We were both young when I first saw you…
In the winter of 2008, countless teen girls across the country played the second record from their new favorite artist on repeat. Fearless was everything we wanted to be and everything we weren’t, but at least Taylor Swift was getting her heart broken, too. In between meeting Justin Bieber and Faith Hill, and slowly becoming a songwriting legend herself, Taylor boldly shared her romantic rejections and failures like they weren’t embarrassing — like they weren’t necessarily her fault.
At that time, it was so strange to hear someone my age sing about how serious our loves felt, and the enormous pressure we all faced to make a fairytale come true. We should’ve known back then that a teenager with the audacity to rewrite Romeo And Juliet was going to forever change the role of Female Songwriter in our culture. Her ability to endure, and make art out of the pain, seemed incredibly adult; her commitment to singing about being a kid despite that ability seemed like a gift.
There are plenty of people who are addicted to viewing Swift strictly through a cynical lens. From that standpoint, Taylor’s Version is just another cash grab, a decision motivated purely by financial reasons. Unable to rectify Taylor the businesswoman (or The Man, heh) with Taylor the songwriter, artist, woman, and teen girl, they simply dismiss the latter roles in favor of the former. In their eyes, financial gain and masters ownership are the sole motivations for Taylor’s Version of Fearless, as if a known enemy owning a woman’s (beloved, deeply personal) art is too strange a motivation to understand or her frustrated reaction to that scenario is simply another bout of “pettiness.” An artist insisting on honoring and preserving her art exactly how she wants to seems more like dignity than pettiness… and probably would be portrayed as such if it was anyone else.
For those who haven’t already worn a groove in a hundred burned CD-R copies of Fearless decorated in Sharpie, or streamed it over and over on Spotify, or kept treasured Walmart deluxe versions in the glove compartment of every car, Taylor’s Version is a chance to fall in love with the girlish songwriter that first won so many Swifties over. A solid listen to Fearless — either version, really — forces listeners who came onboard post-1989 to reckon with the teenager Swift once was, a narrator who makes cynical dismissal a little harder to do.
There’s just no reckoning with the lyrical thrill of the title track, the cathartic plot twist on “Love Story,” or the near-perfect melodic structure of “You Belong With Me” (Kanye be damned). “The Best Day” is an ode to family that so rarely surfaces in a culture fixated on heterosexual love songs, and “Fifteen” sighed and soared like everyone’s freshman year always did (or should). “White Horse” and “Hey Stephen” made sure a happy ending wasn’t the only story worth telling, and on every single song you can hear how much she just means it. This was pre-writing-lyrics-on-her-arms-Taylor but she was already committed to including multiple costume changes and set pieces.
And for those of us who listened to it in real time, the payoff is bigger. Handling a multiplicity of selves can be difficult for anyone, but for pop stars, a life lived in phases is almost a given. The constant shifting invites a tendency to dismantle what came before, writing off past personas as embarrassing or outdated, whether they are or not (The Old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now). Taylor Swift’s current project — re-recording all her old albums as an act of artistic defiance — is, among other things, an example of an artist reclaiming, naming, and accepting their former selves.
Swiftian lore has created ample narratives around each phase of Taylor’s career, but this is one of the first times the artist herself has so publicly excavated the past, even going so far as to unearth new songs from the eras that didn’t make the cut on original versions of the album. And that kind of insight into the time period is actually part of Swift’s argument for artists to be in control of their music, and own their own masters, the driving force for this whole process. Who else knew “Mr. Perfectly Fine” was the perfect (new) single to reintroduce Fearless to fans? Who else knew Maren Morris and Keith Urban were the ideal guests to reflect the shifting face of country music while honoring the history of those who were hugely influential back when the record came out? (Keith’s 2009 Defying Gravity lost the Grammy for Best Country Album to Fearless that year, though she was his opening act on tour).
Far beyond the minutiae of a banjo lick missing here, or a longer fiddle solo unfolding there, the quiet acceptance and empathy Taylor is showing her 18-year-old self on this do-over is impossible not to hear. Especially as a woman who has gone from golden child to punching bag and back, there is something brave and slightly risky in looking backward. Even after riding high off the success of Folklore and Evermore, reliving the past means eventually reliving the moments when her mistakes or misunderstandings caused the world to turn on her. And if it happened once, what’s to stop it from happening again?
Perhaps that’s why she started the process with an album that self-proclaims exactly what she once was by way of innocence, and has since reclaimed through resilience. It might be impossible to replicate what came before, but by ceding the spotlight to her old self with such open-handed grace, Taylor is doing a lot more for those who grew up with her than just releasing music. That wisdom might be the only truly new element here — and what makes Taylor’s Version worth buying into.
Get Fearless (Taylor’s Version) here.