Taylor Swift Red

Taylor Swift the Musician Became Taylor Swift the Institution on ‘Red’

In the ten years since Red‘s release, it’s easy to take for granted just how pivotal it was in solidifying the visage of Taylor Swift—the woman, the myth, and the machine.

Taylor Swift
Big Machine
22 October 2012

The year 2012 was about soft transitions. US President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term. Britannica announced it would adopt a digital-only model and no longer publish its encyclopedias in print. The Mayans’ calendar ran out of dates, and the principal cast of the hit show Glee moved to New York, though only one of these proved catastrophic. 

The world was ever-changing, adapting, and, in some respects, evolving, but not all at once and not at a breakneck pace. Politically, technologically, and economically, certain harbingers of the cultural climate as we know it today emerged like the first crisp zephyrs of fall, suggesting a sly change of seasons and the initial inklings of the dark, wintry days to come.

One of these portentous gusts blew in on a late October day, just as crimson leaves loosen from their branches and float down to mother earth, when then-22-year-old Taylor Swift released her fourth studio album, Red. Upon its release, Red was critically lauded and, to reference another Swiftian raconteur for the ages, a commercial hit of Brobdingnagian proportions. It landed Swift her first Billboard number-one single in the pop charts, claimed the distinction of being the only record that year to go triple platinum, and racked up a modest four Grammy nominations. It is, to this day, her best work.

Swift’s ample fanbase rejoiced last year when she released a re-recorded version of the record complete with nine never-before-heard tracks in her ongoing efforts to reclaim ownership over her masters (and earn a fortune while at it). As an exhumed time capsule to nine years prior, Red (Taylor’s Version) served Swift’s fans a steaming mug of nostalgia cider and a delicious resurgence of vitriol toward her unnamed suitor (just kidding, we all know it’s Jake Gyllenhaal). She reminded her listeners, critics, and the world that her Artist of the Decade accolades were no fluke; Swift’s music, both past and present, as well as her personhood and empire, were here to stay.  

And yet, in the ten years since Red’s release, it’s easy to take for granted just how pivotal the record was in solidifying the visage of Taylor Swift—the woman, the myth, and the machine—as we know it today. Ten years later, Red doesn’t serve solely as the album that marked Swift’s supple transition from pop country wunderkind to global superstar. In its protean scope, indefatigable hooks, and pristine cultivation of an emotional core both hyper-specific and universal, Red represents Swift at her best: a storyteller with a firm grasp of what differentiates her music and her voice in an overstuffed pop music minefield.

As a product of the year it was created, however, Red establishes a facet of Swift’s discography that often goes curiously under-addressed: that Swift herself, for better and for worse, is a masterful scavenger of genre.

When Red arrived on Target CD racks and the iTunes homepage, the pop music landscape was in a state of flux. The recession-inspired era of high-tempo, high-octane beats that reveled in bombast and underscored hits by Ke$ha, the Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, and others had reached its apex at the turn of the decade and, in response to its prevalence, was beginning to slip out of vogue right alongside low-rise jeans. Something new—or perhaps something different—was ripe to take its place, but what (or whom) had yet to surface.

A few contenders did emerge, though none really seemed built to last. While Nicki Minaj and her starships were busy getting “higher than a motherfucker” and Justin Bieber mused about what he’d do if he were your boyfriend (spoiler: he’d never let you go or let you be alone; sounds healthy…), the first half of 2012 saw an inpouring of next-to-unknown artists breaking through with monster hits. The syrupy chorus of Carly Rae Jepsen‘s “Call Me Maybe” got stuck in everyone’s heads all summer long. The sultry pleading of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” supplanted the pithily anthemic “We Are Young” by supergroup fun. to dominate the Billboard Number One Hit slot for eight consecutive weeks. Perhaps no breakthrough is more astonishing than that of PSY‘s “Gangnam Style”, a fittingly exorbitant K-pop satire of South Korean luxuriance, the accompanying music video of which was the first upload on YouTube to score one billion views.

As these easily identifiable hits slipped through the speakers of bar mitzvah playlists and your local Forever 21 repository, YouTube and music distribution sites like SoundCloud and a budding platform called Spotify were slowly birthing a different kind of pop music, one in direct opposition to the in-your-face optimism pumped out on the classic format of Top 40 radio. Lana del Rey and the Weeknd‘s exceedingly “vibey”, saturnine blending of genre took the conventions of hip-hop, R&B, and lounge to create the type of music to which teenagers could swap saliva and Zoloft prescriptions. “Tumblrcore”, that nebulous, inchoate term that refers less to one specific genre than a curatorial sonic moodboard, crafted a fervor for a style of alternative music that would, in a few years, dictate the direction of mainstream pop for the next half of the decade.

