Taylor Swift Red

Seeing ‘Red’: Taylor Swift’s Professional Premonition at 10

Taylor Swift’s Red and its reissue Red (Taylor’s Version) realign the goals of pop music, making an album’s perceived imperfections the new standard.

Taylor Swift
Big Machine
22 October 2012
Red (Taylor's Version)
Taylor Swift
12 November 2021

At the 2022 VMAs, Taylor Swift made a surprise appearance, accepting the Video of the Year award for the short film accompanying the ten-minute version of her cult-favorite track “All Too Well”. The long-awaited ten-minute version was released as part of the rerecorded version of her fourth studio album Red, initially released in 2012. Red (Taylor’s Version), an exact rerecording, was released in November 2021.

So far, Swift’s process of rerecording her first six albums has brought her career to a new level of acclaim, if only through the completion of the unprecedented stunt itself. Her victory at the 2022 VMAs puts her at the center of the cultural conversation surrounding an album originally released ten years ago, highlighting Swift’s ability to recast her past as presently relevant through the exploitation of certain aspects of Red’s longevity. 

Swift has begun the process of rerecording her first six albums for personal and business reasons. Red (Taylor’s Version) is the second rerecording, following Fearless (Taylor’s Version), of a promised six. In 2019, rival Scooter Braun, the former manager of Kanye West, another rival of Swift’s, acquired the masters to Swift’s first six albums when he purchased Swift’s former record label, Big Machine Records, from CEO Scott Borcetta. This transaction blindsided Swift. In a statement, she said, “When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that, eventually, he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter.” 

Considering the public history of bitterness between Swift and Braun, Swift’s rerecording of her first six records, as a way to regain ownership of her masters, carries both personal and commercial significance. Firstly, consumers value “From the Vault” tracks on the rerecorded albums: never-before-heard songs cut from the original album. These tracks help increase the value of the new recordings relative to the originals purchased by Braun. Secondly, consumers value Swift’s improved vocals and, in many cases, improved production on the recordings, which also increases their value relative to the originals. 

However, Swift’s public narrative about reclaiming work stolen by a callous businessman may be the most valuable asset of the “Taylor’s Version” albums. She’s not just making a shrewd business move but toppling the patriarchy and exacting personal revenge. Swift’s rerecorded albums are a meta-project: work that, through its completion alone, embodies the characteristics of Swift’s earlier work. Similarly, the original Red became a phenomenon due to the perceived audacity of its existence, in addition to the quality of its material. 

Red broke boundaries in many ways and began a critically adored second life even before the release of Red (Taylor’s Version). Although objectively, it has a few glitches — including what Swift has referred to as its lack of “sonic cohesion”– critics have praised Red’s foresight and breadth in encompassing everything Swift had done at that point and would do. Referred to as her “pivotal album” by the New York Times, Red was a staging ground where Swift sorted out what kind of artist and person she wanted to be. This duality allowed the record to break musical and cultural boundaries that would elevate it above other pop, never mind country, LPs of its time. Although derisive, the aspects of Red that initially challenged listers became revelations upon the release of “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)” ten years later. 

If there’s one thing Taylor Swift knows how to do, it’s listening to her fans. In a 2016 interview with Vogue, Swift mentioned that the original draft of “All Too Well” had been ten minutes long and that it was probably “in a drawer somewhere”. In the following years, fan uproar over the potential release of this extended cut grew until Swift included handwritten lyrics to “All Too Well” as part of the personal journal entries published as a companion to her seventh studio album, Lover. After Swift’s offhanded comment in 2016, not only did fan desire for the extended cut of “All Too Well” increase, but fans and critics had already dubbed the song a favorite. 

