Happy, Free, Confused, and Lonely with “Red (Taylor’s Version)”
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It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters, make fun of our exes, and listen to “Red (Taylor’s Version).” That’s right; after months of buzz from diehard Swifties and casual listeners alike, Taylor Swift's rerecording of her fourth studio album, “Red (Taylor’s Version),” has arrived. It’s a lyrical and sonical expression of the color “red”: the angry hue of heartbreak and the burning tint of love. As Swift put it: “Red is the theme of the moment.”
Swift originally wrote these songs in 2012 in the aftermath of a shattering romance. In doing so, she illustrates the jumble of emotions someone in their early 20s feels. As she writes in “22”, “we’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.” The album pushed the boundaries of Swift’s then-current genre and defined her transition period from country darling to pop star.
“Red (Taylor’s Version)” doesn’t only include a rerecording of the album’s 16 original tracks, but an additional nine previously unreleased songs “From the Vault.” The song Swift—and most fans—were most excited for was Swift’s rumored “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version) (10 Minute Version).” Swift had to shorten this 10 minute ballad about her fragmented romance with Jake Gyllenhaal for the original album cut, looking to promote “All Too Well” to the radio. However, on the 2021 iteration of “Red,” she lets “All Too Well” play out in its entirety: an angst-filled, twisting narrative.
Taylor’s initial choice to re-record her music is a decision that speaks to a larger issue in the music industry: most artists don’t own their own work. Taylor herself doesn’t own any of her own work prior to 2019’s “Lover.” Her previous record label, Big Machine Records, had control of her music, and it has yet to be returned to her. This simply would not do for Taylor, who decided to go through the tedious process of re-recording: first with “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” (2021) and now with “Red (Taylor’s Version).” The parenthetical nature of every track title is repetitive, but it’s symbolic of her ownership of her work.
The release of “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” was the ultimate slap in the face to Big Machine. A fan favorite of this elongated version of the song was the line, “[Expletive] the patriarchy.” As a country singer, this line would have been cause for excommunication. The line is gratifying to many fans who now know the truth behind the politically stifling music industry. Now, Swift is able to own her songs and record them how they were meant to be heard.
In addition to the longer version of the song, fans also got an “All Too Well Short Film,” starring Sadie Sink as “her” and Dylan O’Brien as “him.” Sink and O’Brien portray the rose-colored exhilaration of a manipulative relationship: the first fight, the culminating breakup, and finally, the raw emotions that remain. The film ends with Swift appearing as an older version of Sink’s character, now a published author for her novel “All Too Well.” As Swift’s listeners, we are the women in the audience of her book reading, who empathize with Swift’s retelling of her life’s story.
Though it makes sense for the re-recorded tracks to sound more or less melodically similar, choice songs on “Red (TV)” are noticeably different. “Girl at Home”' sounds more like it belongs in Taylor’s 2014 effort “1989,” with its dance-pop beat packed with swamped-out synthesizers. In the famed “All Too Well,” the acoustics have mellowed, the twangy guitars less pitchy.
Fans do have a point, though, when they comment on the lack of “scream-singing” on the new tracks. Something about hearing the scratchiness and desperation in a song that’s meant to be perfectly recorded for the radio is cathartic and strangely satisfying. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Taylor now doesn’t feel the same angst or desperation that her 21-year-old self did. Nonetheless, tracks like “22” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” are iconic and nostalgic. After many years, she doesn’t feel the same sharp pain, instead viewing the song as a part of her relationship with her fans.
No iteration of “Red” would be complete without its collaborations. Singers like Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody (“The Last Time”) and Ed Sheeran (“Everything Has Changed”) are old favorites (though Ed also appears on “Run,” one of the vault tracks). Among the vault tracks, fans were also introduced to new vocalists like Phoebe Bridgers and Chris Stapleton.
There’s something to be said about the emotional maturity across the album. When Swift first recorded “Red”, she was singing about the moments as they were happening; with nine years’ worth of distance, her voice differs not necessarily in quality or sound, but in intention. She’s not a teenager screaming at the sky in rage anymore. She’s reflecting. She’s nostalgic. We are too. As we ourselves move closer to “22” and begin to understand her lyrics on a more personal level, the feeling is bittersweet. We finally understand what “Red” really means.