What do you get when you cross a state of grace with an upraised middle finger?
This is not a riddle: You get “Fearless (Taylor’s Version).”
There are a ridiculous number of ways to read Taylor Swift’s new do-over of her 2008 landmark. Does remaking the mostly sweet album she released at 18 mark her return to Edenic innocence… or is she more the serpent, using this throwback to her teen years to strike back at her old catalog’s new succession of owners? If it’s hard to determine whether the record is about her going back to being a babe in the woods or becoming the ultimate boss, it’s every bit as challenging to figure which lessons can be drawn for musicians and the music industry from the massive success of the new album.
One take-away is an easy one, at least: The moment anything gets earmarked as “Taylor’s folly,” that’s probably the moment it’s destined to break records. Devoting a chunk of her life to re-recording six projects is hardly turning out to be the career-stalling Waterloo some imagined. The chart news this week coming out of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” debuting on top is a bucketful of benchmarks: The new album had the biggest first week of 2021 so far (with 291,000 album-equivalent units). And the biggest week for a country album since 2015. And the biggest sales week for any album since Swift’s own “Folklore” last summer. Her third No. 1 album in nine months, making her the first woman to ever release three new chart-topping albums in under a year.
And, obviously, it marks the first time a remake of an album has debuted at No. 1. Actually, it marks the first time one has debuted on the chart anywhere, because this album has no real antecedents to speak of.
What to make of the hottest album of the year being a rerun? You could choose to see it as a terrible signifier for the state of pop in 2021, that the world is choosing a note-for-note return to the halcyon days of 2008 over anything the stars of today have done for us lately. Or you can take it is a sign of just how delightfully unpredictable pop culture has become, that the world is eager to embrace a recording that is at once an invitation to nostalgia, a conceptual artpiece, a calculated business move, a bit of playful fun, a return to relative guilelessness and, not least of all, a big Eff You to The Man. That’s a lot of weight for a single album to carry, but it’s not just critics who experience it on all those levels; Swift’s well-educated core of fanboys and girls understand and embrace all these things, too.
The album has been generally well-received by the thinkpiece writers of the world — even the five New York Times pop music writers who assembled to unpack the album. There have been holdouts, too, of course, who consider the album’s self-forgeries an act of either banality or blasphemy. But the minority adversarial reactions to Swift’s album are kind of like the similar reactions to Phoebe Bridgers smashing her guitar on “SNL”: If nearly everyone aligned against you is a white guy over 55, how wrong can you be?
What lessons are there for musicians or the music industry from Swift’s smashing success? Few things have been replicable about the Swift phenomenon for the last 15 years, so this is no time to imagine copycatting can work now. But certainly her seeming to come out ahead in the war over her masters, on her own terms, should continue to inspire other artists to further deputize or weaponize fans in their own business disputes, even if the same results are hardly guaranteed.
Another perception that may permanently shift as a result: the idea held pretty much since the dawn of the counterculture that the original recording is strict canon, not a blueprint.
The historical comparisons that were being made prior to the album’s release seem almost laughably incomparable now. Yes, Def Leppard re-recorded a few tracks to put online when the band was unhappy with its longtime record label (and subsequently withdrew them when things got settled). Yes, Jeff Lynne redid ELO’s greatest hits for a best-of so he could push those masters for sync purposes, among other likely reasons. Sure, Frank Sinatra re-cut songs when he changed labels, as did seemingly half the pop and country artists of his time, in an era before counterculture rock came along with its greater idealism and instilled the idea that true canon was untouchable and unrepeatable. But none of these hold a candle to Swift’s chutzpah in winning fans over to the notion that a remake is not something you try to slip in undercover, when no one’s paying attention, but a well-publicized, all-out war to wipe originals off the map.
And she did it at a time when she was being acclaimed for making mature leaps and bounds in her music, with last year’s “Folklore” and “Evermore” albums, the most acclaimed of her career. That she would even want to remind fans of her more primitivist songwriting and recording, however massively successful it was 13 years ago, is an act of some audacity.
The closest comparison would be a theoretical one: Imagine if, in the late ‘60s, George Harrison had been so unhappy with his contracts that, instead of just writing “Only a Northern Song” as a protest tune, he convinced his cohorts to follow up “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with a perfectly replicated remake of “The Beatles’ Second Album.” Maybe not an exact analogy, but close enough, in how far Swift had to shed her adult self to reinhabit her more wide-eyed youth… while accomplishing the very grown-up act of exacting frontier justice.
She was also smart enough, of course, to know that the replications in and of themselves might not be intriguing enough for non-hardcore fans, or the possibility of business vengeance motivating enough for those perfectly happy with their 2008 files. So, for bonus tracks, she dug out six “Fearless”-era compositions that had never been committed to record 13 years ago and finally recorded them, but with her 2021 co-producers, in a hybrid style that split the difference between the two eras. To carry that last simile further, it was if the Beatles rescued a ’63 B-side like “I’ll Get You” from obscurity and gave it the George-Martin-with-an-orchestra-in-Abbey-Road treatment. No one would argue that the six reclaimed songs tagged onto “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” represent her best work, then or now. But as an observed act of DNA-splitting and genetic experimentation, it’s irresistible.
Will Swift’s act inspire other musicians to do the same, even if they don’t have an army of “-ies” acolytes ready to carry out their orders? Maybe, to an even greater extent than it’s already happened. But, as writer Annie Zaleski pointed out in an NPR piece last week, there are a lot of bands who’ve been doing it more or less under the radar, for a whole panoply of reasons, from contract disputes to deterioration of their original masters to wanting to try out the classics with a new lead singer — with examples ranging from the ‘80s band Translator to indie band Wheatus to Journey.
Is re-recording oldies a sure path to getting an unlimited amount of licensing for commercials or film trailers or TV shows? It doesn’t always work the same way it has for Swift (who licensed her new “Love Story” for a Ryan Reynolds-produced Match ad) or Lynne. As mentioned in the NPR piece, the band Squeeze did an entire album of re-records called “Spot the Difference” but, singer Glenn Tilbrook said, they’d “not had a single uptake” on licensing the material for film or television. (If you can’t find a music supervisor to take a fresh “Tempted” or “Black Coffee in Bed,” maybe there’s some other problem afoot.)
Every day, in any case, artists far less scrutinized than Swift are fighting these same battles on a micro level. “To have something that is so identified with you actually belong to somebody else — imagine you went out to a party, and everybody was admiring the dress that you had on, but it belonged to your sister.” That’s not Swift talking; it’s Gloria Gaynor, who re-recorded a version of “I Will Survive” that she could call her own. If you sympathize with a humble disco queen feeling that way, maybe you can disregard the extra zeroes in Swift’s bank account and see the pride in personal ownership, or at least control of the direction of what happens with a catalog, has an underlying psychological effect on the psyche of strugglers and superstars alike.
The power that Swift has over her fans via social media could be seen when, in the week leading up to the release of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” fans shared tips via Twitter about how to make sure that the old Big Machine recordings could never accidentally slip in on Spotify at the completion of a playlist, inadvertently putting a few fractions of a scent in the hands of the investment firms playing football with her catalog. That she was successful in getting many fans to adopt the new versions as the only versions became evident on the latest Billboard chart; the original album had slipped into the lower rungs of the top 200 albums the week before the new one’s release, but it slipped right back out when the alternatives became available.
The kind of power that Swift has to mobilize her fans on social media can be misused, of course. This week we saw a star use an account with 100 million-plus followers to rage against… a ma-and-pa yogurt shop. Not all cases of raging against the machine on an Instagram Story are created equal. But when someone puts their mania where their mouth is and follows up social media laments with months’ worth of painstaking work, that’s a devotion to a cause other artists can be inspired by. An eff-you from an artist to the big, bad corporation? That’s something that can usually be moderately enjoyable, regardless of the righteousness of the case. But a middle finger that’s backed by the 10,000 hours that went into the perfection of craft, followed by hundreds more hours spent on a meticulous plan to regain some personal satisfaction? Priceless.
In one sense, it may not be such a very long way from “What would Johnny Rotten do?” to “What would Taylor Swift do?” The Sex Pistols’ frontman was unhappy enough with his former record label to write and “EMI”; she was unhappy with hers to just coopt their entire history together as something that was strictly hers, rather than just keep complaining from the sidelines.
Maybe that’s the real triumph of these re-recordings, and something her contemporaries can take away from all this, in spirit, even if they’re never going to pull the exact same boss move. With “Fearless” and probably all the “Taylor’s Versions” to come, she’s created a space where the punk-rock impulse the Puritan work ethic collide. Now, there’s a love story.