of her naked body in his music video without her consent. His then-wife, Kim Kardashian, posted misleading voice clips from a phone call between West and Swift to social media, claiming Swift gave consent for these actions. Swift defended herself publicly but spent several years being ostracized by West’s fans (and, y’know, Twitter) until a full video of their phone call was leaked in 2020, proving that West did not, in fact, ask consent to include sexual content about the singer.

The cherry on top: Swift maintains that Scott Borchetta promised her he would never sell Big Machine to Scooter Braun.

Oof.

From an artistic, production, and financial perspective, I think Swift’s move to re-record and claim the rights to her own masters is a strong one and will continue to set a powerful precedent in the industry. For such a massive star to demonstrate that abusive and manipulative producers & labels should not have creative control over the musicians they represent is phenomenal. Obviously it should be taken into account that were Swift not a household name, she would not likely have had the success and support she received in this venture. I can only hope smaller artists attempting to wrangle creative control will have the success she has had, and I think it’s in all of our best interests as lovers of music to support our favorite artists as independent producers in the future.

And now the fun part!

The Classics

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) exists much as Taylor Swift herself: older, wiser, more mature (better vocal technique for sure). The album contains the original Fearless’s tracks, including the bonus tracks published in the Fearless platinum edition, and six “new” songs “from the vault”—tracks written for the original album, never before released, that Swift is publishing for the first time on Taylor’s Version. It feels definitive & cohesive to see all of these songs back-to-back-to-back. The album overflows with nostalgia and excitement for old fans of the singer (like myself), and carries the artistry of the original album for newer listeners to discover. 

The marketing of the album as a nostalgia bomb was brilliant, as well. For a year that was so rough and dark and bitter, releasing comforting childhood music for my generation, especially coming off such a powerhouse year for Swift with the releases of Folklore and Evermore, was a smart, tactical strategy for driving engagement with her re-releases. The lyric videos for Taylor’s Version are full of mid-2000s graphics and old Polaroids, offering the type of personal relationship with her fans she was so careful to cultivate in her early releases.

Mostly, I’d say the re-recordings serve as proof that she has always been this good. 3-time “Album of the Year”-Grammy good.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Swift has done a tremendous amount of work on these re-recordings. It’s clear that she must have gone line-by-line through every song to match her exact inflections from the originals: they are almost identical to the ear.

Swift’s greatly improved vocal technique comes out without compromising the sound of the songs. 19-year-old Swift’s awkward pauses and breaths are smoothed out as the 31 year-old skillfully navigates her own voice, creating pauses with intention and maintaining the rhythms we’ve loved for over a decade while still removing little blemishes here and there (the mid-sentence gasps in “You Belong With Me,” anyone?) that we simply won’t miss. 

There are the classics, of course: “Love Story” (Taylor’s Version) dropped to thunderous applause from fans when Swift announced the album re-release. Her excitement is palpable in her vocals. Listening to “Fearless” (Taylor’s Version) at the top of the album felt like a deep inhale; like talking to your old childhood friend. We were blessed by the return of country singer Colbie Caillat on “Breathe” (Feat. Colbie Caillat) (Taylor’s Version). Her voice hasn’t aged a bit and the two women blend beautifully. It’s still a gorgeous country ballad.

The high-energy, rock-influenced songs like “Tell Me Why” (Taylor’s Version), with its quickly shifting range and intense vocal style benefit from her age and control; “Forever and Always” (Taylor’s Version) is similarly exciting with its vocal athleticism and unbridled grief of a 19-year-old experiencing heartbreak for the first time. Swift perfectly matches the emotion and inflection of childhood with the technique of her adult self.

These reflections on childhood hit hard. I found myself fighting back tears listening to “Fifteen” (Taylor’s Version) and “The Best Day” (Taylor’s Version). My best friend had the recent insight that “Fifteen” is the 18-year-old self’s perfect reflection on being 15.

When we were 12 and listened to the song for the first time, there was the immediate brush-off, the defensive “oh I’m never gonna be like that!”; we turned 15 and were too cool to listen to Taylor Swift; we turned 18 and returned to our childhood comforts and were hit with “Fifteen,” again. “When you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them.” Oh. Yes, yes you are, 12 year-old me. Hearing Swift’s mature, expressive voice retell this story is deeply soothing and nostalgic, and a reminder that her emotional honesty even at the age of 19 when the song was written, was magnificent.

There are songs on Fearless (Taylor’s Version) that are suited better to Swift’s 2021 voice and production styles, or, at least, were lesser-praised the first time around.

“You’re Not Sorry” (Taylor’s Version) surprised me with its maturity—almost hitting harder than “White Horse,” which benefited from Swift’s teenage dreaminess and romantic ideals. “You’re Not Sorry” is subtle and gentle in its lyrics, with a strong rhythm and condensed vocal range, allowing Swift’s spectacular phrasing and delivery to shine. Obviously, “White Horse” (Taylor’s Version) is a masterpiece in its own right (I’d argue one of her best songs of all time). “This ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town/I was a dreamer before you and you let me down” is such a simple, specific line that packs a punch in the voice of a grown woman.

“Change” (Taylor’s Version) benefits from retrospection as well. The original song never quite hit home with me, perhaps because the “change” coming in the song didn’t seem to have much impetus behind it, and certainly lacked the emotional specificity of her other works. This new recording is a subtle reflection on what has changed in Swift’s life since the first Fearless came out. She’s no longer beholden to Scott Borchetta or Scooter Braun. Its unbridled optimism has a much more nuanced place to land with a 2021 audience.

