From the start of her career 15 years ago, when she was just a 17-year-old with a cascade of blond curls writing her own lyrics about the pitfalls of high school romance, Taylor Swift has exhibited as much talent for music as she has for business.
“And when I felt like I was an old cardigan/ Under someone’s bed/ You put me on and said I was your favorite,” she sings in “cardigan,” part of the 2020 album folklore. When she released the song last year during the coronavirus lockdown, she sold white cable-knit cardigans on her website for $49 each. She even made the savvy decision to send some to celebrity friends, who posted pictures on Instagram looking stylish and cozy.
With Swift, it is often hard to tell whether musical or commercial considerations are leading her decisions. But Swift’s motivations in her release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) are pretty clear: it was done not out of a state of artistic rapture but to exact revenge for a business injustice.
The album is a re-recording of Swift’s sophomore album, Fearless, originally released in 2008. At the time, Swift was 18 years old and under contract with Nashville record label Big Machine Records, whose CEO is Scott Borchetta. When her contract with Big Machine expired in 2018 and she signed with Republic Records, Swift tried to buy the rights to the master recordings of her first six albums. But Borchetta refused unless Swift would return to Big Machine, where she could “ ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in,” she wrote in a 2019 Tumblr post. Borchetta then sold his entire company to the music mogul Scooter Braun, who had clashed with Swift in the past. According to Variety, Swift’s music alone accounts for over 80 percent of that company’s revenue. “You deserve to own the art you make,” Swift asserts in that Tumblr post.
The album’s parenthetical “Taylor’s Version” makes that clear. This is the first of six re-recordings that Swift will release in an effort to devalue the recordings now owned by Braun and to wrest back control of her musical legacy. It also includes six songs that didn’t make the final cut. The best of these is “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” a classic example of Swift’s piercing gaze into the male ego: “I’ve been Miss Misery since your goodbye/ And you’re Mr. Perfectly Fine,” she sings about a “casually cruel” guy who is “so far above feeling anything.”
Other than those six songs, though, Taylor’s Version stays true to the original. Amazingly so, considering that all of the parts, including guitar and drums, had to be re-recorded. The only discernable sonic difference is Swift’s voice, which, 13 years later, is much deeper and more controlled. For many years, Swift was accused of being a sub-par vocalist — off-pitch, tinny, flat. But Swift’s voice may have finally caught up with her songwriting abilities. And there is something strange but lovely about hearing an adult voice singing about the highs and lows of young love.
As a near-perfect reproduction, Taylor’s Version presents listeners with an ethical choice: do you listen to the original but support a bunch of art thieves, or do you support the artist herself?
“Her career, and even the sound of her music, has expanded with such commercialism that it seems that currently Swift is less interested in being an artist and more interested in being the biggest brand she can be,” wrote Hazel Cills in Jezebel in 2019. The image Swift paints of herself — an introverted and ultra-relatable woman floating around one of her several mansions in a pink pajama set holding a glass of merlot, occasionally talking to her cats, unable to stay away from the piano in the living room where she conjures up song after song — doesn’t square with the Swift who has corporate sponsorships from Target, Apple, AT&T and, strangely, UPS.
But maybe these two sides of Swift aren’t at odds. Music, after all, is a business. Art is how some lucky people pay their bills. In a 2014 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Swift wrote that “some artists will be like finding ‘the one.’ We will cherish every album they put out until they retire and we will play their music for our children and grandchildren.” She implies, in a move as cocky as it is correct, that she will be one of those artists: “I think the future still holds the possibility for this kind of bond, the one my father has with the Beach Boys and the one my mother has with Carly Simon.”
Swift is renowned for many things, but perhaps number one is her staying power — she has sustained public interest and released chart-topping album after album without pause for 15 years. Taylor’s Version is, above all, a testament to this longevity. And for members of the younger generation, Swift’s albums — of which there are now nine — have long felt like pencil marks on a door frame, charting growth. Listening to this re-recording feels like peering down at those earlier marks, seeing how much has changed.