How Taylor Swift Recreated, And Updated, The Magic Of ‘Fearless’
Swift hasn't phoned in the re-recording of the 2008 album - she's lovingly taken it out of storage and polished it to a high sheen.
In case you haven’t been online or on planet earth recently, Taylor Swift has released a faithful re-recording of her entire 2008 album Fearless.
The original country-pop album was her breakout, rocketing her to international stardom; it was the best-selling album of 2009, and earned her her first Album of the Year award at the Grammys.
I’ve written before about what Fearless means to me, on the album’s 10-year anniversary, and why her unapologetically feminine and personal songwriting was so radical at the time. So why re-record a basically perfect album 13 years later? There’s a very smart, legally savvy reason for the move (and it’s not just because Swift is almost superstitious about the number 13).
Basically, she’s fucking over the private equity bros who sold her masters out from underneath her. When Taylor Swift was 14 years old, she signed a six-album deal with the yet-unestablished label Big Machine. The contract meant that she had to record six albums with the label, and that she wouldn’t own any of her masters (original recordings) or be able to re-record her songs for 13 years.
This meant that Swift didn’t (and still doesn’t) own the original recordings of her first six albums, from Taylor Swift to reputation. In 2019, in a move Swift called her “worst case scenario”, Big Machine sold her masters to investor Scooter Braun, a man Swift said had bullied her for years. In November 2020 the time limit would be up and Swift would be legally allowed to re-record and re-release her first six albums, effectively decimating the value of the original recordings. But it seems that neither Big Machine nor Braun thought Swift would ever actually do this.
Well, the devil works hard, but Taylor Swift works harder.
…Ready For It?
At the end of the Fearless (Taylor’s Version) lyric videos that dropped last Friday, each song is marked with the ‘P’ symbol for copyrighted sound recordings. That ‘P’ stands for phonogram, a legal term applied to master recordings. Swift is stating her phonogram rights to the re-recorded songs, reminding the world that there are now “ethically sourced” recordings of Fearless that you can play/listen to/license for commercials.
Not a cent of the proceeds from “Taylor’s version” of those songs will go into the pocket of the investors who bought her original masters. While Swift probably doesn’t need the money, this is a big precedent to set for an industry that doesn’t protect its artists very well. Swift isn’t the first to re-record her music for legal reasons — in 2018, pop singer JoJo re-recorded her 2004 debut album JoJo, including the hit track ‘Leave (Get Out)’, after a long legal battle with her now-defunct former record label. But Swift may be the biggest artist to re-record this many albums.
Now Swift owns a recording of the Fearless album. When licensors come calling, she can offer both a sync license and a master use license for her new recording, cutting Big Machine out of the deal completely.
— Mauv (@ThatsMauvelous) April 9, 2021
It appears that Swift is not re-releasing her old albums in chronological order, as Fearless was her second studio album and yet is the first out the gate. There is a fan theory that she will release her re-recorded albums in the North American seasons they best vibe with: Fearless’s youthful optimism suits the spring, 1989 is summer in the city, Red is indisputably an autumn record, and Speak Now has wistful songs about December.
Where her debut self-titled album fits into this is unclear, but maybe she will be doubling up on album releases and we’ll get Taylor Swift (Taylor’s Version) soon, and reputation in the summer as 1989’s dark mirror.
In the meantime, it’s Fearless era again! So how does a 31-year-old woman, in a happy and stable relationship, revisit songs she wrote about love and heartbreak when she was in high school?
Forever & Always Fearless
Swift told People that she went through the original album “line by line” looking for places to improve, while maintaining the original spirit and intention of the record. She even recruited original collaborators like Colbie Caillat to re-record backup vocals. In perhaps the sweetest touch, Swift invited her touring band to play on the tracks, giving them credits on songs they’ve been playing live for over a decade, and probably providing them with some welcome work while tours are on hold for COVID.
Many Fearless tracks have developed their own mythology over years of Swift’s interactions with her audience. There is, for instance, the ‘You Belong With Me’ clap-clap, a staple at every live performance, and Taylor’s mimed pebble-throw during ‘Love Story’, both of which you can see in the reputation tour movie, performed with great delight by both fans and Taylor’s band. These little details are affectionately brought forward in the re-recordings, with the “clap-clap” still not audible on ‘You Belong With Me’, but adorably included in the lyric video.
Many Fearless tracks have developed their own mythology over years of Swift’s interactions with her audience.
The biggest difference between the original 2008 recordings and the 2021 re-release is Swift’s vocal ability. From the opening of the original Fearless, you can hear the effort in teenage Taylor’s voice, maneuvering ably through the bright melody but never quite getting enough breath. The first thing that hits you upon listening to the re-recorded ‘Fearless’ is the depth of Taylor’s 2021 vocals. The album’s title track has always enchanted me, but with Taylor’s mature lower range and control of her head vocals, it’s flawless.
While Swift’s singing voice has matured, the new versions have lost none of the shivering earnest emotion that makes her such an engaging performer. ‘Love Story’ still builds to a joyful crescendo and I speculate you can even hear 13 years of watching audiences lose their minds to it layered into the track. There is so much affection in these new recordings. The laugh on ‘Hey Stephen’ is deeper, more self-aware, as if Swift is rolling her eyes at her younger self writing the line “I’ve seen it all/so I thought” when she was a literal child.
The new Taylor jumps into 2021 ‘You Belong With Me’ even stronger and more confident, punching out the words with a gleeful “YOU’RE on your phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset”. It’s a confidence that comes of having performed a song to ecstatic crowds a million times. Like on ‘White Horse’ and ‘Change’, these are still the songs you originally fell in love with, but mixed better and with less strain on the sustained notes. The richer mix is probably producer Aaron Dessner’s doing — after his successful creative fusion with Swift on folklore and evermore, the musician is now helping Swift recreate her old albums the way she always envisioned them.
While Swift was already a masterful songwriter at age 15, she was more prosaic and literal than the lyricist we’re used to now: she tended to state the bare facts of her feelings rather than sketch them out with imagery. Fearless Taylor might have written “We met in a cemetery,” while evermore Taylor writes “How’s one to know I’d meet you where the spirit meets the bones”.
Yet Taylor never gave up her ability to articulate huge emotions in accessible language, the gift that arguably has made her so enduring as a songwriter. “I was there when we said ‘forever and always’” has the same enviable simplicity as ‘Lover’s “Can I go where you go? Can we always be this close?” It’s her gift for distilling an experience into a few precise lines that makes Swift’s discography so pleasing to revisit, no matter the age she was writing at.
Fearless is still a sparkling record, 13 years later. While the original recordings are still as charming as ever, Swift has taken them out of storage and polished them to a high sheen.
Swift has always organised her career into ‘eras’, usually beginning with the release of each album, and if Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is anything to go by, the rest of the six re-recorded albums will be a reflection on their eras — not just the songs that were chosen for release before Swift knew what that era would become.
Swift has always included her fans in her career, looking at her audience as almost collaborators, adding meaning to the art she puts out into the world. Performing songs for years has changed their meaning to her, and as a result, (Taylor’s Version) sounds richer and more meaningful than ever.
Kaitlyn Blythe is a Melbourne-based writer and performer. You can find out more about her work here.