Keeping a promise from when her master recordings were sold, Swift has faithfully rerecorded her 2008 album. Our critics and reporters explore its sound, and purpose.
JON PARELES When the master recordings for Taylor Swift’s first six albums were sold along with her first label, Big Machine, to the manager Scooter Braun’s company, she announced she would remake them on her own terms (and for her own reward). “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is the first album of her reclamation project: a newly recorded version of the entire “platinum edition” of her second album, which was released in 2008. She was 18 at the time.
The track list has been expanded even further — and connected to the present — with six previously unreleased songs, newly recorded with Swift’s collaborating producers on her 2020 quarantine albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner. And as a fun send-off, there’s a trance-y, thumping, gusty dance-floor remix of “Love Story.” Perhaps there’s a meta-narrative reason for starting with her second album rather than her debut. Her teenage lyrics about broken promises and unfeeling betrayals take on an extra twist when applied to her former business partners.
BEN SISARIO When other artists have rerecorded their songs, it was usually for some combination of money, control or spite against a record company, as was the case when Def Leppard did it in 2012. All those reasons apply for Taylor Swift’s rerecords, too. And this entire episode could have devolved into a fruitless exercise of revenge. But instead, Swift has also used it to demonstrate one of her key skills: her effortless mastery of connecting with (and leveraging) her audience.
The release has been cast as a communal and celebratory experience for Swift and her fans, who can simultaneously relive the music as nostalgia and consume it as a vicarious act of empowerment. Even the title, “Taylor’s Version,” pulls fans to her side. And Swift’s latest merchandise drop — “Taylor’s Version” shirts, hoodies, phone cases and key chains — establishes a new, meta “era” of Swift fandom and of the star’s own self-representation. Those who were present the first time around can now support her all over again.
The promotion process was essentially an Easter egg hunt for fans. The Gen Z stars Olivia Rodrigo and Conan Gray danced along to prerelease leaks on Instagram and sent wink-wink messages to each other on TikTok. Fans on Tumblr — Swift’s preferred old-school social media platform — got a preview of “Breathe” featuring Colbie Caillat, who sang on the original when she was a rising young pop star, a little (only a little) like Swift herself.
It’s hard to imagine any other star engaging in an act of business retribution while also making it seem so joyful and so participatory for her fans.
JON CARAMANICA True story: My original idea for how to cover this release was to find someone capable of doing a direct sonic comparison — waveform analysis? — between the two versions, to underscore the specific ways the two were different. I realize now how … literal that would be. Something for the lawyers and the musicologists and maybe the philosophers. (Also, the original 2008 songs are … also Taylor’s version? Just not her property.)
Instead, I immediately went to the chorus of “Fifteen,” one of my 2000s pop high-water marks, to see if I’d get chills. Good news: I did. Felt that gut punch during “White Horse.” “You Belong With Me” had that crucial air of resignation.
These are sense memories as much as anything — by this metric, “Taylor’s Version” basically passes the litmus test. But this rerecording might feel different for younger fans encountering these songs for the first time, or perhaps more likely, whose understanding of Taylor is from pop superstar backward, rather than from the beginning forward. From that perspective, this is simply another Taylor product to consume, not a referendum on the specificity of memory and rights of an artist to her master recordings.
It is also savvy marketing, especially for an established star with a deep catalog, to simply present your old music as new. Swift is too young, relatively speaking, for a traditional reissue presentation. (And obviously that’s not in the cards, given the ownership issues at hand.) But the music business is increasingly favoring those who can generate continuous release cycles. It may not matter much what the release is.
JOE COSCARELLI Swift always has had a way with graceful pettiness — and with making it feel grand and romantic in scale.
Watching the Swifties largely buy in almost completely on the rerecordings has been fascinating to observe. You could teach an entire marketing class around the way she’s made an esoteric fight among multimillionaires feel intimate and important, demystifying arcane contract minutiae and setting up the decision to stream “Taylor’s Version” over the original like an ethical choice. I have no doubt that a lot of younger stans, especially — to say nothing of the music supervisors licensing the songs for film or TV — will adhere, at least for a while. But I wonder if maybe those are fans who didn’t internalize “Fearless” in real time because they were too young, and maybe came to it after, say, “1989.” That probably makes the choice easier.