Unbridled emotion is, perhaps, a good descriptor for much of Swift’s early work. “The Way I Loved You” has always been my favorite Fearless track because of its pure, unadulterated romanticism. It has that all-or-nothing teenage emotion with high expectations–swinging wildly from the “he can’t see the smile I’m faking/and my heart’s not breaking/’cause I’m not feeling anything at all” stifled love to the ideal “screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain” imagined love. “The Way I Loved You” (Taylor’s Version) and its deeply romantic sibling “Today Was a Fairytale” (Taylor’s Version) are elevated by Swift’s new technique. Both underrated, neither fully got to shine when her voice was young. Now, the contrast of Swift’s mature voice with such overwhelmingly sweet lyrics adds a level of nostalgia and retrospective sincerity.

“Untouchable” (Taylor’s Version) is one of the finest re-recordings. It’s one of her dreamiest songs, while still maintaining a subtlety and beauty that makes it easy to listen to. “In the middle of the night, when I’m in this dream/it’s like a million little stars spelling out your name/you gotta come on, come on, say that we’ll be together/come on, come on, little taste of heaven” is such a magical line for a teenager to have written, and greatly benefits from Swift’s improved vocal technique. I fully understood and connected to many of these songs for the first time because of the decade of personal experience she brought to the performance of the re-recordings.

It’s very much a fairytale album, and hearing a grown woman sing such exquisite, lush, fantastical, teenage lyrics really heaps on the sorrow and nostalgia. Life isn’t as golden as we imagined when we first heard Fearless, but it makes for some truly fantastic escapism.

The Vault

“You All Over Me” (Feat. Maren Morris) (From The Vault) (Taylor’s Version) is almost a proto-“Clean” from 1989, using water as a metaphor for “covering” someone: “no amount of freedom gets you clean/I’ve still got you all over me.” There’s at least one line in every song that stuns me in my tracks—God, at nineteen she wrote “Well I did, and I smiled, and I melted like a child/Now every breath of air I breathe reminds me of then”? Holy shit

I am of the opinion that “Mr. Perfectly Fine” (From The Vault) (Taylor’s Version) deserved a place on the original album. It’s the perfect country repetition/alliteration setup: “Mr.” makes a fun rhetorical device for slicing up bits of Joe Jonas. The bitterness comes out in the song’s upbeat tempo. The grief-turned-growth comes out in the song’s moments of arching belt and classic post-bridge-key-change. It’s a marvelous trick that we’ve come to love from Swift-sad lyrics, upbeat sound. “right where you left me” from evermore masters this technique of representing the contradictions of heartbreak; a chance to move on while acknowledging the pain. 

Swift can sometimes be prone to giving very good songs very weak names (“my tears ricochet” off folklore comes to mind), and “We Were Happy” (From The Vault) (Taylor’s Version) falls prey to this tendency. It has a lovely balanced tempo that cuts deep in its post-breakup rose-colored glasses honesty. Her specificity lends itself to some delightful lyrical turns: “No one could touch the way we laughed in the dark/Talking ‘bout your daddy’s farm we were going to buy someday/And we were happy.” 

“That’s When” (feat. Keith Urban) (From The Vault) (Taylor’s Version) is a true country breakup duet. I can imagine this alongside the Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood songs my mom and I sing to in the car when we roadtrip. One of those underrated ballad classics she’d know every word to from way back in high school. 

“Don’t You” (From The Vault) (Taylor’s Version) is a Speak Now/Red borderline pop piece that perfectly captures the feeling of running into someone after a breakup who’s moved on, while you stay stuck in the past, trying to catch back onto that love you had before. “Bye Bye Baby” (From The Vault) (Taylor’s Version) is “Don’t You”’s partner in crime; the positively bittersweet breakup song from the perspective of a Taylor who chose to move on, rather than being left. “Bye bye to everything I thought was on my side/Bye bye baby/I want you bad but it’s come down to nothing.” 

It’s easy to see how six of the tracks were cut from the original album. One could make an argument that the songs get a bit repetitive; Swift’s recognizable use of extended metaphor/repetition makes many appearances, but the songs benefit from her incredible lyrical specificity. 

Including these songs in Fearless (Taylor’s Version), whether you believe them to be redundant or not, ensures that Swift maintains the rights to her masters; it provides a cohesive look at the life and musical genius of an artist we’ve loved for so long. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is what Fearless was always meant to sound like. Swift finally has the vocal and emotional power her songs so badly desire. She has the industry power to write her own story.

“You Belong With Me” (Taylor’s Version) is perhaps the most immediately different to the ear; the re-recording is less produced, more natural than the original. You can hear Swift’s instrumental orchestrations and rhythms much more cleanly than in the first release. Much like the cover image of the album, it’s clearer, happier, and more mature—not Photoshopped to death the way the original was. This stands for the entirety of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). The album fulfills its purpose of being a love letter to her fans, a reexamination of the star’s vocal and personal growth, and a wonderful way to introduce her older music to a younger generation.

Thank you, Taylor. Now excuse me, I need a box of tissues before I can listen to “Love Story” (Taylor’s Version) again. 

Written by Natalie Parks

Natalie Parks is currently a BA student studying theatre. They're a founding board member of their university's Theatre for Social Change organization (TR4CE), working to create ethically conscious and socially aware art. Loves dogs, Shakespeare, and Evelyn Baker Lang's shoes.

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