The proliferation of these one-hit wonders (a term I use with affection) and bubbling underground sounds indicated that listeners were hungry for a change, a move from filliping yet thematically barren dance music to something that reflected the reality of the times, not distracted from it. So when Taylor Swift, the doe-eyed, heart-on-her-sleeve Nashville-via-Pennsylvania ingenue, set to work on her fourth studio album, the question of how she’d figure into such an unstable milieu hung over her. On a podcast with Rolling Stone in 2020, she reflected on the direction she wanted to take with the record: “I was already watching newer, cooler artists come out every week. I was already feeling like, ‘You know, shit. I’m on my fourth record. What can I offer people?’ That was sort of when I was like, ‘No, you know what? I don’t want this to be the part of me that stays in this one place musically forever and bores people to death.”

It now seems almost inevitable that, to compete with the “newer, cooler artists” and broil her country-born core with a poppier crust, Swift would have recruited mega-producers Max Martin and Shellback, the middle-aged Swedish hitmakers behind nearly every teenybopper’s iPod Nano library. After acting as the sole songwriter of her well-received prior record, 2010’s Speak Now, Swift had nothing left to prove about her own authorial pedigree. But she nevertheless faced a crossroads: how would she gain entry into the pop music arena while staying true to the sounds, styles, and stories that got her this far?

Like so many pop songs before it, it started with a C chord. Released on 13 August 2012, Red’s lead single “We Are Never Getting Back Together” opens with a jangly acoustic guitar riff that quickly turns in on itself, functioning as both Swift and her producers’ initial announcement of departure and a knowing reversal of the candied love songs she’d heretofore yielded. A spiritual cousin to Speak Now’s “Mean”, a frivolous yet undeniably lacerating middle finger to self-important music critics everywhere (my palms may be clamming up while writing this), the track’s supremely catchy melody and chorus find Swift affirming that her former lover has about as much a chance of getting back together with her as he does of winning an Oscar for Prince of Persia. The song oscillates between invigorating and cloying, playfully empowering and flippantly punitive. But with blazing synthesizers, a booming bass drum, and heavily processed guitar riffs, “We Are Never Getting Back Together” was the first marker that Red wouldn’t be satisfied with staying confined within the safety net of country music. The record—and the woman at its helm—were ready to burst out.

So when the album dropped in full two months later, perhaps no track more glaringly emphasized this endeavor than “I Knew You Were Trouble”. The operatic rock ballad finds Swift reminiscing on her inability to heed the red flags of a past lover, all over a wobbly, dubstep-infused (remember dubstep?) bass drop and chorus. In her original 2012 review of the record, Allison Stewart of the Washington Post describes the song’s EDM-adjacent production as “gratuitous and weird, done for the sake of saying you did it, and so tentative they might not have bothered”. Her point about its lack of gumption is well taken (it’s no Skrillex track by any means), though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Red‘s poppiest moments arrive with less diffidence than they do prudent calibration, the work of an assiduous architect building a skyscraper that values breadth and function over novelty and singularity. But the heart of the critique strikes as something more to do with Swift herself rather than Swift’s music: that her integration of the praxises of dance-pop was spurious, a veneer concocted for either rapacious commercial gains or obsequious efforts to fit in—to be one of the “cool kids” of pop music, akin to the type of high schooler who buys army pants and flip-flops to appear indistinguishable from the queen bees that rule the hallways.

In hindsight, Stewart’s criticism couldn’t be further from the truth. Swift’s embodiment of fizzy pop stylings on Red (which materialize throughout the record but especially on tracks “22”, “Stay Stay Stay” and “Holy Ground”) not only serves as the logical next step of her artistic evolution but also substantiates what was at the essence of her aesthetic from the beginning. Even on her debut self-titled album, which dropped when she was just 16 years old, her music straddled a fine line between Appalachian balladry and gregarious pop-rock. “Our Song” found crossover success even with Swift’s precocious drawl. Meanwhile, the aching “Teardrops on My Guitar”, a diaristic tale of unrequited affection, scored a radio-friendly remix that discarded its banjo for a sparkly guitar and drumbeat, transforming what was already an inherently winsome tune into something tantamount to the music of Jewel and Nelly Furtado. A pop sensibility always lurked underneath the country conventions of Swift’s music; it just never fully and unabashedly brimmed the surface.

