In early April, Rebs Fisher-Jackson, a 23-year-old, self-identifying Swiftie – the collective name for fans of the singer-songwriter Taylor Swift – listened to her album Fearless for the final time. “I made my peace with it,” she says with the air of a mourner.
Rebs was one of millions of fans saying goodbye to a once-beloved album, Swift’s second, originally released in 2008. On message boards, they posted infographics about how to hide Fearless’s tracks on Spotify and shared how to illegally download the album. To an outsider, it may have looked like Swifties, one of the largest and most devoted fanbases in pop, had turned against the singer, but they were actually rallying around her as she made the boldest business manoeuvre of her career.
In June 2019, the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums – her 2006 self-titled debut through to 2017’s Reputation – were sold by record label Big Machine to Ithaca Holdings, a company founded by music mogul Scooter Braun. In a blog post, Swift called the acquisition her “worst-case scenario”. Braun managed Kanye West at the height of the rapper’s feud with Swift, beginning when West infamously interrupted her winner’s speech at the 2009 VMAs. In her post, Swift said she had been pleading with Big Machine’s owner, Scott Borchetta, to let her buy back her master recordings for years, accusing both men of controlling behaviour.
Two months later, Swift announced that she would re-record her first six albums: carbon copies of the albums with new vocals, that she would forever own and fans could listen to without the queasy awareness that every stream was putting money into Braun’s pocket. Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the first album to be re-recorded, was released last week. The project is unprecedented in its scope, and implicitly asks a tough task of her fans: to renegotiate their love for original recordings that Swift says are now toxic.
For the majority of Swifties, the original Fearless was their introduction to the singer. “I fell in love with Fearless because it traversed the whole emotional spectrum of being a young woman,” says Katie Collins, a longtime Swiftie. “When you’re a teenage girl you’re told your feelings are unpalatable and need to be hidden away. On Fearless, nothing is held back, no feeling is repressed, and she goes anywhere she wants.”
From the emotional lows of the heartbreak ballad Forever & Always (“You feel so low you can’t feel nothing at all”) to the overwhelming rush of The Way I Loved You (“I never knew I could feel that much”), Fearless captures the range of emotions that one teenager can experience in a single afternoon. It paints a universal portrait of lino-floored high school corridors, paralysing first love and unrequited crushes.
Some wondered if Swift could capture the magic teenage alchemy of Fearless, a 13-year-old album, on this new recording, but Taylor’s Version is a triumphantly near-perfect replica of the original record – right down to the giggle on Hey Stephen. Where the album does differ is where Swift and her musicians (who toured Fearless in 2009) make improvements. Swift’s vocal performance is stronger on the re-recording, and she’s freshened up some originally muddy enunciation. The fidelity is also considerably cleaner: guitar riffs are more isolated, given space to shine, like on You Belong With Me, and the drumming is more roundly finished, occasionally tuned a degree lower than the original to match Swift’s deeper, more mature tones.
To the casual listener, the two versions of Fearless will sound identical. But Swift isn’t worried about the casual listener’s ear; it’s the fans who will make or break whether her re-recording project is a success, the same fans who have lived inside Fearless for 13 years. If Swift had been unable to capture its precise spirit, she ran the risk of pushing fans back to the original album.
Since the release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version), fans and critics have praised the improved quality of the re-recording. “I don’t actually feel particularly sad about losing the older version because I think her voice sounds better,” says Katie. “It’s a matter of quality as well as ethics for me, so from this point on I’m not going to listen to the original Fearless.”
Another Fearless stan, Xandra Robinson-Burns, has noted some changes in tone on the re-recording; for example, she “sounds more reluctant” on Forever & Always (Taylor’s Version), originally written as a bitter breakup song about Swift’s ex Joe Jonas. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “She’s not pretending to be a teenager in the song, which I think comes across better,” says Xandra. “Maybe Taylor’s perspective has changed with age, but the song’s story is timeless.”
But for some fans, the seemingly minor alterations on Fearless (Taylor’s Version) do stray too far. For Hannah Jane Cohen, Change has lost some of the magic of the 2008 original. “Change came out just before Obama became president,” she says. “I remember listening to it in my car, and it really felt like America was getting better.” For Hannah, the song’s youthful optimism is lost in Swift’s more mature vocals. It’s the one song from Fearless (2008) that she’ll still listen to, but on CD, not via the Braun-benefitting streaming services.
Like Hannah, I too am unsure if I can give up all of Fearless (2008), an album that also accompanied me through high school. Something is missing for me on the re-recordings of the most juvenile-in-theme songs: Swift’s near-yelp on Fifteen’s climax – “we both cried” – has been smoothed out and she’s no longer straining with frantic desperation on You Belong With Me’s choruses. These might be objectively better vocal performances, but the unpolished inflections of the original songs have become a sense memory. I hear them and I see my younger self sitting on the bus clutching a blue iPod nano or scream-singing along with friends, “She wears SHORT SKIRTS / I wear T-SHIRTS,” or holding a friend crying over a boy who broke her heart.
Swift has often used the intensity of fan reactions like mine to pressure and amend the music industry. In 2015, she posted an open letter to Apple Music criticising their “unfair” payment practice and in a 2019 blog post, Swift asked her fans to “let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel” about the men blocking her from performing her own songs at the American Music awards. Braun received death threats and complained to Swift: “Your words carry a tremendous amount of weight.”
More recently, Swift used her platform to call out Netflix show Ginny and Georgia, decrying its gag “you go through men faster than Taylor Swift” as “lazy [and] deeply sexist”. Some fans interpreted Swift’s statement as permission to send hateful messages to the shows’ actors and writers, but Swifties are a diverse community, in age, gender, nationality and, crucially, opinion. “It’s like being in any normal family,” says Rebs. “There are some great and supportive relationships, even if we don’t always agree.”
What they have agreed on is throwing their support behind Swift’s grand project, a business tactic to regain creative control that has developed into revisionist time travel for Swift and Swifties alike. “I proposed to my fiancée with Love Story (Taylor’s Version),” says Rebs. “I waited specifically until the new version came out because I wanted to associate the song with a new memory, just like how I associate the old one with dancing around with my iPod as a teenager.”