Clocking in at five minutes and 43 seconds, “All Too Well” served as a country anchor on Red, following the three-minute dubstep single “I Knew You Were Trouble”. Similar to the ballads “Dear John” and “Last Kiss” of Speak Now, “All Too Well” examines a relationship in detail, condemning and assessing the actions of the guilty party responsible for the downfall of the union while also exposing the heartbreak of the narrator and her reluctance to move on. Swift spoke about the unlikely popularity of “All Too Well” on Rolling Stone’s 500 Great Albums Podcast (Red ranked 99 on the magazine’s list), saying that the song didn’t conform to the “ways I was taught music permeated culture”. Here, Swift refers to music videos, radio play, and other conventional music promotion methods. Because of its length and Red’s obvious pop songs, “All Too Well” didn’t receive this treatment until ten years later. Swift’s surprise at the cult following of “All Too Well” marks a storyteller conditioned to create and promote music in a capitalist environment. 

In his hit “The Entertainer”, Billy Joel lamented the music industry’s machinations, saying, “If you wanna have a hit / Then you gotta make it hit / So they cut it down to three-oh-five.” It seems that, circa 2012, little had changed in the music industry in this regard. Red became known for its commercial juggernaut singles: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” became Swift’s first song to top the Billboard Hot 100. However, like Joel, Swift’s ballads have made a lasting impact. “All Too Well” might be Swift’s “Piano Man”. Neither song initially served as a catapult to pop stardom for either star but provided a foundation on which two storytellers could build global celebrity and then control the narrative about what they are remembered for. The resurgence in popularity of Joni Mitchell‘s Blue also proves that narrative-centered work, untrimmed for commercial purposes, can define a popular artist’s legacy. The clear nod to Mitchell’s iconic album in the title of Red signifies what Swift was aiming for all along. At the time of Red’s release, however, listeners paid attention to other aspects of Swift’s persona. 

During the Red album cycle, speculation about Swift’s private life had reached an all-time high. Although events referenced on the album span years, its collective muses allegedly include Connor Kennedy, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, and Joe Jonas. Swift alluded to each of these relationships through the liner notes in the physical album booklet sold with the CD. These notes represent several aspects of Swift’s marketing savvy. First, and possibly the most unexpectedly, the liner notes increased the longevity of the album’s relevancy. In the liner notes of “All Too Well,” certain letters are capitalized. When arranged in order, those capitalized letters spell out “MAPLE LATTES.” In 2011, Swift and Gyllenhall were photographed in Central Park drinking Starbucks lattes. 

The direct linkage of Jake Gyllenhall to “All Too Well” enabled the frenzy over the location of the song’s symbolic scarf to reach its peak almost a decade later, in 2021. The hype around the scarf, which Swift claims to have left at the house of her romantic partner’s sister, had brewed since the song’s release. In 2017, on Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen asked Maggie Gyllenhal about the location of this scarf, a question to which she had no answer. This interview took place five years after the release of Red, proving the enduring power of Swift’s ability to encapsulate massive emotions in small tokens, then re-magnify them into bloated cultural phenomena. 

Aside from strengthening the possibility that her songs would become cultural phenomena, the liner notes also served a strictly commercial end: sell more albums. By 2012, many fans had migrated to streaming or purchasing individual tracks on iTunes; however, Swift remained an album sales juggernaut. Physical album extras, such as the liner notes, kept Swift’s sales numbers high. Red sold 1.21 million in the first week of its release, becoming the second of four consecutive albums by Swift to reach over a million copies sold in the first week of release. Swift’s strong sales in the streaming era have become a testament to her ability to bend industry trends to her will. The loyalty of Swift’s fanbase, inspired by her highly personal brand, allows Swift to dictate the terms of her album rollouts instead of tailoring them to market trends. That fan-centered model has built a vast infrastructure that enables the public to participate in Swift’s gimmicks when it is appealing. 

During the Red album cycle, the Taylor Swift cinematic universe was created. 1989 built on this ecosystem through its lack of specificity. Swift’s first official pop album, and the follow-up to Red, 1989 served as the capstone to Swift’s career at that point by conveying the same emotional gravity and inspiring the same interest in Swift’s personal life as Red did, without the journalistic lyrics, specific liner notes, or five-minute ballads. Although 1989 was a bold step forward, as Swift’s official break from Nashville, it was also a victory lap. Speak Now and Red inspired expansive theories about Swift’s personal life. Consequently, in 1989, Swift could drop one hint about a relationship in a song title (“Style”), and let the media do the rest of the work promoting the album and creating a mythology about her life. 

