With ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version),’ Taylor Swift Reclaims Her Musical Past
Music history is littered with tragic stories of multimillion-selling artists ending up penniless because they did not own their own masters, and tales of the lopsided, contentious and cutthroat methods record labels go to in order to retain them for themselves are absolutely legendary. Few people are probably concerned that Taylor Swift is in imminent danger of descending into poverty, but she is nevertheless an important part of a lineage that’s inextricable from the foundations of the industry: as long as musicians can make money, someone will be there to claim it for themselves, quite possibly at the artist’s expense. So if much of the music on Taylor Swift’s “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” sounds, well, a whole lot like the previous version you’ve been bopping to since 2008, that’s why.
The backstory: Within a year of completing her original 13-year contract with Big Machine Records in 2018, Swift signed a new one with Republic Records where she retained ownership of all of her future recordings, and included provisions enabling her (and ultimately all Universal Music Group acts) to retain more revenue from alternative distribution and broadcast platforms like Spotify. A year later, talent manager for Justin Bieber, Scooter Braun, acquired all of Big Machine’s catalog for $300 million, undoubtedly aware that Swift’s music generated as much as 80 percent of the company’s annual revenue. Swift cried foul, claiming that she’d attempted to acquire her masters for years, but Big Machine leveraged them (unsuccessfully) to get her to re-sign with the label. Characterizing Braun as an “incessant, manipulative bully,” Swift waged war in the press before finally announcing plans in August 2019 to re-record the albums — a tactic employed many times throughout music history to regain ownership, but almost never quite so publicly. This week, that version arrived, featuring six additional songs “From the Vault” that were never released before.
The good news is that the new versions of these songs truly sound pretty much identical to the original recordings — so if the others soon disappear from your preferred streaming service, you won’t know the difference. (There’s a growing library of artists whose work got rerecorded over the years in order to get listed on iTunes and elsewhere, and even where they’re performed by the original artists, they seldom feel the same.) Swift not only has the industry muscle but the finances to recreate these songs down to the smallest detail, guaranteeing that the musicality, the melodies, the little idiosyncrasies and riffs are all there — again, a unique but welcome luxury for fans loyal to Swift but deeply in love with these recordings. What’s most remarkable, however, is the way that Swift sounds just as fresh-faced and youthful on the tracks as she did 13 years ago, no small feat for an artist who of course has gotten older, but profoundly matured as a performer.
In which case, the final seven tracks on “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” may hold the greatest curiosity for fans, not only featuring “Today Was A Fairytale,” a one-off song from the soundtrack to “Valentine’s Day,” in which Swift co-starred, but six others scrapped from the original “Fearless.” Following a rerelease of “Love Story,” a hit for her back in 2008, Swift unveiled “You All Over Me,” featuring Maren Morris on background vocals, as the album’s first single; produced by Aaron Dessner, with whom she collaborated on “Folklore” and “Evermore,” it definitely resembles her more recent work, featuring complex musicality and a more sophisticated vocal performance than, quite frankly, she was yet capable of in 2008. The remainder of the tracks evidence both her growth as a songwriter — this began the unfortunate era of presuming every song she wrote was about some specific romantic partner, especially with titles like “Mr. Perfectly Fine” — and the supple resilience of her voice: in the new performances, she gives them the same poppy lilt that she did then, but their comparative lack of range only indicates how little she tested herself, or knew that she could, at the beginning of her career.
“We Were Happy,” also co-produced by Dessener, is a lovely little bittersweet love song, a remembrance of a relationship she’s sad is over, bolstered by background vocals by Keith urban; it actually would have fit well on her more recent album, except it’s oddly a bit too literal and direct for the more oblique songwriting she’s doing now. She teams with Urban again on “That’s When,” and he actually duets with her on this slightly more conventional country pop ditty, another nice song that, like the others, charts a path from past to present. Ultimately, this record achieves a unique effect, sloughing off not just her own legal entanglements but, oddly, the baggage of a now 15-year career that’s so often been intertwined with so many personal disclosures and public beefs. In other words, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” allows fans to listen to her music with new ears without challenging their old ones, marking another significant accomplishment in her singular career: she now owns her own history, while we get to experience it anew.
“Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” releases April 9 on Apple Music.