“When we’re eighty years old and we’re telling the same stories over and over again to our grandkids this is the story we’re gonna be telling,” said Taylor Swift after winning Album of the Year for Fearless at the 2010 Grammys. This same artist is now retelling her story with Fearless (Taylor’s Version), a re-recorded version of her sophomore album.
While many have questioned Swift’s ability to recreate the past on the new album, it is clear that she has always been enraptured by time, and by her own growth as an artist. This is the same Taylor Swift who declared in 2017’s “Look What you Made Me Do” that the old Taylor was “dead.” We now need to question if that is really true, or if it was ever even possible.
Swift weaves a tapestry of past and present flawlessly on Fearless (Taylor’s Version), utilizing the benefits of her more mature voice and newer, more advanced software to bring new depth to her songs, while preserving the original youthful emotions that distinguished Fearless. The album is a full-circle moment for Swift, so much so that it can be hard to remember that it originally stemmed from a conflict between Swift and her old record label, Big Machine.
In 2017, when Swift signed a new record deal with Republic Records after having fulfilled her six-album deal with Big Machine, Big Machine’s CEO Scott Borchetta sold the masters of Swift’s previous work to Scooter Braun, a music manager with whom Swift already had a fraught relationship. At the time, Swift called the situation her “worst-case scenario” in a statement to fans. While the sale of their work would be emotional to any artist, it was more significant for Swift because of Braun’s status as manager to Kanye West, who had previously publicly belittled Swift. From there began a journey that ultimately resulted in Swift deciding that, since she still owns the rights to the old music and lyrics, if not the recordings themselves, she would re-record the albums.
By the time Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was released on April 9, Braun had already sold Swift’s masters to a private equity firm by the name of Shamrock Holdings. This means that one of the original reasons for the re-record — to keep Braun from profiting from Swift’s artistic work — is no longer as pertinent. However, it is important to note that, according to Swift, Braun will continue to make some money off of the masters into the future.
Many critics have labeled Fearless (Taylor’s Version) as purely a business decision, all about Swift’s desire to make money from her own past albums. But, while the new Fearless has had unprecedented success on the business front (the album is the biggest release of 2021 so far and continues to top the country charts), it was never really about the money for Swift. Devaluing her masters does not stem from a desire to receive whatever fractions of cents she earns from streams, or even from her songs’ use in film and or in advertising, but from a more personal place.
“This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says ‘Music has value,’ he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it,” wrote Swift in a 2017 statement. Swift has long advocated for the rights of artists in the music industry, and the control of her masters is all the more important to her because she has always identified first and foremost as a songwriter. She is now taking it a step further and trying to fundamentally change the relationship between artist and label. Swift wants the norm in the music industry to be for artists to own their work from the start, and to license it to their labels for predetermined periods of time — in short, a model that is more like her Republic deal than the one she had with Big Machine.
Calling her re-recording Taylor’s Version, and presenting it, and herself, as the antithesis to the faceless corporations who profit off her masters is a smart business decision, as well as a reflection of how she truly feels. Swift’s statements over the years in interviews and on social media have created an atmosphere that makes her fans feel as though they are doing Swift a service by choosing the new versions over old. While the money involved in this decision is negligible on a grand scale, it is emotional, both for Swift and her fans.
So, how do the individual songs hold up? The breakout songs from the original album — “You Belong With Me,” “Love Story,” and even “White Horse” — are near carbon copies, albeit with new and improved vocals. Some songs that left virtually no impression on Fearless (of which there were more than a few) are now complete powerhouses, but still maintain the spirit of the originals. Among these are “You’re Not Sorry,” “Jump then Fall,” and “The Other Side of the Door.” Most of the changes Swift makes are imperceptible, like adding more harmonies on “Breathe” or a slight alteration of the guitar solo from “Fearless,” and those that are more obvious are indisputable improvements.
The singular exception to this is “Forever and Always (Taylor’s Version),” a song that was infamously added to Fearless at the last minute, immediately after Swift’s high-profile breakup with Joe Jonas. And that’s exactly what the original sounds like — a still-fuming teenage girl singing to an ex-boyfriend. While it’s hard to blame 31-year-old Swift for not capturing all of the anger she felt thirteen years ago, Taylor’s Version simply doesn’t contain the same emotion, even while other hard-hitting songs like “Tell Me Why” and “The Way I Loved You” deliver.
All in all, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is a triumph — in business, revenge, nostalgia, and reinvention. While it is hard to predict how this move will shape the future of the music industry — whether the role of the record label will be permanently altered, or we will simply look back on these albums as fun experiences — it is clear that Swift isn’t done yet, especially as she still has five more albums to re-record.