How ‘Red’ Became The Most Pivotal Record In Taylor Swift’s Career
'Red' showed us where Taylor had come from, and where she was heading.
“[Red] was really sort of the beginning of everything that I’m doing now,” Taylor Swift told Rolling Stone in 2020 reflecting on her fourth album Red.
Swift was already a superstar before Red was released, but the album took her to a level of superstardom that very few reach. It was an album that bridged together Swift’s singer/songwriter sensibilities with her hunger to conquer the pop game.
This week, Swift will drop the re-recording of Red as part of her project to re-record all of her pre-Lover albums which she doesn’t own the master of. Each of her albums has its own unique characteristics, but no other album offers as much depth and breadth as Red. It’s her most sonically diverse album, one that depicts an artist in the midst of navigating serious relationships in the public eye.
Before Red, the public thought they had Swift figured out. She was the petty, ex-boyfriend dissing country star who was America’s sweetheart. That tag had mostly been a result of Swift’s vulnerable, revealing songwriting centring around relationships; her third album, Speak Now, offered some pointed breakup songs like ‘Dear John’, allegedly about ex-boyfriend John Mayer.
Red was a breakup album that did very little to quiet the chatter about Swift’s exes, but she was undeterred. In fact, for an album that marked a very important transitional phase in her career, Swift seemed to be very unconcerned about public opinion. She was going pop not for popularity, but as a way of learning and changing. Spurred on by two big breakups, Red is the sound of an artist reckless at the wheel, swerving all over the road, seeing if there was anything that could truly capture the feeling of a breakup in your early ‘20s.
As she found out, there’s not one singular sound for that. Instead, it’s found across a wide landscape of sounds from pop music delivered with a wink to scorned country songs. It’s her least cohesive album sonically and yet it offers the greatest insight into Swift as a person and an artist.
Taylor The Popstar Arrives
“I’ve always been aware of what my detractors say, because I use it as a springboard for what to do next,” she told Rolling Stone. “With Red, I had a different thing I wanted to prove: a thirst for learning.”
Swift actually turned in a version of Red to the record label and they declared it done — but she changed her mind, saying it wasn’t different enough from her previous works. She found herself intrigued by pop producers like Max Martin and began to imagine the possibilities. She told Yahoo! at the time, “Since I was old enough to understand what a songwriter/producer is, I’ve had a curiosity about how Max Martin creates what he creates. I wanted to see that happen. I wanted to be there.”
“With Red, I had a different thing I wanted to prove: a thirst for learning.”
The first single ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ marked Swift’s biggest sonic shift to date. The guitars offered some connection to country music but it was essentially a musical 180 for her; a glossy, tongue-in-cheek breakup song that took the mickey out of herself. Pop fans were shocked, and country fans were somewhat sidelined, but it became her first number one record in the US.
‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, the second single, dug even deeper into the pop genre, trailing dubstep which was making its way through the mainstream thanks to producers like Skrillex. Swift brought the song to Martin as a piano song but declared she needed something more “chaotic,” as she told Time. This, alongside ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ and ‘22’, marked the official start of Taylor shedding country and embracing pop.
By the time 1989 arrived two years later, Swift had already laid the groundwork. Red wasn’t a full pop record per se, but these three moments cleared her a space in the pop realm. Ever since 1989, she’s been a pop Goliath but it’s Red that truly shows a budding popstar — it allows you to see pop Swift alongside country Swift in close contact, dismantling what we thought we knew about her in favour of following her emotional instincts.
The collision of pop and country isn’t even particularly cohesive. There’s almost nothing sonically that ties ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ to a song like ‘Treacherous’ and yet it works because Swift’s songwriting is so distinctive. A lyric like, “now I’m lying on the cold hard ground,” for example, would be just as at home on a ballad like ‘All Too Well’ as it is on ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’. If the bones of a song are as strong as Swift’s, you can morph its form and it can still be traced back to you.
“When you’re experiencing the ups and downs of a relationship, especially when you’re 22 years old, they all strike you different ways,” Swift told Billboard at the time. Red is a real-time document of that. There’s no singular emotion that rides with you through the whole thing, so why should there be a singular sound?
Bridges We Can’t Get Over
Swift’s transition to pop might have been Red’s immediate takeaway, but in hindsight, she was cementing herself as one of this generation’s best songwriters.
On Speak Now, Swift traded largely in stories about other people but on Red she’s more personal than ever. It’s a breakup record in every sense and we move through all the motions from the absolute despair of ‘All Too Well’ to the renewal of ‘Begin Again’. At every turn, the songwriting is vivid and raw, undeterred by the tabloid fodder that it would inevitably create (it’s worth noting that nearly every print interview surrounding this album asks about ex-boyfriends).
It doesn’t matter whether she’s dealing in metaphors or giving it to us straight, the emotions hit the same. On ‘Red’ she aptly describes heartache in colour singing, “Losing him was blue like I’d never known, Missing him was dark grey all along.” On ‘All Too Well’, she strikes at all the senses from the cold air to the refrigerator light. We’re there with her as she unveils perhaps her greatest songwriting triumph.
Of course, that song is nothing without its spectacular bridge which unleashes all the tension and emotion that she holds onto in the song’s verses. Swift is one of the finest bridge writers in pop music, finding her flair on Speak Now and perfecting it on Red. ‘Treacherous’ flows into a bridge that freefalls as she howls, “Your name has echoed through my mind.” On ‘State Of Grace’ she summarises the album’s mantra singing, “Love is a ruthless game unless you play it good and right.” She is highly skilled at capturing emotion in the heat of the moment, and she uses bridges as a way of allowing that emotion to overspill.
As folklore proved, Swift has always been caught between being a singer/songwriter and being a stadium-sized popstar. She wants the radio hits and huge venues but there’s also an indie spirit somewhere in there. Not since Red has she been able to have all those things at the same time. 1989, reputation and, to a lesser extent, Lover, played the pop game while folklore and evermore were alternative experiments taken mainstream by the sheer star power of their creator.
Looking back at Red, some nine years after its release, we get both a sense of where Swift had been and where she was going. It’s tinged with country, but it’s also driven by musical impulses undeterred by genre. From a commercial perspective, Red loosened the pressure surrounding what to expect from Swift. It gently warned the country fans and also prepared the pop world for an arrival. From an artistic perspective, it’s a daring and raw depiction of heartache.
When it comes to Swift’s writing, there’s never any embarrassment attached to what she feels. Nothing is too hyperbolic or too niche. Red leans into that more than any of her records. She shunned expectation and followed her urges. That’s exactly when she’s at her best.