We All Get To Benefit From Taylor Swift’s Sweet Revenge
Taylor Swift did it. She actually went through with it. For nearly two years now — ever since her former record label Big Machine sold its catalog, including the master recordings for her first six albums, to music industry mogul Scooter Braun — she’s been talking about re-recording those albums as a fuck-you and an assertion of control. If she couldn’t own the rights to the recordings that made her one of the most successful musical artists of all time, at least she could undercut their value and present her loyal fan base with a way to enjoy that music without benefitting her nemeses. With last Friday’s release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version), that plan is officially underway.
Swift has always been clear about her motivations for this project. First of all, she had been trying to buy her masters herself, but she says Big Machine wanted to make it a gradual process tied to the release of many more Taylor Swift albums on their label — a proposition she had no interest in. Secondly, she was “sad and grossed out” that Braun of all people ended up in control of her catalog instead. In a public message at the time of the sale, she accused Braun of “incessant, manipulative bullying” over the years and derided Big Machine boss Scott Borchetta for what she viewed as a severe betrayal. “Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to,” Swift wrote. “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.” Braun’s Ithaca Holdings has since sold off Swift’s catalog to a different private investment fund, which has not apparently deterred Swift in the slightest. The existence of this re-recorded Fearless is proof that she is not messing around.
Fearless was Swift’s second album, released in November of 2008. Although she’d earned some pop radio airplay with her self-titled debut two years earlier, this is the album that made her country’s biggest crossover star. (It’s also the genesis of our own Tom Breihan’s recurring “respect motherfucking craft” meme.) Fearless spun off two top-five singles on the Hot 100 in “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” and eventually won the Grammy for Album Of The Year in 2010. In the interim, “You Belong With Me” won Best Female Video at the 2009 VMAs against distinctively pop competition including Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and a Beyoncé clip some would describe as “one of the best videos of all time.” But if Swift was making pop star moves at the time, her music was still steeped in the sound of mainstream country, shot through with emo specificity and a flair for storybook romance (the “White Horse” lyric “I’m not a princess, and this ain’t a fairytale” notwithstanding). Although released less than 13 years ago, Fearless sounds like it was recorded a lifetime ago in light of all the evolutions Swift’s music has undergone since. The thought of her re-recording that material in the style of 1989 or Reputation or folklore opens up some intriguing possibilities.
But reinterpretation wasn’t the goal here (and anyhow, she already re-did “Love Story” as synthpop on the 1989 tour). Instead of updating her old tracks to match her current aesthetic, Swift and her co-producer Christopher Rowe — a veteran Nashville mixing engineer who remixed some of her earliest hits for inclusion on the international version of Fearless back in 2008 — sought to create an exact replica of the Grammy-winning album. For all intents and purposes they succeeded. The biggest change is that Swift’s voice is noticeably lower and more mature at age 31 than it was at 18, which lends some fascinating new perspective to a song about adolescent heartbreak and loss of innocence like “Fifteen.” Coming from a grown woman, a line like “Make you run and hide like a scared little boy!” on “Forever & Always” just hits different; you can hear more of a wink in Swift’s cackle on “Dear Stephen.” But the variations are few and far between and will be negligible to a casual listener. The verisimilitude is almost shocking.
Casual listeners are not the target audience for this release, though, so Swift has gone far beyond re-creating the original album. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) also includes new recordings of the six bonus tracks from the Platinum Edition released in 2009, as well as “Today Was A Fairytale” from the Valentine’s Day soundtrack. Most intriguingly, there are new cuts of six songs “from the vault,” Fearless-era Swift songs that have never been released before now, co-produced not by Rowe but Swift’s recent folklore and evermore collaborators Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff. The result is essentially a deluxe reissue, a completist compendium that renders Taylor’s Version the obvious streaming destination for Swift’s hardcore fan base. Even fans who aren’t dead-set on supporting her motives for this project will probably gravitate toward this version of the album out of practicality alone.
