Taylor Swift Somehow Made “Red” Even Better

The most potent instrument Swift plays on Red (Taylor’s Version) is our knowledge of her past.

There is near consensus that the most devastating couplet Taylor Swift has ever penned comes from “All Too Well,” the crowning jewel of her fourth album, 2012’s Red. At the crescendo of the song, Swift delivers the line, “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” It’s vintage Swift: unconvoluted imagery paired with a vividly emotional landscape. It’s also perfectly suited to the song, which captures a young woman’s devastation in the aftermath of a doomed, unequal relationship. The line shows up in Instagram captions and heart tattoos. It’s a really good line.

But earlier this year, when Swift rereleased her second album, 2008’s Fearless, she tipped her hand with one of the bonus songs “from the vault,” i.e., songs she recorded during this period but never released. “Hello, Mr. ‘Casually cruel,’” she sings with feigned cheer on “Mr. ‘Perfectly fine.’” Apparently, the concept of casual cruelty had been ricocheting around Swift’s mind for years before it morphed into that perfect lyric.

I bring this up because being a Swift fan is a lot like that meme of Charlie Day gesturing insistently at a board riddled with thumbtacks connected by string. This is how I often feel, wild-eyed and high-pitched, trying to explain the intertextual references Swift is making all the time, in every moment. We are a few days into the promotional cycle of her latest drop, and you can see why it has been a difficult time for Swift haters, and possibly even a trying time for those who are ambivalent about her.

Swift is everywhere, and her fans are out door-knocking, trying to explain why you should let her into your heart. “See, the significance of the scarf is...,” they start. Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m saying “they.” I did this all day today. I will do it again tomorrow. I’m just trying to help you get it.

In the last 15 months, Swift has set a new bar for pop star ubiquity: She released two No. 1 albums, 2020’s pair Folklore and Evermore, the former winning Album of the Year at the Grammys earlier this year. In the spring, she released a rerecording of her breakout album, 2008’s Fearless, and it promptly went to No. 1. And just this past weekend, she released another rerecording, this time of Red, and in the process she smashed multiple records, including most streamed album in a day by a woman and most streamed woman in one day in Spotify history.

It’s been widely reported that Swift is rerecording her early work in order to gain financial and legal control of her own material. But the decision is also proving to be a brilliant business move. Red (Taylor’s Version) is projected to more than double the first-week sales of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) — in fact, it’s on track to have the second-best first-week sales of 2021 so far, after Drake’s Certified Lover Boy (a stat that’s unlikely to hold after Adele releases 30 on Friday). To say nothing of the overwhelming response to the pair of music videos she released over the weekend, and her performance of a 10-minute song on Saturday Night Live. Grab a scarf. It’s cardigan season. See, the significance of the cardigan is—

Though Swift’s media savvy makes it look impossibly easy — inevitable, even — for Red (Taylor’s Version) to have become a juggernaut, the success of the rerelease has hinged on a different superpower: her extraordinary talent for transforming herself and her life into the main text fans are engaging with. On the rerecord, there’s plenty to be said about how her voice has changed or how her perspective has deepened. But the most potent instrument Swift plays on Red (Taylor’s Version) is our knowledge of her past and our familiarity with her as a public story.

Coming after three albums firmly rooted in country music, and following the entirely self-written feat that was 2010’s Speak Now, Red was the first time Swift intentionally opted for precarious ground genre-wise, signaling her intentions to move toward pop while still trying hard to maintain the fans she had developed as a country artist.

You can hear this tension in the record. Explosive pop monuments like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” sit next to country-oriented songs like “I Almost Do” and “Begin Again.” The range was reflected in the producers and writers she worked with, like Nathan Chapman, who handled her first three albums, but also pop heavyweights like Max Martin and Shellback.

Red needed to transform her superstardom narrative.