1989 may be an indisputably excellent pop album. However, its omnipresence would not have been achieved without its place in a pre-existing narrative that Red created, whether or not that narrative revolved around gossip. 1989 was also part of a narrative in which Swift broke free of her country chrysalis, starting a chicken-or-the-egg debate that would span the rest of her career: is Swift a pop artist stifled by banjos or a storyteller confined by the capitalist parameters of pop? 

After conquering conventional, bubble gum, radio-ready pop, Swift dropped the career-topping folklore, which used the expansive storytelling of Red as its organizing principle. Critics noted that without the pop signifiers required on an album like Red or 1989, Swift was free to embrace her true nature as a storyteller. Swift’s ability to transcend genre reveals that the brand of Taylor Swift was never really about any of the genres she has identified with. On Red, which samples country, pop, dubstep, and folk, Swift not only argues that genres are restrictive but that she had to categorize herself into narrow conceptions of art to succeed, first labeling herself country and then pop, which stifled her real ambitions. 

According to Rolling Stone, certain tracks on Red sounded like “banjos and vocoders mak[ing] out like third cousins”. Swift needed to straddle two genres to ensure that the album succeeded commercially: a step forward into pop created a necessary change of pace, while “All Too Well” showed her loyalty to Nashville. But Swift knew she couldn’t manage that balancing act forever. “If you chase two rabbits, you lose them both,” Swift said to Rolling Stone in 2014. However, Red serves as an essential time capsule for the moment when Swift did country better than she ever had, but her quick hand at pop overshadowed that existing expertise. In Red (Taylor’s Version), Swift had a chance to shine a light on the aspects of Red that the public overlooked due to its commercial ambitions but fans had known about since its inception. 

Since Red, Swift has not only crossed over to pop, but experimental electronic, indie pop, and then back to mainstream pop again. Her ability to revisit a genre at her own discretion signifies her power as a celebrity and businesswoman who is not beholden to a genre-based fandom. Swift has reframed the idea of genre into something to be broken out of instead of a parameter to conform to. Genres guide Swift’s marketing more than they guide her album creation. Although she has famously feuded with reality stars, Swift’s business model may have more in common with them than she realizes. A central part of the product Swift sells is herself. That’s why she can sell you the same record so many times. The appeal of Swift’s work comes from the anticipation of a reinvention of self, expressed through music. In a 2014 interview with Barbara Walters, Swift justified her country-to-pop crossover, saying that her fans knew she would continue to write “smart lyrics”. Swift’s writing allows her to traverse between genres because one pillar always holds up her songs. 

“Like trying on pieces of a new life, I went into the studio and experimented with different sounds and collaborators,” Swift said, reflecting on the experience of writing Red. Her performative conformity to particular genres for no more than a few albums at a time is just that, part of her performance. Swift has reclaimed the disproportionate pressure put on female pop stars to reinvent themselves and rebranded it as the freedom to experiment musically and make unpredictable business decisions. Swift’s rerecording project, the result of a personally devastating circumstance, enabled her to not only legally reclaim her older music but rewrite the narrative around it. In Red (Taylor’s Version), Swift dictates the criteria the original should have been judged on. 

Because Red (Taylor’s Version) was created mainly for legal reasons – to ensure Swift would own a version of each of her songs – she doesn’t need to worry as much about pleasing critics or selling albums. This freedom gives her the latitude to make a statement about what she originally wanted Red to look like and how it should be evaluated. “These are the original 30 songs that were meant to be on Red,” Swift narrates in a bonus track on the record. A 30-song LP would have served as an ingenious capstone to the Speak Now era. (Speak Now, the predecessor to Red, is Swift’s only entirely self-written album and features four six-minute songs.) But her label surely had issues with even the final 16-track product. So, on Red (Taylor’s Version), Swift validates Red‘s commercial and creative goals by doubling down on them. It seems that seeing “red” might be a rational state of mind after all.