Claude Monet painted 250 versions of his Water Lilies, each different, each worth seeing in itself.
Almost half a century after Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Columbia Records brought out a six-disc box set with different versions of each track. For Dylan aficionados, it was a deep dive into the making of one of his great LPs. For everyone else, it was a bore.
Artists often rethink their work and every version can tell us something new about the creator and the creation. With her new album, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Taylor Swift has done something different. Fearless first came out in 2008, her breakthrough second album. A decade later, manager and music executive Scooter Braun acquired the master rights to Swift’s first six albums when he bought Big Machine, the music label to which Swift had signed as a 15-year-old. She has a long-running feud with Braun, accusing him of “bullying” and lamenting that he had “stripped me of my life’s work”.
Swift set out to retake control by rerecording those albums. Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the first fruit of that project, is not a remake but an almost note-for-note replica.
The whole affair is an indictment of the lack of control musicians have over their work and of the exploitation of young musicians. As a response to having been deprived of her own work, the new album is a glorious middle finger to the industry. As a work of art, however, there is something odd about a straightforward copy.
Comparing versions of Monet’s Water Lilies, or of Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue, gives an insight into the artist’s creative process. Comparing two albums that are almost the same doesn’t. It’s an act of defiance, but not of creativity.