Though some critics found the genre-blending incoherent, Red was ultimately a success. It sold more than a million copies in the first week and spent seven weeks at the top of the charts. Swift became the first artist since the Beatles to have three consecutive albums each spend more than six weeks at No. 1. Red was nominated for Album of the Year and Best Country Album at the Grammys, losing the former to Daft Punk and the latter to Kacey Musgraves. In liner notes and interviews, she made it clear that she was trying to take an exit ramp from her previous country sound so she could transition to pop.

Even within the context of an artist as inclined toward the diaristic as Swift is, narrative is central to Red — both in the straightforward sense of placing key elements of her story in the album, but also in the meta sense that the record had a job to do: Red needed to transform her superstardom narrative.

Swift became famous inside a country music paradigm; as the New York Times noted in the wake of Red, it’s a genre that “demands morals in a way pop doesn’t.” In order to keep the fans she had earned, Swift had to carefully lead listeners away from country morality without shocking them. She leaned on her innocence as the device to tell this story, both its preservation (see: “Begin Again”) and its loss (see: “All Too Well”). On Red, Swift telegraphs that she is moving beyond the boundaries of what country music can accommodate.

All of this makes Red (Taylor’s Version) a particularly compelling document because you already know she stuck the landing. After her jump to full-fledged pop superstardom, listening to Red (Taylor’s Version) is a fun exercise in pretending to forget you know the ending — gosh, I hope this kid can make it.

But knowing the ending is both a benefit and a liability for Red (Taylor’s Version). A benefit: The songs that were already great got better. The drums on “State of Grace” sound deeper, the guitars crisper and more shimmery, because she’s learned how that song bounces off the walls of stadiums; “Holy Ground” has also fully grown as a mega anthem. The rerecord also delivers justice to some of her relatively overlooked work. The gorgeous “Treacherous” is carried to new heights by Swift’s more mature delivery. She is capable of rendering a deeper pain in her voice on the 2021 version of “Sad Beautiful Tragic.” And it’s a delight to hear her full of tenderness for her younger self on “Stay Stay Stay.” As the song ends, Swift lets out a little laugh. “That’s so fun,” she says, a re-creation of how the original ends. But in Taylor’s Version, she sounds wistful, as though she’s strolling down memory lane.

A liability, though: The weaker songs can’t keep up with the gems. No amount of time and growth as an artist can rescue “Girl at Home” from mediocrity. Disappointingly, the big pop numbers lose their urgency. “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” certainly come across as sure-footed. Perhaps this is because, spoiler, these songs were big hits. But the OG versions of both had a desperation about them, a bombastic delivery born of Swift’s need for this pop gamble to work.

But the album’s profound gift is in the vault tracks, which were all written for Red at the time but didn’t make the final cut. From an original 22 songs, Red (Taylor’s Version) has now swelled to 30. The additions include her first studio recording of “Better Man,” a song Swift wrote but that Little Big Town released (they also won Song of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards with it), but also tracks we’re hearing for the first time, like the country taunt “I Bet You Think About Me” featuring Chris Stapleton.

The best of the new offerings is “Nothing New,” which also ends a long-running frustration for fans who have been keeping track of the fact that while Swift has collaborated with plenty of women (Haim, the Chicks), none has ever sung a verse on one of her songs. Here, this ache is soothed as Swift heir Phoebe Bridgers steps up to share the mic.

“Nothing New” is an anxious song. “Lord, what will become of me / Once I’ve lost my novelty,” she wonders. But it’s the bridge that offers the most fascinating insight into what she was thinking at the time. She imagines what it would be like to meet the next It girl, the next big thing, and plays out the encounter: “She’ll know the way and she’ll say she got the map from me / I’ll say I’m happy for her, then I’ll cry myself to sleep.” Though penned for Red, these words take on a new meaning when you consider that when Olivia Rodrigo made her mark this year, she not only credited Swift as her North Star but literally had to give her writing credits on her debut album. Nine years ago, Swift was worried about whoever would take her place. Present-day Swift quotes her own mother in endorsing Rodrigo: “I say that’s my baby and I’m really proud.”