All of this is to say that Red is far from pure dance-pop, and thank God for that. Between the plucky “Red” and rosy album closer “Begin Again”, Swift’s folksy inclinations toward carefully woven narratives and breathy vocal twang still render the album country at its heart—just not its skin. With longtime collaborator Nathan Chapman on production duty for the bulk of the record, Swift doesn’t buck tradition so much as she takes her trademarks (sing-along choruses, explosive bridges, resplendent imagery) and garnishes them with a coherent, guitar-driven aesthetic that heightens her specialties without eclipsing them. It’s a strategy that doesn’t just allow Swift to have her pop cake and eat her country biscuit too; it transmutes her persona as an artist. She could hence be perceived not as solely a pop-country musician. But as an adept accumulator of generic stylings, so when her subsequent record 1989 would release two years later, the seeds of its unequivocal synth-pop foundations would have already been planted, granting the startling brass of “Shake It Off” or ground-rattling snare on “Blank Space” the chance to arrive if not fully blossomed then at least sprouting.

Red’s role in Swift’s repertoire was to show the world that she was both ready to transition to pop and capable of it, even if crossing over as an artist was neither unheard of nor insurmountable. If we consider Michael Jackson‘s transition from soul and R&B to shimmering disco or Taylor Swift-forbearer Shania Twain’s rise to mainstream fame, over the last century, artists have catapulted from one genre to the next in droves. But it doesn’t always transpire so smoothly. Snoop Dogg/Lion’s foray into reggae landed less with a roar than a soft whimper on Reincarnation (2013), and Iggy Pop set aside his punk roots on Party (1981) for a drab attempt at new wave that lacked edge, much less a soul. To avoid confusing your audience—or worse, selling out—the lesson learned is a simple one: if you’re going to cross over, you better do it well. And you better mean it.

Swift was no doubt hyperaware of this precedent. So in crafting the record that would mark her crossover into pop, she befittingly chose to center her album around the only experience that could embody the extreme highs of electronic dance pop with the crushing lows of rustic love songs: a breakup. Like the undertones associated with the pigment in its title, Red’s meaning is sprawling and, at times, antithetical. Elation, rage, tenderness, desire, and heartache—Swift navigates a byzantine mess of affections on Red’s 16 tracks. Swift recounts it as her “true breakup album”, a memoir of a period in her life marred by grief yet buoyed by the prospect of something (or someone) new just around the corner; the felicity that comes from a night out with friends, followed by the loneliness that slithers back in after the party ends, when you’re curled up in bed with nothing but your racing thoughts and your phone—and his number still on speed dial—to keep you company.

These motley emotions crash into one another on the album—and, arguably, career—highlight “All Too Well”. Originally penned as a ten-minute epic and winnowed down to nearly half as long, the track combines everything great about Taylor Swift into one effusive break-up jam. Elegant phrasing, haunting imagery, and a momentous build toward a climactic, impassioned bridge all coalesce into a eulogy of how even as a love sours, our minds and memories cling on to its sweetest moments. Swift tends to keep her voice in a more placid registry, compensating for the lack of stentorian warbles like that of Adele or Kelly Clarkson with a penchant for breathless intimacy. But here, her voice soars and even strains fervidly as she belts some of the finest lyrics of her career (“You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest”). It’s her most indelible song: when armageddon comes and humanity is obliterated, it’ll just be the roaches and that bridge standing tall.

The question remains: is “All Too Well” a country song? A pop song? It’s both and neither. It fits into a third category, one that characterizes the remaining fundamental essence of Red: it’s adult.

Adult alternative is a genre sometimes afforded to groups like U2 or Coldplay, comprised of sounds that encompass elements of indie rock, new wave, Americana, and pop rock, among others. Swift includes touches of this on Red. Opener, “State of Grace”, kicks the record off with a pounding kick drum and shredding, reverbed guitar begging to echo throughout the walls of an arena. Duets “The Last Time” with alt-rocker Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol and “Everything Has Changed” featuring up-and-comer Ed Sheeran are complementary tracks of a moribund relationship against a burgeoning one, each using light strumming and back-and-forth vocals to ruminate on matters of domestic harmony. 

