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Taylor Swift’s Fearless album proves her songs were written to last

As the pop star releases a new version of her 2008 record, Roisin O’Connor looks at how, despite these songs being written when Swift was a teenager, the themes still feel universal

Friday 09 April 2021 12:50
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Swift performing in 2019
Swift performing in 2019

If you’ve ever had your younger brother or sister steal your diary and start reading it aloud in front of your family, well, multiply that horror by a million. This is something close to what Taylor Swift will have felt when the masters (the final mix from which all future copies are produced) for six of her albums were bought in 2019 by music manager Scooter Braun, a man she claimed had bullied her “for years”.

It was meaningless to claim Swift’s songs were in the public sphere anyway; that wasn't the point. Her grievances were based in the subject of ownership and choice. To know that someone you despise owns your deepest thoughts and feelings is to be violated. So it’s hard not to cheer as she releases Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the first of the re-recorded versions of her work.

Swift went through a period of her career where she was accused of lacking self-awareness; her 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana showed her acknowledging the truths in certain criticisms. But you couldn’t recreate these songs as perfectly as Swift has done if you weren’t now utterly self-aware. Her vocal style has matured over the years: gone is that brittle falsetto, replaced with a huskier lilt. Yet she chooses to deliver the songs on Fearless precisely as she did in 2008, right down to the giggle on “Hey Stephen”. There’s that country twang in “You Belong With Me”, that earnestness in “Tell Me Why”.

As other journalists, including my colleague Alexandra Pollard, have pointed out, Swift could easily have rewritten certain songs to better fit today’s climate. But she shows grit in choosing not to, because she knows that would mean erasing her own history, her own feelings.

But listening now, knowing what we do about her battle with Braun, you can easily imagine Swift singing these songs with him and other music industry men in mind. The theme of betrayed loyalty in “Forever & Always”, widely believed to be about Swift’s ex Joe Jonas, now reads like a metaphor for the breakdown of her relationship with her former label. “This is what happens when you sign a deal at 15 to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” she wrote in her 2019 post about the rights to her masters. “And when that man says, ‘Music has value’, he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.” On “Mr Perfectly Fine”, a song from her vault, she croons about “Mr ‘Insincere apology so he doesn't look like the bad guy’/ He goes about his day/ Forgets he ever even heard my name/ Well, I thought you might be different than the rest, I guess you're all the same.”

Swift in cover art for her re-recorded version of Fearless

In his review forThe Guardian, critic Alexis Petredis observed how “the best writing on Fearless offers a brilliant fixing of the understandable teenage impulse to mythologise the recent past, to carry on as if it’s ancient history, because teenage lives are in constant flux and forward motion, packed with events that invite nostalgia because they can only happen once: no one has a second first kiss or loses their virginity twice”.

While her songwriting has developed exponentially, Swift never lost sight of how powerful a skill that is, to mythologise the everyday. People can sneer but she knows the first kiss will always matter. The first heartbreak will never not hurt. While her two 2020 albums, Folklore and Evermore, explored characters she’d created as opposed to her personal life, there were still flashes of that magic. “Passed down like folk songs, the love lasts so long,” she sang on “seven”, her wide-eyed vignette of children at play. And one thing you could never accuse Swift of is patronising her youngest fans. She was their school friend on her earliest albums; as she matured, she became a big sister figure, someone to whom they looked for advice. Now she’s a godmother to a new generation of confessional pop artists such as 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo, who with Conan Gray shared a TikTok video of herself enjoying these new versions. Their delight at these songs is proof yet again that when Swift writes something, it’s forever.

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