The most talked-about song from the vault is the new version of “All Too Well.” For almost a decade, the fandom has carefully uplifted the song, carrying it to mythic heights. It has become the Swift song. Rumors had existed of more verses, a longer version, perhaps even a 20-minute version. Red (Taylor’s Version) finally delivered the promised artifact, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version).” And it is spectacular.

Back to that perfect line — in the OG, the “casually cruel” couplet anchors the song’s bridge and delivers an emotional wallop. It’s part of what makes “All Too Well” so beloved. Swift locates the universal within her specific pain. It arrives as we near the end, hurtling toward resolution. But in the 10-minute iteration, it arrives somewhere in the middle. Where do we go from here? What’s there left to say?

Musical appraisal of Swift often gives way to light biography. To assess her music is to read and reread the text of her life. 

The longer “All Too Well” then suspends the graceful universality she achieved in the original and trades it for deadly specificity. The unnamed lover, long rumored to be Jake Gyllenhaal, is brought to life in colorful detail: the way he belittles Swift’s age (“You said if we had been closer in age / Maybe it would’ve been fine”), his emotional coldness (“The idea you had of me / Who was she?”), his betrayal on a birthday that ends with her dad comforting her (“He watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come / And he said, ‘It’s supposed to be fun turning 21’”). The song is seething, teeming with rage. She added to the hype when she released “Sad Girl Autumn version” earlier this week — a quieter, piano-forward version recorded with her Folklore collaborators Aaron Dessner and Jon Low. “One of the saddest songs I’ve ever written just got sadder,” she announced.

Second-year students in Swift studies will recognize the birthday party incident from “The Moment I Knew.” But the existence of the 10-minute “All Too Well” fundamentally alters the reading of Red, casting it as an album mostly about a specific relationship rather than the eclectic mix it was initially perceived as. And even though she left the excoriating “Better Man” off the 2012 album, presumably because it would’ve committed her more deeply to country music, it’s clearly about the same relationship — another piece originally left out of the puzzle.

Musical appraisal of Swift often gives way to light biography. To assess her music is to read and reread the text of her life. Swift is, of course, aware of this dynamic and uses it to her advantage. She has filled her social media feeds and liner notes with Easter eggs and constant invitations to decode the lyrics, music, and visuals in order to interpret the context that birthed them. This method has been on overdrive during the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), especially in the short film Swift released for the 10-minute “All Too Well,” starring a Gyllenhaalesque Dylan O’Brien and Swiftian Sadie Sink. Written and directed by Swift herself, it portrays the collapse of a brief relationship and has already invited lengthy breakdowns of all the secret codes it could contain. Did you know the car in the short film was manufactured in 1989? Do you think it means 1989 (Taylor’s Version) is next?

There’s been plenty of discourse about whether Gyllenhaal and Swift’s short-lived relationship warrants all of this. Leaving aside that I am not in the business of assigning proportionality to how a relationship ought to be mourned, that enticing and gossipy dimension of the story is the engine that helped push Red (Taylor’s Version) to its massive success.

The 10-minute “All Too Well” also contains a line we hadn’t heard before: “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.” That is a bar. If a lesser writer wrote those words, you would probably never hear the end of it. If I wrote that, I would tell everyone I knew. Swift wrote that and left it on the cutting-room floor.

Songwriter Liz Rose, who collaborated with Swift on “All Too Well” and some of the brightest spots of her early work, said in a 2014 interview that she acted more like an editor. The OG “All Too Well” is better for the editing: focused, sturdy, sublime.

I was anxious that the 10-minute “All Too Well” would be bloated. Self-editing is generally a good idea. It always pays off. The risk of Red (Taylor’s Version) was playing with the legacy of an album and a song that became larger than life. Here are some drafts is a move few writers can get away with. But now we are hearing these drafts, it’s still on Swift’s terms, in accordance with the careful ways she has turned her life into text. The fictional version of Swift in the short film is an author. At the end, we see her at her own book launch, and no other framing could be so apt or telling. With the rerelease of this pivotal record, Swift has once again made a complicated story her own. ●

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