Even beyond the usual stan compulsion to reflexively worship anything their heroes do, Taylor’s Version really is a bounty for Swifties. At 26 tracks, the project drags the way most deluxe editions drag but is also primed for lengthy streaming sessions. The “from the vault” songs have added layers to Swift’s mythology, such as the revelation that “casually cruel,” a phrase from 2012 fan favorite “All Too Well,” originated four years earlier on the Joe Jonas breakup track “Mr. Perfectly Fine.” Setting aside that the songs are all freshly recorded, this is for Swifties what the OK Computer reissue was to Radiohead fans, bringing together the original tracklist, all the appropriate B-sides and bonus tracks, and previously unreleased material. Any Fearless-era music they could possibly want is here, presented as faithfully as possible. The quality of the material is such that the album will be worth a listen even for those whose loyalty to Swift is not so deeply entrenched.
The core of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is obviously those original 13 tracks, which still hold up as elite pop-country. Not every song is a classic, but beyond the album’s two signature hits — both of which elevate a teenage crush to starry-eyed anthem status — she had already developed a sharp ear for melody and an even sharper wit. The Colbie Caillat duet “Breathe,” for which Caillat also recorded new vocals, is as powerful a ballad as any in Swift’s catalog, built around the refrain, “I can’t breath without you/ But I have to.” The upbeat “Tell Me Why” is a scathing takedown dressed up in fiddle, banjo, and drum machine. A lot of the best songs transcend their juvenile subject matter with sparkling execution and a canny appeal to universal experience. A few of the lesser offerings now stand out as juvenile, particularly the playful “Hey Stephen” or “The Best Day,” a tribute to her mom that, as a parent of two young daughters, I’m choosing to view as tender rather than cloying. But on balance it makes sense that these were the songs originally chosen for Fearless, and that the album took off like it did.
On the other end of the tracklist, the new project’s big draw for listeners of any investment level is the songs “from the vault,” which further underline what a high level she was already working at all those years ago. Aside from the spunky yet melancholic “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” which sounds decisively like old-school Taylor Swift, Dessner and Antonoff’s production believably reframes these Fearless outtakes as folklore deep cuts. It’s proof of how thin the line between a twilit country radio ballad and shimmery indie-tinged folk-rock can be. The songs themselves are solid, if not as across-the-board essential as the well-chosen advance singles “Mr. Perfectly Fine” and “You All Over Me,” a moody duet that retrofits Maren Morris into the Fearless extended universe. It’s fun to hear Keith Urban singing backup on a song produced by the guy from the National. After sitting through the less impressive bonus tracks originally released in 2009 and 2010, it can be hard to hear the last few outtakes as anything but tastefully executed mood music. Still, the project has me deeply curious about what else might emerge from the vault when she releases her new versions of albums 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6, and how those songs might be presented. Swift is just getting started here.
Because Swift is operating at such a massive scale, the legacy of Taylor’s Version may extend far beyond her own career. She is by no means the first artist to re-record her songs so she could own the masters; the maneuver dates back to the Everly Brothers and Frank Sinatra and has been deployed by artists as varied as Squeeze and the late DMX. But given Swift’s high profile and gargantuan influence on the music industry — combined with a burgeoning movement toward artists’ rights and an upswing in pro-labor sentiment in general — it will be interesting to see whether Taylor’s Version sets a new trend in motion. A whole range of artists have good reason to consider such a project. Some are in situations similar to Swift, at odds with the people who control their catalogs. Others lost their masters in the 2008 Universal fire, or music they love has been shelved by their label against their will.
Regardless of whether it inspires many likeminded endeavors, Taylor’s Version seems likely to achieve Swift’s goals. According to a recent Vice feature, “she stands to make an unthinkable amount of money—and decimate the value of her old recordings in the process.” It might strain credulity to frame this instance of the rich getting richer as an underdog success story, but in a situation that pits a boardroom full of venture capitalists against a superstar singer-songwriter who wants control of her life’s work, Swift’s example here starts to feel pretty inspiring. The cynics among us must at least appreciate the savvy pettiness of this move and the dedication it will take to follow through with it. It’s the latest evidence that Swift is not just fearless but also relentless.
