If only the Taylor Swift of 2012 could have seen 10 years into the future. She would (I hope) have felt not only validated by the outpouring of love for her landmark fourth album — an album that has come to represent so much for so many — but stunned at its legacy in both her catalog and in pop music itself.
Even writing an anniversary essay around Red, released 10 years ago this Saturday, feels mildly intimidating. What else can I possibly say about this titanic album that hasn’t already been said thousands of times, both when it came out 10 years ago and just last year when the re-recorded Taylor’s Version dropped? This is no ordinary album, and it is by no ordinary artist: I frequently see Red cited as the favorite out of Swift’s entire, sprawling catalog — a discography that’s home to multiple Swift “eras,” each one containing layers of Swiftian lore. It’s my personal opinion that Swift has never made a bad album. Some are better than others, but each one is great in its own way. But if you absolutely had to choose, I think most pop critics would ultimately settle on Red being the finest out of them all. It’s not just an album, but a moment. It’s when Swift stopped being merely a famous singer-songwriter and became a global icon.
Red embodies so many things. For starters, it’s a visual vibe shift, with Swift trading in her wholesome blonde ringlets for a ’60s-inspired fringe and bold red lip. (Critics at the time were quick to point out visual parallels between the cover of Red and that Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which also reportedly inspired its songwriting.) Content-wise, Red is also the quintessential breakup record, a coming-of-age story, a fall mood board, and a triumph in songwriting and collaboration. It is Swift’s Shania Twain moment, one where she dabbled in numerous popular genres with one foot firmly planted in the country-music community. Today, we expect young artists to tinker like mechanics in a garage, but even as recently as 2012, women who started in country only had a handful of crossover success stories.
It goes without saying that part of Red’s long tail is thanks in part to Swift releasing Taylor’s Version last year — part of her overall plan to own her masters. The strategy turned out to be a prudent financial decision, but also a brilliant way of re-absorbing us in the expansive Swiftian lore within every single album. Last fall, Swift’s monster-sized fanbase and the critical community spent weeks revisiting and unpacking the stories within Red, feeling an avalanche of post-relationship feelings, clutching our scarves while the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” played in the background, and, naturally, causing “Jake Gyllenhaal” to trend on Twitter. TikTok didn’t exist when Red first dropped, and Instagram was in its very early stages – the most fans could do in 2012 was get into it on Tumblr and Twitter, or maybe blogs’ comment sections. But when Red dropped again last year, #SwiftTok exploded with dissections of Swift’s lyrics and dating history and throwback photos to her J.Crew-meets-Reformation style. The renewed conversation around Red was not all based in nostalgia — the immense interest showed how timeless a record it was and continues to be.
I actually saw Taylor Swift in the flesh during Red’s promotional cycle. The first year I worked at MTV, I stayed late to help cover the music-video premiere of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Before the premiere itself, Swift was coming to 1515 Broadway to introduce the video live and in person. Gathered with my co-workers and a group of fans on a balcony, we watched Swift — wearing the now-trademark red lip and a floral A-line dress — float over to the balcony’s edge, where she waved to fans and filmed the screaming crowds with her phone.
At the time, I remember thinking, “Wow, she is tall.” I had personally not yet been fully absorbed into the Swift universe, though I generally liked Speak Now and Fearless. Red is what really got me, though. And it’s not because I had to create “X Best GIFs” listicles from every single Red music video. In fact, you could argue that I loved the album in spite of having to make GIF blogs about it. Under normal circumstances, anyone having to do that would have a trauma response around the song or video they’re being forced to blog about. But every Red single withstood the ultimate blogger test; I still love them all! (The songs, not the blogs. For the record, I really, really do not miss the internet era when everyone had to be Buzzfeed.)
For such a wallop of a record, it sounds like Red started small. Swift was in rehearsals for the tour supporting 2010’s Speak Now but was simultaneously processing a big breakup. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Swift later recalled how she started ad-libbing heartbreak lyrics on guitar while her backing band joined in. “I think they could tell I was really going through it,” she said about the song that would later become “All Too Well.” The ultra-ultra-ultra personal ballad was famously not a Red single, but Swift did perform it at the 2014 Grammys in a highly re-watchable, hair-flipping performance. Today, with its 10-minute version, it is arguably Swift’s best-loved song, if not her most symbolism-stacked, James Joyce-ian track.
On top of being an ostensible breakup album, Red was also a major opportunity for Swift to sonically branch out. She’d already tried her hand at straightforward pop as far back as 2008’s Fearless (i.e. crossover hit “You Belong With Me”). Eager to show her ability to learn and grow as a songwriter, Swift for the first time reached out to co-writers outside of the Nashville bubble, connecting with Sweden’s pop royalty Max Martin and Shellback, Jeff Bhasker, Butch Walker, and Dan Wilson of Semisonic and “Closing Time” fame.
Speaking to SPIN in 2012, Swift said she wanted “every single song to reflect a different kind of sonic shade.” Here’s the full quote:
I really just wanted to have every single song reflect a different kind of sonic shade. And what I mean by that is, for me, as a country artist, on your fourth record, I don’t think you should only get to use certain instruments, and that certain other kinds of styles of music and influences should be off-limits. I just really liked painting with all different kinds of colors on this record. I kind of approach the songs from an emotional place, like, how did that emotion actually feel?
Swift started out writing what she knew, which was country-pop, teaming with Nathan Chapman and Liz Rose for the title track, opener “State Of Grace,” and “All Too Well.” After that, though, it was off to LA, where she wrote the dubstep-dropping “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” — not coincidentally, those ended up charting higher than any Swift tracks to date, with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” becoming her first #1. According to Rolling Stone, Martin and Shellback suggested adding an extra syllable to “we,” making it “weeeee-eeeee!” to imitate “little kids on a playground.”