There’s also the fact that Braun, the main villain worth sticking it to, if you’re interested in such things, doesn’t even own the masters anymore. (Swift has said his company still stood to gain, but Braun has since sold that company, too.) I’m left considering whether or not the endgame is still to devalue the original catalog such that Swift can eventually own it, or if she’s made peace with these rerecordings being her versions, uh, evermore, and leaving the others forsaken.
PARELES “Fearless,” which has sold more than 10 million copies in the United States alone, has endured — not so much for the banjos and mandolins Swift geared to country radio, but for its teen-pop tension between happy-ending romances and bitter reflections on youthful naïveté (when she was all of 18 recalling how it felt to be “Fifteen”), neatly chiseled into Swift’s terse lyrics.
The “Taylor’s Version” songs from the original “Fearless” are nearly pure deja entendu. Swift heard absolutely no need to revise or reconsider the music she made in 2008. She uses the same keys, the same tempos, the same instruments — a country string band with pop-rock reinforcements — playing the same licks. She even repeats many of the vocal inflections she used in 2008, down to nearly reproducing the original album’s breathless phrasing and conscious dabs of vibrato or grain.
Swift’s voice has changed over the years; she’s slightly less nasal, slightly more controlled. Yet differences between originals and remakes are minuscule: more space in the mixes, no fiddle echo in the intro to “Tell Me Why,” the absence of an organ note 10 seconds into “Fearless,” alterations like those in the tiniest details. Fans who have been singing along to the original album since 2008 won’t have to adjust at all for “Taylor’s Version”; it’s almost a clone. Almost.
LINDSAY ZOLADZ Upon first listen, “Taylor’s Version” both warmed my heart and hurt my brain. It is certainly triumphant to hear Swift gradually reclaiming ownership of her catalog, note by immaculately replicated note, and I find something stirring in hearing the 31-year-old Taylor trace over the wide-eyed lyrical musings of her 18-year-old self. But also, playing the sonic game of spot-the-difference left my head spinning and my sense of temporality scrambled. The sound is … so authentically late aughts. The actual voice of Colbie Caillat is on this record! Can someone hold up a copy of today’s newspaper to confirm that I’m not trapped permanently in 2008? Phew. Thank you.
As the first of the six albums Swift intends to rerecord, “Fearless” is a savvy choice. It’s a better idea than working chronologically, since it’s a stronger album than her self-titled debut, and it boasts some of her most enduring and sturdily written hits, like “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” But “Fearless” is still a country record, a snapshot of the moment before it was even worth arguing whether or not Swift had “gone pop.” And as such, recreating an album aflutter with guitars and banjos and gently brushed drums is probably more impressive a feat to a certain type of listener than recreating the later albums on which synthesizers and digital flourishes started creeping into Swift’s music. “Would this project be perceived differently if she’d started with ‘1989’?” was one of the thoughts that crawled through my throbbing head.
COSCARELLI The only word running through my head throughout the entire run time of “Taylor’s Version” is uncanny. I’m not upset, just a little uncomfortable.
The original “Fearless” is one of those albums that I’ve never stopped listening to, and so I know every breath, pluck and hiccup by heart, and I anticipate the exact sounds to come split-seconds before they happen. But the rerecordings are as if someone came into my room and replaced all the dinged-up furniture I’ve had forever with spotless versions — the songs are brighter, fuller and ever-so-slightly off. Like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho”!
It really varies track to track. Certain songs, like “Fearless” and “Hey Stephen,” sound more remastered than rerecorded, and I can even forget that they’re different. Ones like “White Horse” and “You’re Not Sorry,” songs I am fond of as writing but plod a little production-wise on the original, sound fresh and refined.
But then there’s “Fifteen” or “You Belong With Me” — indelible numbers in the Swift catalog — that can’t help but sound like covers. I think it’s mostly in the vocal performance, but for me, is also highly dependent on the lyrics — the meta-quality and knowingness of hearing her now, at 31, sing lines like “in your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team” or “I didn’t know who I was supposed to be at 15” can’t help but feel more winking than gutting, as they originally played. Especially after “Folklore,” with its teenage love songs that traded on age and nostalgia, and similar tensions between the author, performer and character, as Lindsay wrote about recently.
