By Re‑Recording Her Albums, Taylor Swift Subverts the Crazy Ex‑Girlfriend Narrative
“Musically and lyrically, Red resembled a heartbroken person. It was all over the place. A fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end. Happy, free, confused, lonely, devastated, euphoric, wild, and tortured by memories past,” reads Taylor Swift in a message accompaniment to the newly released Red (Taylor’s Version).
This re-release of Red, an album whose best-known songs were powerful breakup ballads that earned her the reputation of only writing about her exes, is not very different from the old. Everything is the same — the instrumentals, the voice, the lyrics, and the tracklist, except for a few bonus ones. Swift is now nearly a decade older and wiser than her Red years, her voice sounds different, her songwriting is in an entirely new direction. But in Red, as with Fearless, we hear the older and wiser Taylor painstakingly and lovingly recreating younger Taylor’s work down to every single quaver of the voice. The old Taylor can come to the phone right now, she’s very much alive and she’s thriving under the nurturing embrace of “new” Taylor.
This time, the old Taylor isn’t just any pop star with a proclivity for trashing exes. She’s a young woman in pain, whose pain was repeatedly and constantly beaten down by everyone around her. In the process of watching her being jeered and mocked for feeling her feelings too deeply, many of her listeners arguably felt equally rejected and mocked. They internalized the narrative that feeling love and heartbreak with intensity was “crazy”. And here she is now, going back to that “fractured mosaic of feelings,” holding it with kindness. She comes from a place of healing, a visitor from the future into a turbulent past, protecting her younger self from the barbs that rained from all directions.
When those of us who grew up with these albums listen to this version, we are beset with powerful waves of nostalgia. But familiarity isn’t the only reason why. When our teen selves crooned along with Swift while she sang “loving you was red,” we knew what she was talking about, even if we never experienced it yet. For me, being a fan was a secret I kept close to me, wanting to protect myself from self-proclaimed music gurus who declared Taylor Swift to be “bad” and low-brow pop. When ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ played on radio stations or restaurants, I was aware of its foot-tapping rhythms and secretly hummed along, but distanced myself in public. There was a narrative about Taylor Swift that no longer made it socially acceptable to like her or her music. She was, after all, the person known for “changing boyfriends every other week” and writing about them. Her work was met with derision from several corners.
To love Taylor Swift was to be part of the crazy. Not all of us were secure enough to be willing participants.
Swift herself reclaimed the narrative with ‘Blank Space,’ almost two years later. In it, she cheekily plays the part that the media and the world had assigned to her — an obsessive girlfriend, a crazy ex-girlfriend. Her lyrics dripped with irony; in the music video, she sets things on fire and slashes things with a butcher knife with a manic gleam in her eye. This is who you think I am, so here I am, in all my insanity, she seems to be saying.
Now, however, is a different reclamation altogether. Swift is soft here. She is mellow and toned down. She isn’t talking to critics or the media at all. She is talking to her younger self, in her voice, affirming her feelings about love and heartbreak.
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Swift has always been a powerful advocate for herself. When she began the project to re-record all her albums from scratch, it was to get back ownership of her voice, lyrics, and vision from the maw of greedy corporate producers, whose whim and fancy she reportedly had to cater to, sacrificing much of her style and substance to the cutting room of the studios. Not many artists would have the patience or fortitude for such a laborious undertaking, especially when they’ve decisively moved away from their previous image and towards a new sound.
For Swift, however, this is a labor of love, a love letter to her younger self who was told that her feelings were “too much.” She moved through several different styles over the years, from the innocent country girl to the feisty pop diva, to the now mellowed-down, indie vibe. But what has remained consistent throughout is her belief in herself, and her ability to hold all the different versions of herself in the same room, conversing with one another. In a particularly meta scene from the ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ music video, all her old avatars stand around together and bicker. While many hailed this as a clever dig at her detractors, she was still playing to the crowd at the height of her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, giving audiences something to cheer for in her redemption arc. When it is Reputation’s turn for a re-record, we are likely to hear the same tone and tenor of voice, just as we did for Fearless and Red, because Taylor Swift isn’t afraid to embrace all aspects of her personality and her past.
