Last April, Taylor Swift launched the first salvo in her campaign re-record and recover the rights to her first six albums with the release Fearless (Taylor’s Version). A virtual note-for-note replica of her 2008 breakthrough record, Swift’s new re-recorded version nonetheless manages to sound fresh and energetic rather than an exercise in nostalgia. That’s due in no small part to the strong vocals Swift lends to the album, honed by over a decade of additional experience she’s accumulated since originally recording it as a teenager.
That experience helps elevate Fearless (Taylor’s Version) above its otherwise worthy origins as a way for Swift to assert ownership over her own work. With this re-recording, Swift managed to create something new: an implicit retrospective on the glories, agonies, and follies of adolescence. It’s a new perspective she tacitly acknowledged in the note she posted online announcing the remake, characterizing the album as “full of magic and curiosity, the bliss and devastation of youth.”
In part due to their performance by an older and wiser artist, the album and its songs themselves take on new meanings with the passage of time. That’s certainly the case with “Love Story,” a song whose meaning has shifted from that of an adolescent fantasy to an adult reminiscence of a couple’s founding myth – as well as a tale of Swift’s own intimate relationship with her fans. With lyrics like “I didn’t know who I was supposed to be/At fifteen,” moreover, it’s easy to understand why a song like “Fifteen” assumes a novel meaning when sung by an thirty-one year old Swift rather than the teenager who wrote it. As Swift herself would remind us in 2020’s “betty,” no one really knows much of anything at that age – making her re-recording of “Fifteen” exceptionally wry in this new context.
As a whole, the album remains undeniably precocious and gives an unmistakable early notice of Swift’s impressive songwriting skills. The central themes that mark her work also begin to percolate up here, especially on a number of Fearless-era songs from Swift’s vault re-recorded and first released for this project. Songs like “You All Over Me,” “Don’t You,” and “Bye Bye Baby” all reflect the longing for intimacy that’s suffused her music from the start, a yearning that in these cases can be most clearly seen in the aftermath of failed or dying relationships. As she wistfully recalls on “You All Over Me”:
I lived, and I learned
And found out what it was to turn around
And see that we
Were never really meant to be
Most of all, though, the re-recording shifts the way we listen to the album and its songs. Swift’s own maturity puts them in stark relief, allowing the fierce immediacy and existential torment of adolescent romance burn with intensity. We’re able to glimpse facets of the original work that may not have been visible amidst the light and heat of the album’s original 2008 release, and all the more so since it’s a note-for-note re-recording of the original. Time and distance make it easier to put matters that may have seemed life-or-death as a teenager – a bad break-up, for instance, or an unspoken crush – in the wider and fuller perspective that almost always comes with age and wisdom.
That’s apparent from the very start of the album, where the volatile and nervous energy of adolescent romantic infatuation that courses through the title track itself. There are the urgent, unrequited appeals of the classic “You Belong With Me,” where a desperate Swift pleads with an oblivious platonic friend to see that she’d be perfect for him. On “The Way I Loved You,” Swift contrasts the attractions of an earlier chaotic romance – “so in love that I acted insane” – with her seemingly idyllic current relationship to illustrate the tempestuous nature of many youthful liaisons.
Throughout the album, we can also see what Swift called “every new crack in the façade of the fairy tale ending she’d been shown in the movies.” These cracks start to appear on songs like “White Horse,” where Swift takes direct aim at her own romantic fantasies and acknowledges that she’s “not a princess” and her broken relationship “ain’t a fairytale.” It’s a sentiment that lingers on “Forever and Always,” a spirited and scathing portrait of scorned love and romantic betrayal where promises of eternal commitment crumble on contact. As she asks on the equally caustic “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” “How’s your heart after breaking mine?”
At the same time, the teenage Swift gives intimations of a more mature perspective on tracks like “Breathe.” She acknowledges that romantic relationships don’t always go as planned or expected simply because we’re human: “people are people and sometimes it doesn’t work out.” That doesn’t make the demise of these relationships any less painful in the moment, but it does make it easier to move forward from them. These more introspective themes receive additional elaboration on songs from Swift’s vault like “You All Over Me” and “We Were Happy.” With these songs, then, Swift sends a strong signal of the direction her work would take in the future.
Above all, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) illuminates the ways in which time and experience can change our points of view – even on the things that, in the moment, seem life-or-death. It’s also a powerful reminder of just how wild and intense our adolescent emotions and juvenile ideas can be, even if we rarely stop to consider it at the time. That doesn’t necessarily make these emotions and ideas wrong or unfounded – far from it – but it does prompt us to take another look at ourselves when passions overtake us, just breathe, and keep things in perspective.