CARAMANICA Can we talk about state of mind a little? These are, by and large, songs that Swift doesn’t perform in concert anymore. They are relics, totems of a certain era. What must it be like to attempt to recreate not simply a vocal tone, but also an emotional underpinning? A woman in her early 30s getting in the head space of her 18-year-old self to sing about the awkwardnesses of her 15-year-old self. (All to ensure the financial health of her decades-in-the-future self.)
And that’s where the voice comes in, which can’t help but be different. Swift’s singing used to be guileless even when her words weren’t. But as she’s aged, her tone has thickened a bit, and now she tends to deliver lyrics with a bit of a knowing quasi-sigh, especially in her least produced songs. There are moments on these rerecordings where I hear a little bit of wisdom in the way certain syllables linger. It may be possible to mentally revisit the past, and even to bend your vocal cords in old ways, but it’s not possible to unlive the years in between.
ZOLADZ Her voice is a tad deeper and richer than it once was (the song on which its maturity benefits the most, I think, is “You’re Not Sorry”), but also devoid of a certain, barely perceptible youthful exuberance that, even for a perfectionist like Swift, remains impossible to bottle and recreate.
Oh, and twang. The gradual evaporation of that I’m-not-from-Pennsylvania accent has, for years, been meticulously charted by listeners, and I saw some fans online wondering whether Swift would be ironing out the twang in these new versions. It’s still there, faintly (and even her delivery on the original “Fearless” wasn’t as countrified as it was on her debut album), though my twang-o-meter shows a slightly lower reading on this new version. But maybe listening to this album has just broken it, as it has my brain.
PARELES To me, the remade album is a known quantity, for all its microscopic variations — even if it’s an album that hits differently after more than a decade of hindsight. Then there are the songs from “the vault.” I’m quite fond of “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” a barrage of zingers with a girl-group undercurrent; it’s pointed and petulant enough to apply far beyond whomever its target was in (copyright date) 2009. On the other hand, I can see why “That’s When” and “Don’t You” didn’t make the original “Fearless” track list, because their choruses include a bit of melody that Swift weaponized, perfectly, in “You Belong With Me.”
ZOLADZ I also love “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” a vinegary kiss-off supposedly about Joe Jonas that avoids the whole tired “don’t date her or she’ll write a song about you” narrative it would have inspired in 2008 because Jonas is now married with a child (and also the alleged inspiration for a line from the “Folklore” song “Invisible String”: “Cold was the steel of my ax to grind for the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents.” Time, mystical time!) My favorite part of “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” though, is when she drops the phrase “casually cruel,” which would of course find its rightful place in the Swift pantheon, two albums later, on one of her most beloved songs, “All Too Well.” It’s a fun glimpse into Swift’s songwriting process, suggesting that there are certain words and phrases she’s kept in her back pocket, waiting to deploy them at the perfect time.
Speaking of lyrics, when Swift first announced this project, some people wondered if she’d use it as an opportunity to rewrite some of her clumsier or controversial ones. She didn’t, which means she likely won’t on her future rerecordings either. (Even now that this record exists, I can’t believe she has to make five more of them. Graceful pettiness is right, Joe.) And so the line in “Fifteen” where “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind,” stands, and with the passage of time, its vague purity-myth-mongering can be read as simply the folly of Swift’s youth.
I still trip over that line, but I also think it’s for the best that Swift didn’t change it — to edit one’s former self on a project like this is a slippery slope. Swift’s approach, especially on this vault material, reminds me a bit of what Bruce Springsteen did on his most recent album, “Letter to You,” which in part found him recording some fan-favorite tracks written in the early ’70s that had up until then existed only as live bootlegs. I interviewed him last year, and asked if he was ever tempted to edit some of these lyrics before committing them to tape. He responded as though that would have been songwriting sacrilege; these were moments in time, time capsules of past selves in all their glorious imperfections.
“It’s fun to go back and see how wild my lyric writing was,” he said, “and to be able to take that and bring it into the present with the band, and sing it in my voice right now, was a bit of a joy ride.” I can only imagine Swift would agree.