Taylor Swift has painstakingly re-recorded her breakthrough 2008 album – and in doing so, showed us all what it means to be fearless, writes Christobel Hastings.
A couple of weeks ago, fatigued at the possibility of spending yet another lockdown evening scrolling Netflix, I decided to listen to the radio. I loaded radio 2 on my laptop, thinking I’d be in time for the start of Trevor Nelson’s Rhythm Nation; but instead, the twang of country music started to drift from my speakers.
I glanced at the time: 9.30pm. I was too early. I loaded a new tab and started to search for another show; but just as I was doing so, I was taken by the sound of something strangely familiar. I paused, and listened to soaring fiddles, lilting guitar, and a country-tinged voice. It was beautiful.
When I flicked back to my original tab to check the playlist, I was surprised. The mystery track, it transpired, was Taylor Swift’s new version of You All Over Me, a previously unreleased outtake from the vault of Fearless. Once the track finished, I closed all my tabs, loaded Youtube, and ended up playing it all night.
If you’re a Swiftie, then you’ll know that Fearless is the first, mammoth album that the songwriter has chosen to re-record in a bid to regain ownership of her masters. It was the album that defined Swift’s early years, and includes a bumper crop of smash hits, from Love Story to You Belong With Me. It also scooped a slew of awards, including Album of the Year at the Grammys, of which she was then the youngest-ever recipient.
As of this week, there’s a triumphant carbon copy on the block: Fearless (Taylor’s Version). The importance of that newly lengthened album name cannot be overstated. It sends a strong statement to the world: my music is mine.
It also draws a line under a complicated chapter in Swift’s career. By now, you probably will have read or heard somewhere that Swift doesn’t own the rights to her first six albums. If you want to understand the ins and outs of the affair, you might be interested to read this comprehensive deep-dive. But to bring you up to speed, her back catalogue (produced under a record deal with Big Machine that was signed when she was just 14 years old) now belongs to a private equity firm called Shamrock Holdings.
In November 2019, Swift announced that she intended to “re-record copycat versions of my songs” in 2020, adding that it was “something I’m both legally allowed to do and looking forward to”. The plan was clear: gain control of her songs, and encourage fans to play the new versions instead of the originals on streaming services and download stores.
The plan has been a resounding success. Not only has Fearless: Taylor’s Version debuted at the top of the Official Charts Company’s countdown, but Swift has also now broken a longstanding record by the Beatles for the fastest run of successive number one albums in just 259 days. It’s a wonderful mix of signature songs, bonus tracks and never-before-released songs from the Fearless era, of which You All Over Me is the first offering. And it’s also received rave reviews from the critics, with Clash observing that the album compares to “a restored photograph brightening from black and white into colour”.
That’s actually a pretty good way to describe how I see Swift’s personal evolution. The narrative around her music no longer centres on a battle for ownership. Like a butterfly emerging from the dark cage of its cocoon, Swift is experiencing joy once more, and it’s wonderful to witness. Yes, she’s now in charge of her own work. But more importantly, she has her voice back; one that’s grown richer, wiser, and more powerful with age.
A few days ago, she joked on Twitter that “life is chill, writing songs based in fiction to avoid drama, feeling pretty grown up”. But there’s nothing low-key about what she’s done in re-recording Fearless. Opinions about her music aside, you can’t deny that there’s something profoundly moving about seeing a woman go to painstaking lengths to replicate every line of her breakthrough album. It’s radical, and some might say vengeful, but I choose to see it as the act of a woman who is fully realising her creative potential.
Swift’s countdown is finally over, and what now awaits, to borrow from her own lyricism, is now “a brave world…filled with equal parts nostalgia and brand newness.” I can’t wait to see what she does next.