‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’ Reworks a Pop Classic into an Expressive Reflection
Swift stuns with matured tone and texture, particularly in the 10-minute version of “All Too Well.”
If you’ll excuse the pun, I seem to be building a reputation for myself as The D’s resident Taylor Swift reviewer. In May 2019, I deemed “ME!” from “Lover” uninspired. In July 2020, I fancied the mature melancholy of “folklore.” Now, in December 2021, I’d like to talk about “Red (Taylor’s Version).” There is something so innately powerful in those parentheses — they signify that Swift has become the songsmith and owner of her music. Indeed, the re-recorded version of her 2012 album is a strong, intentional reflection on fame and heartbreak, guided by its thematic and tonal lodestar, the epic 10-minute version of “All Too Well.” A pivot from the in-your-face nature of her prior pop albums, this music, like “evermore” and “folklore,” employs minimal instrumentals and lucid, expressive vocals that tell a tale of graceful rebirth.
The rationale behind her re-recording is, as lawyers on TikTok explained to me, an intelligent copyright law maneuver. Swift’s songs have two copyright components: the master recording (the recordings on Spotify, the radio, etc.) and the composition (the songwriting). While her record label owns the master recording copyright, Swift maintains control of the composition copyright. So, in protest of the sale of her master recordings to record executive Scooter Braun, and to reclaim her rights to profits, Swift decided to re-record her first six studio albums.
This legal savviness frames the feminist power that infuses “Red (Taylor’s Version).” She is the créatrice of an album that is uniquely hers. Its lyrics and melodies are quintessential Swift — ballads of modern love tragedies. This album connects with its listeners, who grew up concomitantly with her. Chronicles of love and its age-old pain are universal, and she captures that in her emotive music.
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)” is a masterpiece. I do not say that lightly. All the elements coincide: her voice is beautiful, the lyrics pack a gut-punch, the instrumentals have all the right cadences, and the melody is unforgettable. To write and perform a 10-minute song, let alone one that beats Don McLean’s 1972 “American Pie” for the record of the longest song to top Billboard, is itself a feat of brilliance. As McLean congratulated her, “there is something to be said for a great song that has staying power.”
Swift excels in the art of lyrical poetry about love and heartbreak. For the former emotion, my heart swells with lyrics such as “It was rare, I was there/I remember it all too well.” As for the latter, many lines encapsulate that raw pain. There’s the image of her crying in the bathroom at a party, an actress asking her what happened. The one of her former flame charming her father, who later witnesses her heartbreak: “But then he watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come/And he said, ‘It’s supposed to be fun turning 21.’” And the ones that liken love to dark circumstances: “They say all’s well that ends well, but I’m in a new hell” and “From when your Brooklyn broke my skin and bones/I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight.” The combination of vocal strength and emotional tenderness in this song makes it heart-rending.
To further the artistry of the piece, Swift presents us with “All Too Well: The Short Film.” This video features Sadie Sink as Her, Dylan O’Brien as Him, and Swift as Her, later on. I’m usually not impressed by music videos, and certainly don’t feel a need to rewatch them. This one is different. There’s a vintage warmth in the visuals of the couple’s relationship that complements and enhances the lyrics, which, in classic Swift style, possess a narrative arc. The supercuts of loving, fighting and breaking up are so well-coordinated with the heartbreaking nature of the song. Swift makes some apt commentary on relationships, especially those with large age differences, through the argument scene in which the music takes a beat. O’Brien’s character says “I don’t think I’m making you feel [stupid], I think you’re making yourself feel that way” and “[i]t’s so crazy,” a poignant remark on how men can weaponize female emotions and stereotypes.
Altogether, this album is impressive in its collection of 30 songs — 21 re-recorded from the 2012 original, and nine previously unreleased tracks. These songs are the culmination of Swift’s efforts to recoup financial and legal control of her repertoire. “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is phenomenal because it combines the pivotal music that launched her pop career with mature reflections on her life, fame and relationships. In “The Lucky One (Taylor’s Version),” Swift croons “And they tell you that you’re lucky, but you’re so confused/’Cause you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used/And all the young things line up to take your place.” This song is thought by fans to be about Joni Mitchell and Britney Spears.
Then, in “Come Back… Be Here (Taylor’s Version)” and “Everything Has Changed (feat. Ed Sheeran) (Taylor’s Version),” Swift demonstrates how she has grown personally and artistically. In my “folklore” review, I referred to these songs, and others on “Red,” as “saccharine pop.” But her re-recorded versions are infused with an emotional depth and musical softness that underscore the beauty of her lyrics and message of heartbreak.
Of the new additions, “Better Man (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault),” “Babe (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” and “Nothing New (feat. Phoebe Bridgers) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” are the standouts. I listened on repeat to the original versions of “Better Man” and “Babe” that Swift wrote for Little Big Town and Sugarland, respectively, but these renditions are evermore improved in their emotive power. The new addition to “Babe,” in which Swift chants “What about your promises, promises?” serves as an lyrical and thematic glue in the song, giving it a fullness that it previously lacked as a track about infidelity.
“Nothing New (feat. Phoebe Bridgers) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” offers some poignant reflections on aging in an industry that values agelessness in women. She sings “How can a person know everything at eighteen/But nothing at twenty-two?/And will you still want me when I’m nothing new?”
For a solid week after Swift released “Red (Taylor’s Version),” my TikTok “For You Page” was solely people lip-synching and sobbing to her songs and analyses of her lyrics. I watched about a dozen videos that hypothesize on the symbolism of her red scarf motif. This deluge of Swiftie content made me think about the connection Millennials and Gen Z’ers feel to her. She nurtures her fanbase, entertaining them with Easter egg scavenger hunts and fostering excitement around her album drops. There is also the mutual experience of growing up and falling in and out of love. And she is a hero, persevering through personal and professional challenges to establish her state of grace.