But the key difference is in Swift’s willingness to go back there, to that time in her life, and put herself in young Taylor’s shoes, seeing what she saw and hearing what she heard.
It is the determination to not out-stage the “old” Taylor with newfound wisdom or musical prowess. It is the sincere effort to recreate what she had to say, in her voice, as if to tell us: don’t dismiss the old Taylor for the new. They are a part of each other, warts and all.
In Taylor’s version of Red, the ten-minute version of ‘All Too Well’ is the beating heart of the album. Swift re-enters heartbreak like a familiar house, exploring its contours and painting its picture in sharp relief. This is a song ostensibly about her ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhall. At the time they were dating, their ten-year age gap was the subject of much scrutiny and gossip. Their short-lived romance eventually led to Red, which added fuel to the narrative about Taylor Swift as someone who goes through boyfriends like a roll of tissue, only to pettily revenge song-write about every one of them. To the public imagination, Taylor Swift was the epitome of the clingy and slightly deranged ex-girlfriend, who got irrevocably attached within weeks, and went mad with sorrow when partners pulled away in fright. It wasn’t cool for her to wear her heart on her sleeve. It was weird, obsessive, wrong, cringe, and too much.
Except, it wasn’t. Many of her fans knew that all along. The cruel dismissal of her feelings had a chauvinistic bent to them — here was a hysterical woman who couldn’t handle what she dished out. We knew this was patently untrue. We understood the pain as she felt it. But now, we also understand that these are not feelings to be ashamed of and consigned to the far corners of memory, inaccessible and out of sight. It is not cringe to be alive.
Taylor Swift re-recording every single album is a testament to how much she values each of these feelings, how firmly she stands by her younger self.
It is a testament to how we should all be going back to our own younger selves and treating them with tenderness and care, even as the world treated them with scorn and derision.
There is something else at play too. There are nine new tracks in this album, all of which were cut from the version of Red we were familiar with in 2012. “And I see the permanent damage you did to me / Never again, I just wish I could forget it when it was magic,” she croons mournfully in ‘Better Man.’ These songs tell a different story — one which holds her former partners accountable for their coldness and emotional unavailability. It speaks to a devastating dynamic in, unfortunately, far too many relationships: in which one partner gives more than they get, and is told that this was their fatal flaw. While the world was too busy focusing on Swift being “too much,” in these new tracks, she turns the gaze around to ask why we never make anything of those who are too little. “And it was always on your terms / I waited on every careless word / Hoping they might turn sweet again,” she says. This is a feeling that is once again, unfortunately, all too familiar. Casual cruelty in the name of honesty, as she decries in ‘All Too Well,’ is the toxic trait that the world should have paid more attention to rather than normalizing.
One wonders if these tracks were omitted from the original because they didn’t jive with the image that songs like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ contributed to more effectively. In ‘Nothing New,’ she is aware of this already: “They tell you while you’re young / Girls, go out and have your fun / Then they hunt and slay the ones / Who actually do it,” she sings, presciently.
There is something undeniably powerful about young women in love and heartbreak. They laugh, weep, wail, snap, make biting retorts, and above all, they are passionate. And now, we finally understand, passion is not a bad word. It is the most powerful thing there is. A force which the world doesn’t know how to reckon with, and prefers suppressing. All along, when they called Taylor Swift a crazy ex-girlfriend, they were afraid of the depths of her passion. And in doing and saying so, they made many of us afraid of our own. It was far cooler to pretend like we didn’t have feelings. It served others very well to treat us as if we didn’t.
In Taylor’s Red, we get a more complete, complex, and searingly confessional portrait of what it means to be an ex-girlfriend who is healing, not crazy. Which Taylor, between then and now, do we hold up as the “true” Taylor? All of them.