However, Swift’s embodiment of the genre is less in soundscape than in tone. In previous records, Swift crafted love-worn fables via references to texts that situated her in a bildungsroman of her own making. Whether by mirroring and then subverting the resolution of a certain Shakespearean teen love affair on “Love Story”, or fantasizing about pulling a “The Graduate” and crashing a wedding on “Speak Now”, Swift had a habit of articulating her life and love experiences through the trials of others. On Red, she turns her gaze inwards. For the first time in her career, Swift’s writerly eye viewed her own romances and personhood, not from the lens of a precocious teenager but the vantage point of someone wearied and hardened by genuine heartbreak and subsequent disillusionments of adulthood. 

The results are some of Swift’s finest, most pensive to date. Containing Swift’s first palpable yet nonetheless coy mention of sexuality in her oeuvre (“And I’ll do anything you say / If you say it with your hands”), “Treacherous” spins an intricate tale of a misbegotten romance that is all physical desire and no depth. “I Almost Do” sketches a similar internal war of longing vs. restraint, and “Sad Beautiful Tragic”—the requisite sentimental ballad of any Swift record—is a forlorn story of a man still fighting for a relationship to work even though his partner has long ago given up. Perhaps borrowing in theme and diction from pop blueprint Britney Spear’s “Lucky”, “The Lucky One” wistfully discloses the double-edged sword of fame. It’s a particularly prescient track a decade later, considering the wave of unrelenting media scrutiny Swift would be forced to grin and grit her way through—before culminating in a final verse and chorus that leave a downtrodden Swift dreaming of a peaceful fade away from the spotlight. With real pain and problems often comes real revelation for an artist, and Red is all the rawer for it.

That’s why, aesthetically, these B-sides may not carry with them the same air of barefaced crossover ambition as Red’s dance-pop highlights. While Martin and Shellback’s influence drapes over Red, the duo are only credited on three of its 16 tracks—the three that happen to have been its initial lead singles. In fact, Red is perhaps the first of Swift’s discography to manifest a trend that would continue to haunt her career: the lead radio-friendly singles from each record mischaracterizing (and, sometimes, undermining) the albums’ genuine emotional undercurrents, both sonically and thematically. One cannot forget or forgive the fact that the wretched “ME!” came from the same 2019 album that gave us the quietly devastating “The Archer” and sumptuous “False God”.

But when looking past the sheen and shimmer, Red’s “adult” tracks brandish the record and Swift herself with a reputation for crafting poignant songs about living and loving as a 21st-century woman. They forebear the arresting folk-inspired work that she’d release later in her career with 2020’s folklore and evermore. They show that Swift, at the time, was not just moving laterally into the pop canon; she was progressing as a songwriter and artist, the kind of feat that makes for a pop star built to last.

Between the album’s crestfallen moments of introspection and breezy odes to evanescent youth, Swift pens a complicated artistic statement. On early listens, Red can come across as messy and deprived of a coherent thesis. However, the confluence of genre, pathos, and sequencing, which might find a sprightly tribute to female friendship like “22” succeeded immediately by the shattering “I Almost Do”, are what give the record its delectable tension: the incurable need to assert one’s independence and maturity all while holding on for dear life to an innocence that shields us from the realities of heartache and loss. It reflected not only Swift’s inimitable, widely publicized affairs at the time but also the state of despairs of the good ol’ US of A. With an economy still crawling its way out of the toilet and the promise of Obama-era hopefulness fading, would we dance away our problems or face them head-on in the starlight?

It was a question that only time could answer, and the last decade has shown us that Red’s legacy is inextricable from the unfolding legacy of Taylor Swift. Less a nose-dive into pop music superstardom than a careful wade into its shallow end, Red signaled a delicate reinvention of the musician at its helm, from its lead singles to its deep cuts to even its album cover. Half-caked in a shadow brought on by a flat-brimmed hat (perfect for the woman sonically trying on a new hat with this record), Swift’s face is downturned and cryptic, punctuated only by cherry red lips gently opening up, as if she’s on the precipice of saying something daring, devastating, or definitive. 

As the conventions of pop music continue to bend, change and, in some cases, break in response to extensive political and economic movements, generational distinctions in music and media consumption, and stylistic game-changers brought on by emerging artists, Taylor Swift—now in her 30s and days away from releasing her tenth studio album Midnights—may not always be standing on the front lines of the pop music landscape. But she will undoubtedly still be standing, incorporating a fresh aesthetic with a story she deems worth telling, erecting a steadfast bridge (as is her speciality) between the new and the old, innovation and timelessness. If there’s one thing Red tells us about what’s in store for Swift’s future, it’s that she’ll continue to change, adapt, evolve. All at her own pace and in her own voice.