Before the scarf, there was a 27-second instrumental song intro purportedly referencing a break-up phone call of that length. Before lines like “In from the snow, your touch brought forth an incandescent glow, tarnished but so grand” came the lyric “Walls of insincerity, shifting eyes, and vacancy vanished when I saw your face.” Before all Top 10 spots in Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart were unprecedentedly claimed by the same artist, there was an album with the highest first-week sales tally in history for a female country singer. In short, before the staggering zenith of Taylor Swift‘s modern-day iconography, songwriting acumen, and career achievements, there was Speak Now.
To be fair, when Speak Now was originally released in 2010, Swift was already a household name. Her stardom emerged fully formed with her 2006 debut, and then 2008’s Fearless went on to become the most-awarded country album in history. Had other artists achieved a similar feat, it would be hard to blame them for sitting back and churning out project after project featuring near-identical themes and aesthetic choices, resting on the comfort of having cracked an immensely profitable code.
But even at an early stage in her career, Swift was already a master of reinvention. So instead, she delivered the most transitional album of her discography. Every song was written solely by Swift between the ages of 18 and 20, a turbulent period for any young woman, let alone one coming of age in the public eye. On top of chronicling the metamorphosis between childhood and adulthood, Speak Now also represents a sonic shift. Speak Now is categorized as a country album, and while there’s enough twang and banjo to prove why, there are also undeniable stadium-swelling hooks hinting at Swift’s inevitable crossover to pop.
Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) arrives at another pivotal moment in Swift’s career. She continues to prove herself a master chameleon, shifting from massive synthpop to a much gentler indie folk and then back again. Additionally, this is the first album Swift released in the middle of a tour, poised to become the highest-grossing in history, no less. Perhaps most significantly, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) marks the halfway point in Swift’s endeavor to re-record her first six studio albums, the masters of which were sold out from underneath her.
Swift never moves without motive, so it begs the question: why now? Revisiting the trials of adolescence over a decade later could seem petty and vindictive; certainly, such critiques have been lobbied at Swift for years. Instead, the care with which she engages her past work and the fans who welcomed it into their lives demonstrates an undeniable maturity and grace. This is illustrated repeatedly on SNTV through the deviations from the original, both subtle and glaring.
The biggest change is Swift’s voice, strengthened by 13 years of training. Her increased vocal control occasionally imbues entire verses with new emotional nuance or calls minor details into sharp focus. When she lowers the note on the word “nothing” in the line “We’ve got nothing figured out” from the album’s opener, “Mine (Taylor’s Version)”, the lyric changes from one of panic to bemused remembrance. Omitting a shaky breath between some of the most devastating lines of “Last Kiss” gives the delivery of the updated bridge the melancholy air of thumbing through a fading photo album. Even after surviving a heartache, there’s something gut-wrenching in realizing how much time has coalesced between one’s present and younger selves.
Another obvious change occurs in the song “Better Than Revenge”, a pop-punk leaning track about another woman “stealing” a man from the speaker. The original song described this other woman’s notoriety “for the things that she does on the mattress”. In Taylor’s Version, Swift has scrubbed the line in favor of a metaphor about moths, flames, and matches. While the new line arguably works better with the song’s overall themes of manipulation and deception, it’s not the specific change that matters so much as that it was changed at all. Many hardcore Swifties were quick to express their disappointment online; some jokingly claimed that Swift was “erasing herstory”. Still, others viewed the original line as misogynistic. But the switch works perfectly with the ethos of the re-recording; a fierce need to answer criticism – sometimes to detrimental effect – is perfectly aligned with the driving force behind this album back in 2010. The biggest reason Swift wrote Speak Now without co-writers was to disprove the critics who said she couldn’t.
Giddier songs like “Sparks Fly” and “Enchanted” also pack a new punch with Swift’s mature singing. If Swift is no longer a teenage girl lost in the throes of a new crush (can’t you almost picture her twirling her hair and kicking her feet while writing these?), then you can still hear in her older voice a loving nostalgia for the days when she was.
Much of this crush-happy teen can be seen on “the vault tracks”: bonus songs that Swift has been releasing with her re-recordings, written during the era of each album in question but cut from the final tracklist. On “Electric Touch” (featuring Fall Out Boy), crescendoing drums and triumphant electric guitar riffs help Swift do what she does best: turn a small, fleeting moment into a cinematic showstopper. (In this case, it’s getting lost in your thoughts while waiting for someone to pick you up for a date.) “I Can See You’s” suggestive edge is pronounced enough to erase all doubts as to why Swift’s marketing team advised against its release during the height of her reputation as America’s sweetheart.
Still, other vault tracks reveal slightly darker shades of growing up that have long defined Speak Now for fans. “They used to cheer when they saw my face / Now I fear I have fallen from grace,” Swift sings on “Castles Crumbling”, a collaboration with Swift’s friend and Paramore frontwoman, Hayley Williams. Both “Foolish One” and “When Emma Falls in Love” find a speaker internally observing the various patterns that she and her friends exhibit when falling in love and wondering what to make of it all.
From a young age, Swift has been pulling back the curtain and critiquing the traditional trimmings of a fairytale without ever losing faith in a storybook romance. It’s no coincidence that the album’s original tracklist, excluding deluxe editions and newly released material, begins with “Mine”, a song riddled with references to newfound adulthood (“You were in college working part-time waiting tables”, “We’ve got bills to pay”, “You say we’ll never make my parents’ mistakes”) and ends with “Long Live”, an anthemic ode to “all the magic we made” “fighting dragons” while “the kingdom lights shined”.
A guiding undercurrent of Swift’s work is the hope that time really can heal most anything. This attitude is now mirrored in the colossal task of re-recording her first six LPs. With the inevitable loss of her younger voice, many of Swift’s songs also lose those touches of teenage melodrama which once colored them. Still, knowing this, Swift has expended vast amounts of energy reclaiming her life’s work and, in doing so, standing up for artists everywhere attempting to do the same. Perhaps this is her way of saying sometimes you do what is right simply because it is right, not because you have been wronged.
While some fans joke that Swift’s music appeals to “people who have never gotten over anything that has happened to them in their life ever”, maybe Swift really doesn’t care anymore about the dramas of her youth. (She certainly has enough to focus on with the massive international legs of her Eras Tour she recently announced.) Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) is a nod to one of life’s central truths: you can’t go back in time, and you can never perfectly replicate your youth, but there are always new paths forward.