Through the remastered version of Fearless, Taylor Swift takes control of her own narrative
Taylor Swift’s recreation feels both like a commentary on the original as well as a wildly original piece of work, both of which speak to her incredible craft as an artist.
“We were both young when I first saw you,” sings Taylor Swift in the opening lines of her legacy-defining hit classic 'Love Story.' When the song, part of Fearless, Swift’s sophomore album, came out in 2008, the “you” stood for a star-crossed lover; Romeo to her Juliet. She was singing about, and, to him.
Thirteen years later, when Swift sings the same line – and the same song – in her revisionist take of her own album, it is as if she is talking directly to us, her audience. Look, she seems to say, the time that has passed since, flipping the diary of her own life. We were really both young when she first saw us.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) then, feels like a vehicle for unadulterated nostalgia but crucially, it distills the feeling of homecoming. With the re-recording, Swift has essentially put up her youth as a museum exhibit, prodding the world to savour the spoils from a vantage point of a woman who has already lived the future her teenage self dreamt about. It is as if you closed your eyes, and the flashback started.
In many ways, Fearless was the first album that started it all, putting Swift, then just an 18-year-old teenage country sensation, in the orbit of stratospheric levels of fame. It won the singer her first Grammy for Album of the year (she got her third this year for her lockdown masterpiece Folklore), and sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. It is natural then that Swift chose this very album to start her comeuppance tour, one that involves gaining financial and artistic control over her own work.
This particular feud involves one of the hotly followed contract disputes in the history of the music industry: in 2019, when her former label Big Machine was acquired by the singer’s longtime nemesis Scooter Braun, he invariably also ended up owning the rights of Swift’s first six albums. The singer’s animosity with Braun, whom she has accused of “incessant, manipulative bullying,” primarily stems from the fact that he was complicit in enabling Kanye West’s attacks on her. Not only did he manage West at the time but more importantly, he also oversaw the rapper making an objectionable, sexually charged video depicting her. The matter reached its head in November 2020 when Braun sold the rights to a private equity firm in a deal that would effectively allow him to profit from the album’s use on streaming platforms, ads, radio, and TV. Incessant rounds of public hostilities and legal negotiations later, Swift publicly decided to re-record all her six albums in a bid to diminish the worth of the albums in Braun’s possession, embarking on a cumbersome labour of revenge.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the singer’s opening chess move (the aptness of the title given the circumstances is sheer poetic coincidence).
To put it simply, the album is as masterful as it was a decade ago, a dazzling evidence of why Swift came to be so unanimously regarded as a pop wunderkind. In it, Swift reimagines her album as a collector’s edition artefact – the 26-song-collection includes the singer’s reworking of original songs as well as six bonus tracks from the vault, songs that were written around the time Fearless was released but which did not make the cut. There are also notable collaborations that invoke lived-in nostalgia: Colbie Calliat reunites with Swift on the croonworthy 'Breathe,' and the singer taps in Keith Urban for 'That’s When,' a dreamy country-pop ballad reminiscent of the sleek 1989 production.
Swift enlists the help of her lockdown collaborators Jack Antonoff and The National’s Bryce Dessner for the songs from the vault (Stand-outs include, 'Mr Perfectly Fine,' more popularly known as the Joe Jonas breakup song, 'You All Over Me,' and 'Bye Bye Baby'). The stripped-down sound of these songs evoke much of Swift’s persona as a 31-year-old songstress who paints canvases with her songwriting. They are bookended by songs that provide a direct window to the past. It is possibly the clearest view of Taylor Swift as a teenager waiting to be a person as well as Taylor Swift, the fully-formed person.
The accrued wisdom enhances the mystical quality of the album, simply because the vault songs are merely temporary distractions, although they blend well with the overarching theme. The central attraction of the ambitious re-recording project remains Swift’s ability to identically replicate the feeling of naiveté ("Cause when you’re fifteen / Somebody tells you they love you You gotta believe them) that accompanies diving into things “headfirst fearless” without accounting for logic.
The new songs may have our attention but it is the songs we have already known for over a decade that hold our curiosity.
Any renegotiation with an artist’s already published work begs questions of its purpose and effect. Swift is after all, singing the same words to the high-school love anthem 'You Belong With Me,' the flirty 'Hey Stephen,' or the regret-tinged 'Fifteen.' All these songs are as familiar as they can get, even when laced with subtle sonic upgrades or Swift’s trademark inflections.
The difference, or rather the meaning one can invoke from Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is it unfolds from her own perspective, which is to say, the mere existence of the album allows room for a listener to infer a whole new meaning from it. The air of regret and heartbreak that precedes the album seems to have a more lethal edge than it did a decade ago. The crushing weight of the heartbreaks that underlines it feels almost weightless. And although Swift’s voice at times may sound too mature, too elegant for such youthful frivolities, the fact she is effortlessly able to disappear into the universe of the album to conjure up the myth of a breathless, life-altering romance that defined it. Much of it is also due to the fact that as listeners, we are one step ahead: the 18-year-old Swift singing about making something out of herself and knowing better may not know how her life would pan out when she sang those things, but we do.
In that sense, listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) has the same comfort of returning to one’s childhood room as an adult. Swift’s recreation feels both like a commentary on the original as well as a wildly original piece of work, both of which speak to her incredible craft as an artist. A lot of critics have likened the efficiency of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) to the fact that listening to it feels like flipping through someone’s high-school diary along with them.
While that might be true, it does not consider an integral part that makes the album so distinguishable: it exists on the foundation of kindness. Sure, Swift’s re-recording stemmed out of an act of rebellion and revenge. But it would not have been half as effective if it also was not infused with the singer’s trademark emotional intelligence, one that allowed her to give her past self the encouragement to look at themselves. Swift has grown up, and the things that bothered her back then may seem quite redundant now, but they never seem irrelevant. That is a mark of a singer who controls her own memory and self-image.
It is perhaps why it is impossible to remove the memory of who we were, who we were pining for, and who we were betrayed by, while navigating Fearless (Taylor’s Version). On any other day, it would be cringeworthy to spend time with the recollections of our teenage heartbreak or angst but with Swift crooning in our ears, it feels like the most adult thing to do. Ultimately, the album does what Swift intended it to achieve: make us realise just how much Taylor Swift is capable of controlling her own narrative.
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