All of that writing left Swift with 30 songs, which she trimmed down to 16. “It was sort of a metaphor for how messy a real breakup is, and this is my only true breakup album,” Swift said. “I love Jackson Pollock, and I see this album as my splatter-paint album, using all the colors and throwing it at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
In their after-the-fact review of Red, which they rated a very deserving 9.0, Pitchfork astutely pointed out that Red stood out from its predecessors because it’s the first Swift album to really swim around in the real-life muck of a breakup. Brad Nelson wrote at the time:
Many of Swift’s earlier, fantasy-driven songs, like “Love Story” and “Mine,” end neatly; both resolved with marriage. But real stories have a way of ending in places uneasy and uncertain, and what seemed to be the most enduring relationships splinter off into loose ends and glass shards. Swift knew this; she described Red in Billboard as being about “all the different ways that you have to say goodbye to someone… Every different kind of missing someone, every kind of loss — it all sounds different to me.”
I love this distinction between Swift’s earlier work and what we hear on Red. It really clinches Red as a portrait of a (still) young woman beginning to realize that love stories don’t always end with people saying “yes.” It’s kind of like what 500 Days Of Summer said about not being a love story, but instead “a story about love.” The reality is often much messier, and you don’t always achieve closure. As a born storyteller, Swift got the closure she likely craved not by imagining tidy endings in song, but simply by working through the feelings and setting them to music. Catharsis can be a form of closure.
Speaking of 500 Days Of Summer: The Dan Wilson co-write “Treacherous” includes a reference to the Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” (“Won’t stop ’till it’s over / Won’t stop to surrender”), which featured prominently in Marc Webb’s 2009 non-rom-com. The more you know!
For every “Treacherous,” “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” “Red,” “All Too Well,” and “State Of Grace,” however, there are tracks that bring enormous levity to Red. Bouncy-ball kiss-off anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is both gleeful and determined — when Swift speaks over the bridge about how her ex did the old circle back, ranting “I still love you,” you feel eye roll as she says, “This is exhausting.” There’s also a bit of what would become trademark Swift shade as she mocks her ex shutting down mid-fight, then “hide[ing] away and find your peace of mind/ With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”
Speaking to USA Today about “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Swift offered this delicious insight: “So I made a song that I knew would absolutely drive him crazy when he heard it on the radio. Not only would it hopefully be played a lot, so that he’d have to hear it, but it’s the opposite of the kind of music that he was trying to make me feel inferior to.” We do stan a queen who laughs all the way to the bank. When it comes to making great art, the I’ll-show-you impulse is often way more powerful than burning sage.
Another fun fact: In that aforementioned SPIN interview, Swift described the lead single’s subject (again, largely understood to be Gyllenhaal) a little more: “We’re talking about a person who would get sick and tired of listening to a band if they had more than 500,000 fans. Like, ‘I only go to their concerts if they’re playing in a basement for 22 people.'”
Meanwhile, “22” celebrates the abundant freedom that comes with being young and unattached. Sure, lyrics like “it feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters” and its accompanying music video aesthetic kind of scream “Pinterest mustache finger,” but hey, we all liked those things in 2012. Give it 10 more years — the chambray button-down shirt will come back, mark my words.
That being said, when Red goes for the emotional purge, it’ll give you a case of the full-body chills. It doesn’t waste a lick of time – anthemic opener “State Of Grace” comes in with heart-pounding percussion and lush guitar lines. The real kicker is Swift’s vocal soar, which echoes into the distance with a bruised confession: “And I never (never) saw you coming/ And I’ll never (never) be the same.”
Then, there’s the transition from “State Of Grace” to my all-time-favorite Swift song: “Red.” The only words to describe that segue include expletives. “Red” itself — an aching symphony of sound — rushes toward you and instantly calls forth every relationship you’ve ever had that was “faster than the wind, passionate as sin, ending so suddenly.” With Red (Taylor’s Version), the focus has been on “All Too Well,” a vivid snapshot of a toxic romance. But I’ve always gravitated more toward Red’s title track. It’s just such a great song to sing-scream into the void, windows down, scarf flapping behind you. But then again, when relationships end, I lean more angry than wallow-y. To each their own!
Everything Swift poured into Red came back at her x10: It spent seven weeks atop the Billboard 200, making Swift the first female artist (and the second musical act since the Beatles) to have three consecutive albums spend at least six weeks at #1. It went platinum seven times over and spun off four top-10 singles on the Hot 100. At the 2014 Grammy Awards, Red was nominated for Album Of The Year and Best Country Album. Finally, the Red tour became the most successful country tour of all time, grossing $150 million. No big deal.
Of course, Swift would go on to release numerous other records (she’s even releasing one, Midnights, this week), each with their own set of stories, which at this point border on actual conspiracy theories. The many chapters of Taylor Alison Swift could fill an Infinite Jest-sized book, an idea Swift herself put out there in last year’s “All Too Well” short film. Given everything that’s come after it, Red might represent a simpler time — one where Swift would actually sit down for a Q&A with SPIN, let’s say. (This isn’t meant to shade SPIN — Swift, like Beyoncé, has simply reached a point in her career where she never has to do any press again if she doesn’t feel like it.)
Even without a re-recorded version, Red’s legacy is like the ever-expanding universe. It broke new ground for a mainstream artist experimenting with genre while staying true to her roots. At the same time, it set Swift on a path to fully embrace pop, as seen on 2014’s 1989. It served as inspiration for more crossover artists such as Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and even Lil Nas X to straddle both worlds. Every young woman making TikTok weep currently owes a debt to Red. And every year it continues to exist, Red will only burn that much brighter.