Taylor Swift was a weirdo in middle school. In the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, most musicians and bands in Eastern Pennsylvania (west of the Philly suburbs) still somnambulated in the hazy wafts of bands like Live and Fuel. I was there—I remember it all too well. Young Swift, however, discovered country music in her ‘tween years, something that didn’t necessarily make her popular among her peers. Despite that ostracization, she launched a career in the Nashville scene at age 16, and she did pretty well for herself. Her first three albums topped the Billboard US Top Country Albums chart. And even though several songs charted on the Billboard Hot 100, Swift’s music still sat comfortably in that same section of the record store. However, with the release of Red in 2012 we saw that veneer begin to fade. Her Nashville roots are still there, but the end of each branch bore a different fruit, each its own color and flavor.
The result of that effort was 16 songs that solidified Swift’s place as a talented young songwriter while breaking free of the invisible genre lines that once hemmed in her music. Red is full of meaning and melody, hope and love and loss. Swift’s greatest strength through her first three albums was her ability to convince the listener that she was baring her truth to them, and for that, Country was the appropriate canvas. With her fourth, she consciously broke out of her comfort zone, vowing to work with musicians who could not only help push forward the writing and recording of the album but would also contribute to her growth as an artist. She could have accomplished the task of bending genres in various ways and it might not have worked, revealing to her doubters that she was a very bright flash in the pan, that her early success was tied to the style that was as loyal to her as she was to it. But as each song unfolds into the next, it’s clear that Swift’s formula is transferable.
The first sounds in Red nod to the ‘90s indie-rock blasts that might have permeated her school halls even as she tried to ignore them. Pounding drums and guitar feedback launch us into “State of Grace,” immediately labeling her first three albums as prehistoric; this is to be the new Taylor Swift. Ever the marketer, she telegraphed her potential metamorphosis with the album’s first single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” released two full months before the album. But its cute poppiness did not signal the direction of the album as a whole—it might have been kitsch for all we knew. “State of Grace” answered any questions within its first 30 seconds, and a minute later Swift put a stamp on that with the lyric “…and I’ll never be the same.”
She wouldn’t let her audience get too uncomfortable for long, though. The second song, “Red” starts off with banjo before pouring on the rock in the pre-chorus. Lyrically, it’s a string of similes (“Loving him is like…,” “Forgetting him is like…,” “Touching him is like…,” etc.), which is on brand for the genre and for Swift. But the fourth tune, “I Knew You Were Trouble,” is far afield from anything she had done before, with a combination of electronic beats and harder edged guitars, and by now it’s clear that all bets are off. Its oddness set the table for “All Too Well,” which on its surface might sound like something that would have belonged on one of her previous country efforts, but juxtaposed against what preceded it succeeds as a singer-songwriter-dim-lights number. Unfettered by splash, the listener is free to focus on the story and imagery in the lyrics. We can see—even smell—the scarf in the drawer. We know what it’s like to almost run a red light because the passenger is delightfully distracting. But this is a memory song about a failed relationship (fans have conjectured the subject to be Jake Gyllenhall, but neither he nor Swift have confirmed it), and the line “I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to” makes us wonder how much time has passed.
And how much time could have passed? Swift was 21 when Red was written and recorded in 2011. It’s easy to be skeptical of any wisdom one so young could offer. But Bob Dylan was 21 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and we don’t wonder how long ago that girl from the North Country was his true love, and we don’t deny that, indeed, the answers to the hardest questions are blowin’ in the wind.
While these sage nuggets may have been borne of a precocious soul, Swift didn’t create Red alone. Yes, she is the chief songwriter for each number, but she collaborated with names that clearly signified her intention to veer away from Nashville. Dan Wilson of Semisonic is credited on three numbers. Pop masters Max Martin and Shellback on three others. Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol contributes his skills and voice on “The Last Time,” and Ed Sheeran does the same on “Everything Has Changed” (which famed alt-rock producer Butch Walker helmed). Those two numbers err on the side of the co-writers’ styles (the former dark and plodding; the latter folky and bright), but again the songs around them, like the energetic and hopeful “Holy Ground” and the shiny and infectious “Starlight,” show that Swift can compete with a different set of contemporaries.
In 2021, Swift also found it necessary to fight back against other industry members. Mightily slighted by her former record label and manager, who refused to allow her to purchase the masters to her own recordings, she did what many artists in that situation could only have dreamed of doing. She recorded Red anew, song for song and note for note. It boggles the mind to hear them side by side and key in how every breath and inflection are nearly identical. The control she has over her instrument, nine years between recordings, illustrates that to Swift the delivery is just as important as the composition. The discernible differences between the recordings, and welcome ones at that, are the punching up of some of the instrumentation. The snare hits harder. The distorted guitars are thicker. The bass is punchier. But the songs are the songs, and that’s the main takeaway. That doesn’t mean Swift didn’t embellish on the original offering. Red (Taylor’s Version) includes countless bonus tracks, most notably a 10-minute version of “All Too Well” that serves as a mini-musical, completing the story. Also there is the heartbreaking “Ronan,” about a little boy who succumbed to neuroblastoma in 2011 and his mother whose blog inspired the song. Listen to it; you will cry.
In the years following Red, Swift has continued to experiment with her sound, from upbeat dance music (1989) to angrier electro-pop (Reputation) to variations of diaphanous acoustic portraits (Lover, folklore, evermore), which in this writer’s opinion seems to be where she has settled. But Red remains the moment that she shook free the binds of pop-country and showed the world that no matter what style she found herself writing, as long as she was true to that teenage girl on her bed with an acoustic guitar and a notebook, everything else would always fall into place.
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