“Sparks Fly” by Taylor Swift was the first song I learned to play on my own after I quit piano lessons. “You Belong With Me” was the song I chose to learn on guitar in my sixth grade music class. I listened to “Never Grow Up” the last night in my room at home before moving into Vassar. Swift’s album “Lover” reminds me of my first year here and “folklore” of last summer. I know Swift’s songs like the back of my hand (that’s a “Breathe” reference), and as I’ve gotten older, have found deeper meaning in her lyrics.
I don’t actually remember the first time I listened to “Fearless,” Swift’s sophomore album, because I was only seven years old when it was released in 2008. I will, however, always remember the first time I listened to “Fearless (Taylor’s Version).” On April 9, Swift put out a re-recorded version of the Album of the Year award-winning record, giving fans a chance to relive the era and fall in love with her older songs all over again. Swifties (or Taylor Swift fans for the uninitiated) quickly noticed that the release date of the album is significant—April is the fourth month of the year, and not only does four plus nine equal 13, Swift’s lucky number, but it also marks the day that Swift owns four out of her nine albums.
“Fearless” is the first of six albums that Swift plans to re-record. The road to these re-recordings is long and complicated. Swift’s first record deal was with Big Machine Records when she signed in 2005. Under Big Machine, Swift released her first six albums: “Taylor Swift,” “Fearless,” “Speak Now,” “Red,” “1989” and “reputation.” Swift has since switched labels to Universal’s Republic Records after her contract expired in 2018, but she left her master recordings in Big Machine’s hands.
Swift expressed her frustration in a Tumblr post in June of 2019, writing: “For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in. I walked away because I knew once I signed that contract, Scott Borchetta [founder of Big Machine] would sell the label, thereby selling me and my future.”
Swift was correct— Big Machine sold her masters to Scooter Braun, who re-sold them for $300 million to Shamrock Holdings. Braun is the manager of numerous artists, among them Kanye West, who infamously interrupted Swift at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, sparking a years-long feud that deserves an entirely separate article. Swift described in the same Tumblr post: “Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”
When not given the opportunity to own their own work, an artist has two choices: to make peace with the situation and turn their focus to making new music or to fight for their music and do everything they can to reclaim their work. Swift chose to do both. While quarantining, she wrote and released two new albums: “folklore” (which won Album of the Year) and its sister album “evermore.”
Swift also began the process of re-recording her old albums, aiming to closely replicate and essentially replace the original versions. The Washington Post dove into the legality of Swift’s re-recordings, commenting: “There are two different copyrights in play here: that of the song composition (the musical arrangement and lyrics), and that of the recording itself.” While Swift may not own her songs’ master recordings, she has the rights to the songs themselves, as she is a credited songwriter on all of her tracks.
Swift’s response is very much on brand for her. When dealing with difficulty, she has always turned to music—this moment is no different. “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” includes all 20 songs from the album’s platinum version, as well as six tracks “from the vault.” These are songs that Swift wrote for “Fearless,” but that didn’t make the original album. Through these six tracks, Swift continues the Fearless narrative—one of high school romance, epic love, growing up and moving on.
From the opening notes of the titular track “Fearless,” it’s clear that Swift’s attempts to closely replicate her body of work, effectively devaluing the original version, were successful. In an interview with People, Swift noted: “I did go in line by line and listen to every single vocal and think, you know, what are my inflections here. If I can improve upon it, I did. But I really did want this to be very true to what I initially thought of and what I had initially written. But better.”
There are, of course, differences between the two versions, immediately noticeable to someone who has listened to the original album as many times as I have. The first time I listened to “Taylor’s Version,” I was hyper-fixated on these small variances—in instrumentation, production, phrasing, emphasis, pauses for breaths, the laugh in “Hey Stephen” (which is even better in the new version). I’m so used to hearing the original songs that anything slightly different is bound to feel off at first.
After listening to the full album at least six times all the way through, though, my brain has begun to accept these versions as the songs I’ve loved for 13 years (there’s the number again!). These re-recorded tracks still give me hope—hope that the crazy, enthralling love of her youth that Swift sings about on tracks like “Fearless” and “The Way I Loved You” is out there and will always be worth waiting for.
I keep coming back to what it must have been like for Swift to re-record this album, effectively reliving the all-consuming emotions she so meticulously documented through her songs. I imagine it’s bittersweet. In “Fifteen” Swift sings, with wisdom beyond her (at the time) 18 years, “I’ve found time can heal most anything/ And you just might find who you’re supposed to be/ I didn’t know who I was supposed to be/ At fifteen.” At 31, Swift has lived so much more life than her 18-year-old self could ever imagine. She’s found the love story that she knows she deserves—“I’m gonna find someone someday/ Who might actually treat me well.” Swift’s definition of love has also evolved and matured, as evident on her more recent albums. It’s less public and more personal. Quiet, but meaningful.
The essence of each song remains true to Swift and to the original “Fearless,” just seen through a different lens. Hearing the hopeful lyrics of Swift’s youth sung in her matured voice is powerful and adds depth to her legacy. If “Fearless” was a high school girl writing in her diary, then “Taylor’s Version” is her all grown up, flipping back through the pages, touching each tear-stained word and smiling.