“These walls that they put up to hold us back fell down,” Taylor Swift sings in the last chorus of the anthemic song Change, the 13th track on the re-recorded version of her 2008 album, Fearless (Taylor’s Version). And it’s safe to say that they truly did (fall down). Less than two years ago, Swift announced she would be re-recording her first six albums to gain ownership of her masters as a result of the epic 2019 fiasco with her former label Big Machine Records. Thus, she began the fierce project of revisiting her previous material with the chart-smashing Fearless, the masterpiece that got Taylor her first Album Of The Year Grammy Award in 2010 and firmly established her on the path to stardom.
The re-recording process is an absolute treat for fans (such as yours truly), who get to listen to songs they grew up with, 13 years after their first release. As a fan, listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version), feels a lot like coming back to your childhood home after many years – you remember every corner and hiding spot, and you notice every new creak on the floor. And there is so much newfound magic in this nostalgic familiarity.
However, this project was born from a much more bitter place…
The Masters’ Fiasco (aka, what the hell happened in 2019?)
It all started in 2005, when wide-eyed, 15-year-old inspiring country singer Taylor Swift signed a record deal with Scott Borchetta and his small brand-new label Big Machine Records (BMR). Under this agreement, Swift conveyed all master use rights (i.e., the rights to the recordings) for her yet-to-be-produced first six studio albums to BMR, which may seem odd to the untrained eye but is actually an industry-standard deal. Between 2006 and 2017, the singer produced these six albums, which were all widely successful, and allowed both her and BMR to prosper together. However, blood swiftly ran cold after the conclusion of the six-album deal.
At first, Taylor and BMR attempted to negotiate a new agreement for additional records in 2019 but failed to do so. Hence, that same year the singer signed a new deal with Republic Records, which granted her full ownership rights of the work she would be releasing through them. Swift appeared to have made peace with the fact that she would not be fully owning her catalog, but things turned sour once a new player got involved in the game – Scooter Braun.
The music industry businessman helms Ithaca Holdings, which acquired BMR – i.e., Taylor’s catalog – in 2019. The Private Equity (PE) firm Carlyle Group backed the acquisition, which was priced at a staggering $300 million. Swift condemned the deal, accusing BMR of having denied her the opportunity to purchase her masters, despite the artist’s willingness to pay the high sum. So, the singer began to strike back.
Being the main songwriter for all of her songs, she has partial ownership over them even without the masters, as she has a ‘sync license’ (i.e., the right to the abstract idea of a song) for all of them. This means that her permission is required for her songs to be played in films and commercials. Swift began to firmly deny it, and neither BMR nor Braun could do anything about it. But that wasn’t enough.
In 2020, Taylor released a statement on social media saying that her music had once again been sold, this time to the PE firm Shamrock. However, Braun was still part of the equation, as he would still be receiving part of the revenues for streams and purchases of the albums. Swift decided to do something about that. As the sync license holder, she is allowed to re-record her old works and put them on the market again. Doing so would render the old recordings basically useless, as every die-hard fan of Taylor would be listening to the new versions to support the artist, and disregard the old ones.
On April 9th 2021, Swift began her slow but fruitful vendetta by releasing Fearless (Taylor’s Version), which immediately swept the charts and debuted with more than 50M streams in the first 24 hours on Spotify, despite having songs that most fans first listened to about a decade ago.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) – A ‘No-replica’ Replica
“I don’t know how it gets better than this,” Taylor sings in the chorus of the opening song of the album – words that just so happen to describe it perfectly. Admittedly, it also occurred to me prior to listening to the record – ‘Fearless was such a good album, how could she possibly make it even better?’ Safe to say, she proved me wrong.
The album tells the story of how it’s possible to still choose to be brave and vulnerable every day, despite all the scars and setbacks you’ve encountered.
Her vocals have noticeably improved, with the songs now sounding more slick and confident. The youthfulness in her 2008 voice did an amazing job at adding to the naive lovestruck adolescent image of the album, but the present deeper and richer vocals wonderfully compliment the record. Not only do the songs sound more comfortable to the ear, but the maturity in her voice fully makes you realize how great of a songwriter she has always been, even at the ripe age of 14. The slight change in her voice color forces you to look past the first impression of Fearless as being simply about a heartbroken young girl, vocalizing her anger and sadness through songs. It’s actually much more – the album tells the story of how it’s possible to still choose to be brave and vulnerable every day, despite all the scars and setbacks you’ve encountered.
Fearless’ whole picture has been especially completed by the addition of six new songs she wrote before 2008, which didn’t make the cut back then and were kept ‘in the vault’ (as Taylor says). Among these tracks, you have Mr. Perfectly Fine, which checks all the boxes for the perfect Taylor Swift breakup anthem, including witty wordplay and sarcastic remarks. On the other hand, the 21st song – You All Over Me (feat. Maren Morris) – has a whole different approach to heartbreak. In these lyrics, Taylor sings about how even after a breakup, the signs of the relationship, and the love and pain that came with it, still remain on you. Here, Swift shows a mature outlook on heartbreak that few people in their adulthood possess, let alone at 16-17.
In We Were Happy – which she wrote as a 14-year-old – she talks about feeling guilty after falling out of love, detailing the future they had dreamed of together. Of a similar feeling, she narrates in the song That’s When, where she collaborates with country music star Keith Urban. In the track, Taylor sings about how she broke up with her lover due to needing space, and Keith contemplates whether he should take her back. Much more sour breakups are narrated in the last two songs of the album – Don’t You and Bye Bye Baby. In the former, she describes running into her ex, who is not as heartbroken as she is and wants to remain friends. She looks back on the failed relationship and ultimately rejects the friendship offer, resigning herself to move on with her life. In Bye Bye Baby, she sings about having to bid farewell to a relationship, despite still having feelings (“I want you back but it’s come down to nothing”).
All the songs on the album are kept as close to the original versions as possible, with subtle differences like stretched vowels or the addition of a new guitar note here and there, on which only trained swifties can pick up. Nevertheless, the tracks still sound somehow fresh, also thanks to a collaboration with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, the producers she had already worked with on her recent albums. Their magic touch on the production breaks the Swift time-space continuum, making the decade-old songs sound brand-new and bright, just like her recent records, although preserving their nostalgic features.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is both a perfect dose of reminiscence for fans, and a ballsy strategic power move from Swift – the first step of her journey towards regaining rightful ownership of her own work. She saw her music being passed around like a commodity, and instead of losing hope and despairing, she did something totally unprecedented. She re-recorded the entire thing and chose to take control of the situation in her own inimitable way. Also, I believe it must have taken balls for Swift to revisit songs she wrote as a 14-year-old while being 31 – if someone asked me now (even though I’m just 20!) to read something I wrote at that age, I think I would simply evaporate on the spot. But not Taylor – she is once again proving that she has always been talented, true to herself, and brave in her vulnerability… truly fearless.
Score: ★★★★★ /5
Cover: Twitter @taylorswift13
Edited by: Debby Mogot