In 2012, Taylor Swift made waves in the music industry with the release of her pop-country crossover album, Red. Nine years later, and Taylor Swift has made even bigger waves in the music industry with the release of her pop-country crossover album, Red. Don’t worry, it’s not Groundhog Day – this time it’s Red (Taylor’s Version).
Hearing the familiar drumbeat of the opening track, ‘State of Grace’, however, you may think that you have stepped back into 2012. This is exactly what Swift intended. In 2019, music executive Scooter Braun and his company Ithaca Holdings acquired Swift’s first six albums. After failing to buy back the rights, Swift announced that she would be rerecording all six albums as a statement about artists’ rights to ownership of their work. We have since been graced with the first two of the re-recordings: Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version). Each contains almost exact replicas of the original tracks, plus bonus songs ‘From the Vault’, which did not make it on the albums the first time around.
Few could have predicted the incredible reaction to these albums. Take Red (TV). It broke Swift’s own record for the most Spotify streams on an opening day for an album by a female artist. Another extraordinary outcome from Red (TV) is the fact that Swift has broken the record for the longest song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with a 10-minute version of a song initially released nine years ago.
But this is not an extended version of one of Red’s original singles. This is a 10-minute version of ‘All Too Well’, an album track that originally only peaked at number 80 on the US chart. ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)’ – yes, three sets of parentheses – has become something of a phenomenon.
Why have fans become so obsessed with this song in particular? Aside from the infamously heart-breaking bridge, with some of Swift’s finest lyrical offerings (“you call me up again just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest”), over the years, fans have taken a marked interest in the story behind the song. This is not a rarity for Swift, whose relationships have garnered enormous attention. Fans and, more cruelly, the media have taken sadistic delight in speculating which of Swift’s previous relationships provide the inspiration for which songs. This is easier for some than others – no prizes for guessing that her brutally cutting ‘Dear John’ from Speak Now is aimed at John Mayer.
In the case of ‘All Too Well’, fans have long suspected Jake Gyllenhaal as its subject. Following the release of the 2021 edition, we need suspect no more. As well as the existing verses about the infamous scarf, the extended version confirms theories that Gyllenhaal failed to show up to Swift’s 21st birthday. We get new insights into the reasons for, and consequences of, their break-up: “you said if we had been closer in age, maybe it would’ve been fine, and that made me want to die.”
Some may call the 10-minute epic overdramatic. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield suggests that the song gets so savage that “it makes ‘Dear John’ sound like ‘I Will Always Love You.’” Even as a loyal fan, I can see why the idea of ‘All Too Well: The Short Film’ starring Gyllenhaal-ified Dylan O’Brien seems absurd. Yet, Red (TV) does not just mark Swift taking back commercial ownership of her work. It marks her taking back narrative control. The 10-minute ‘All Too Well’ is Swift’s response to years of speculation. It is her tell-all interview, on her own terms, with no tabloid journalist filtering her words. It is (Taylor’s Version) after all, and Taylor never does things half-heartedly.
While these juicy titbits are the highlight of Red (TV) for some, I would argue that its power comes from the introduction of a new instrument absent from the 2012 version: time. There is something poignant about listening to the now 31-year-old Swift, who is in a long-term relationship with Joe Alwyn, sing the words she penned years before. The power of the re-recordings is rooted in the relationship between Swift’s past personas and her current self.
This is perhaps most true of the vault track ‘Nothing New (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)’, which contains the lyric: ‘How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?’. It’s reassuring to hear Taylor’s mature voice sing these words. We now know that nine years, five albums, and three world tours later, it will all be ok.
I’m not sure that Red (TV) will mark the beginning of a trend for mass re-recordings, but perhaps Swift’s endeavour of re-ownership and reclamation will remind artists to continue to reflect and engage with their previous works. And to get a good lawyer.
Illustrations: Verity Laycock