After an extended period of “Drivers License” domination to start the year, we are suddenly getting a new #1 song every week. This time it’s “Leave The Door Open,” the debut single from the Bruno Mars x Anderson .Paak duo Silk Sonic. It’s the eighth #1 hit for Mars and the first for .Paak. The track bumps Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” down to #2, followed by three more former chart-toppers: Justin Bieber, Giveon, and Daniel Caesar’s “Peaches” at #3, Cardi B’s “Up” at #4, and Olivia Rodrigo’s aforementioned “Drivers License” at #5.
After the Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” at #6 and Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” at #7 comes a #8 debut for Rodrido’s second single, “Deja Vu.” Remarkably, the song was released just 12 hours before the end of this week’s tracking period, so presumably it could have been her second consecutive #1 debut if she’d timed the release slightly differently. As it stands, Billboard reports that she’s the first artist to send her first two proper singles directly into the top 10.
At #9, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” spends its 70th week on the Hot 100, fourth most all time behind Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” (76), AWOLNATION’s “Sail” (79), and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” (87). Interesting company! “Blinding Lights” also extends its record for most weeks in the top 10 to 57. Rounding out the top 10 is Australian rapper Masked Wolf’s TikTok-powered “Astronaut In The Ocean,” reaching a new #10 peak after months of climbing.
Over on the Billboard 200 album chart, Justin Bieber’s Justice returns to #1 with 75,000 equivalent album units, 67,000 of them via streaming. Demi Lovato starts out at #2 with 74,000 units for Dancing With The Devil… The Art Of Starting Over. She just barely missed a #1 debut! With 38,000 in sales, Lovato at least has the top selling album of the week. after Rod Wave at #3 and Morgan Wallen at #4 comes a #5 debut for Lil Tjay’s Destined 2 Win via 62,000 units but only 3,000 in sales. The rest of the top 10: the Weeknd, Pop Smoke, Carrie Underwood, Dua Lipa, Luke Combs.
Doja Cat – “Kiss Me More” (Feat. SZA)
Twenty One Pilots – “Shy Away”
Did Tyler Joseph notice me comparing his band to the 1975? Probably not, but that Matty Healy haircut says he has also noticed the resemblance. And with the new wavey “Shy Away,” the most critic-friendly single Twenty One Pilots have ever released, maybe they’ll finally get some respect among the hipster population.
J Balvin & Khalid – “Otra Noche Sin Ti”
Although neither of them is particularly interesting, J Balvin and Khalid have somehow brought out the best in each other. The reggaeton beat switches up Khalid’s signature gloom, and that gloom is a pleasing context for Balvin.
Years & Years – “Starstruck”
A shoo-in for my year-end pop songs list. This is everything you want from a dance-pop song.
Rag’n’Bone Man & P!nk – “Anywhere Away From Here”
P!nk has fully pivoted to this kind of hearty adult-contemporary fare in recent years. It’s better than her trying to remake “Get The Party Started” or whatever, and when Rag’n’Bone Man’s voice comes back in near the end, this turns into a Bon Iver song for a second, so that’s cool.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Taylor Swift responded to Sophie Turner’s approval of her Vault song “Mr. Perfectly Fine” (which is about Turner’s husband Joe Jonas). [Twitter]
- Referencing the same song, Walgreens responded to Jonas and Twitter’s post about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine — which, OK, sure. [Twitter]
- Back to Swift: She recruited buzzy up-and-comers Olivia Rodrigo and Conan Gray to promote her new version of “You Belong With Me” on social media. [Twitter]
- Speaking of Rodrigo, she got her first parking ticket. [Twitter]
- More Rodrigo: AJR covered “Driver’s License” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
- Iggy Azalea complained that the Grammys are “rigged as fuck.” [Twitter]
- Logic came out of retirement with a new 60-second track, “Tired In Malibu.” [YouTube]
- Drake appeared in a viral video from comedian TravQue. [Twitter]
- Saweetie appears on a remix and video of Gwen Stefani’s “Slow Clap.” [YouTube]
- Justin Bieber performed at a downtown LA elementary school. [Twitter]
- OneRepublic taped an episode of Family Feud. [Instagram]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME