By Malia Mendez
As predicted by a flock of forensically-inclined Swifties back in February, Taylor Swift released her first re-recorded album “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” on April 9.
In her Instagram announcement about the release, Swift referred to “Fearless” as “an album full of magic and curiosity, the bliss and devastation of youth.” Despite being barely eight years old when the original version of “Fearless” was released on November 15, 2008, I undoubtedly recognized these intonations. As exemplified particularly in her recent sister albums “folklore” and “evermore,” Swift is a remarkable songwriter, and neither she nor her listeners must identify directly with the content of her stories in order to resonate with the profound emotion that pervades them.
However, Swift’s public image has been defined largely by her supposed “drama” rather than by her talent. She has most notably discussed this sexist inclination of the music industry along with others in a 2019 interview special with CBS Sunday Morning and in her 2020 Netflix documentary film “Miss Americana.” Often paired with discussions about Swift’s position within the industry is the phenomena around Scooter Braun. In 2019, Braun’s company Ithaca Holdings bought out Big Machine Records, where Swift signed when she was 15 and remained until the sale. When Swift publicly condemned Braun and former Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta for making executive decisions about her music over her head, news outlets at the time indicted Swift as a conniving pop star with a persecution complex.
As Swift articulated it in her interview with CBS, “A man does something, it’s strategic; a woman does the same thing, it’s calculated.” Later in the same conversation, Swift declared resolutely that she intended to eventually re-record the six albums now owned by Braun, and thus we arrive at “Fearless (TV)” — the first stretch of a very long road to Swift’s sole jurisdiction over her work.
The most notable aspect of the first remastered album is the quality of Swift’s vocals. Her voice is much fuller and more mature than in the original masters — not merely symptomatic of her age, but emblematic of years spent refining vocal control on tour and at her home piano. Swift’s voice in “Fearless (TV)” is distinctively hers, as opposed to that of a young girl imitating the country legends of her time. Nevertheless, despite the drastic shifts in her vocals, Swift by and large stays true to the original melodies of the “Fearless” tracks.
The eponymous opening track “Fearless (TV)” is one of those most loyal to its original version. Down to the enunciation and timing of lyrics, Swift emphasizes structural exactitude. Still, her vocal control takes this song from its sharp first iteration to a smooth reproduction — words flowing and inflecting upon each other in stunning cohesion. “Fifteen (TV)” follows with its surprising vibrato and tonal variance, ending with a harmonious series of “la la la”s that take young women like myself right back to sub-par piano performances at family holidays. This re-recording is well-produced and genuinely artistic. Track 3, “Love Story (TV),” essentially broke the internet as the first song released from this album. Fans swooned over Swift’s “huh hoh” in the second verse, which was tastefully dramatized from its 2008 counterpart. It was in this song that I was most struck by Swift’s confident ease. I am partial to the bonus track iteration, though, and I’ll get to why later.
I want to take a moment to first emphasize how drastically most of the Swift fan base and the world at large has overlooked “Hey Stephen.” I remember the exact photograph that accompanied the song’s lyrics in the “Fearless” CD tray card, which featured Swift in a frilly white dress, dancing atop a fluffy white bed in a snapshot of a movie-style pillow fight. The easy joy of this photo is strewn through the song, and its utter perfection will always be my hill to die on. In “Hey Stephen (TV),” Swift’s idiosyncratic inflections add up to a song that feels intricately detailed and fully fleshed out. This song is representative of the larger trend of Swift honoring her sophomore album but ultimately inflecting it with all of her present, expanded sound; we even hear echoes of “folklore” and “evermore.”
The next five songs comprise somewhat of a triple-tier cake — layers of charming but somewhat cursory pieces sandwiched between full-bodied ballads. Don’t get me wrong, “You Belong With Me” was a cultural reset. Still, its reproduction is overwhelmed by the depth of its surrounding numbers. In its reiteration, “White Horse (TV)” is far less preoccupied with vocal gymnastics in a way that allows it to achieve more emotional catharsis than ever before. In an interview with People, Swift explained her process of going line-by-line through each song, considering where she wanted to stay true and where it was best to deviate. “White Horse (TV)” is an exquisitely executed example of balancing these ethics.
The harmonies in “Breathe (TV)” achieve a comparable elegance, as Swift maintains her slight lisp in the lyrics “Hope you know this ain’t easy, easy for me” and her endearing pronunciation of “me” as “may” at the end of the lyric “You were looking at me.” “Tell Me Why (TV)” is the antithesis of “White Horse (TV),” not at all shying away from the vocal extravagance that is muted in most other tracks. Finally, “You’re Not Sorry (TV)” is unsurprisingly gorgeous, but it is also the one instance in which I strongly prefer the original, whose rawness moves me more deeply than the reproduction’s refinement.
“The Way I Loved You” and “Forever and Always” recently resurfaced on TikTok, and I feel that, more so than other tracks, Swift’s primary fan base grew into these ones — hence their sudden renewed popularity. In their reproductions, the two expand in instrumental complexity and vocal depth, somehow delivering exponentially more passion than they did the first time around. It is also in these songs that I am most gripped by the reality that Swift is over thirty and still singing about high school experiences with a conviction that resonates for her listeners. I think that also, for her, present fraught relationships like those with Borchetta and Braun inflect newly upon these tracks about confusion, anger and betrayal. “The Best Day (TV)” similarly brings a new tone to old feelings; its reproduction is completely void of all pitchiness, matured to bring a nostalgic retrospection to the piece.
When I heard the harmonies in “Change (TV),” my jaw dropped. As the finale of the original album, this heartfelt track brought all the potency we needed, but it is now measured against the joy that Swift is somewhat past the yearning of the song. Coming over a decade later, this pseudo-ending feels more victorious than at the time of its initial release.
I will be more sparing with my comments on the Platinum Edition and Deluxe Tracks, focusing mostly on the hidden gems that no one in good conscience can sleep on.
Firstly, “Jump Then Fall (TV)” is quickly becoming one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs of all time. From Swift’s playful melody to her dainty cadences, this rendition couldn’t be better. Equally perfect is “Forever and Always (Piano Version) (TV),” which has, in my opinion, always been superior to its upbeat counterpart. The harmonies in this slowed ballad rival those from the iconic bridge on “Don’t Blame Me.” “Untouchable (TV)” and “Come In With The Rain (TV)” are honorable mentions for their foregrounding of the instrumentals.
Though some of Swift’s previously unreleased “songs from the vault” have been circulating on YouTube for years, it was also a treat to get these recordings on top of the original tracklist. I do think that the two she released as singles were the cream of the crop, with “You All Over Me (feat. Maren Morris) (TV) (From The Vault)” hearkening back to the tasteful harmonica on “betty,” and “Mr. Perfectly Fine (TV) (From The Vault)” shockingly sweeping us all off of our feet. Still, that’s not to say that the other songs from the vault do not shine as well. I am particularly drawn to “We Were Happy (TV) (From The Vault),” which is modest at first but quickly enchants with its portrayal of the “young and dumb” love of high school.
Finally, the Love Story remix. Its synth-pop backing track makes the original music video feel incredibly anachronistic, but this also just works. Like Bridgerton’s ridiculous but impeccable remixes of Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” and Ariana Grande’s “thank u next,” this track brings a modern sensibility to a timeless trope.
All this to say, nobody is doing it like Taylor Swift. Though the circumstances surrounding her masters are extremely unfortunate, I am so grateful for the silver lining of these re-recordings. I encourage everyone to listen all the way through “Fearless (TV)” at least once, but if I were to recommend a couple stand-outs, they would be “White Horse (TV),” “Change (TV),” “Forever and Always (Piano Version) (TV),” “Mr. Perfectly Fine (TV)” and “Love Story (TV) [Elvira Remix].”