Music

Taylor Swift’s Fearless Redux Is Both Business Stunt and Conceptual Art

Her first rerecorded album is part nostalgia trip, part Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

Sepia portrait of Taylor Swift with her face turned and hair blowing out
The cover of Fearless (Taylor’s Version). Beth Garrabrant

Back in 2008, when Taylor Swift released her second album, Fearless, she was still facing the cynical reception that greets many successful young women in music, the accusation that she was far more a phenomenon of commerce than one of art. The relentless criticism came despite Fearless’ huge success: It went on arguably to revitalize the whole country-music market in a moribund phase, to become her first No. 1 crossover pop album, and to win her first of three Album of the Year Grammy awards (she got her third last month for Folklore).

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Of course, Swift’s persistence and evolution as a songwriter and performer since then has muted those mutterings except among the most bullheaded snobs. But the debut this week of the now 31-year-old Swift’s full rerecording of that album she made at 18, under the title Fearless (Taylor’s Version), is a reminder of how inextricably blurred the creative and the commercial always are in pop music. Rerecording the albums is a business strategy that, by its self-consciously meta-narrative nature, can’t help but also become a piece of conceptual art.

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The Fearless redux would likely not exist had Swift not become entangled in a multilevel business imbroglio with former manager Scooter Braun. The contract, in her very reasonable view, robbed her of the control she should have over the master recordings of her first six albums—as well as, it goes without saying, the cash for sales, streaming, commercial licenses, etc., attached to those masters. This is a music industry conundrum that’s confronted all kinds of artists for decades and decades, and Swift’s efforts to wrestle back her catalog have gone far more easily for her than for, say, all the racially and economically marginalized musicians who’ve simply had their work swiped outright by industry swindlers. Swift has the resources to stage an unusually audacious response in her plan to rerecord all those albums and rely on fan solidarity—and her leverage over her song publishing, which she does own—to force the facsimiles to displace the originals. (Let’s pause here to note how she’s abetted by the odd current cultural norm of ordinary people feeling passionately motivated to fight for the profits of the millionaires they stan.)

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The move is not unprecedented. Artists have always revisited their old songs in rearrangements, live versions, and other kinds of retrospectives. But Prince pointed toward this more extreme tactic when he remade his hit single “1999” in its titular year, as part of his epic battle with former label Warner Brothers, and artists as wide-ranging as Def Leppard, Simply Red, Squeeze, and JoJo have at least dabbled in the practice during contract disputes.

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The reasons to rerecord always involve dry intellectual-property distinctions, like publishing versus mechanical rights, as well as larger principles of artistic autonomy. But they also invoke questions about authenticity and originality within a creative economy of mass reproduction, questions that aesthetic philosophers have wrestled with for going on a century. The ambiguous status of the remake long predates mass media itself; consider that there are multiple “originals” of works like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Munch’s The Scream, Duchamp’s urinal, and arguably even the Mona Lisa, likely due to a mixture of artistic and avaricious motives. Just like Swift, these artists had to deal with the frustration that once you’ve sold something you’ve made, you can’t sell it again unless you find a way to repossess or remake it. (Hell, you could say the same about all of our time and labor under capitalism.) That’s partly why artists from Warhol to Koons to Banksy, whose works dart back-and-forth across the borders of perceptual object and commodity, have been so influential. Every art market perpetually wrestles with the implicit postures and falsehoods of how it generates value. If the Swift vs. Braun feud were just starting now, might they have been able to split the difference on the album masters by rendering unto one side or the other a nice shiny non-fungible token? (Nah, neither of them is that dumb.)

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As fun as all that abstract speculation is, the conceptual impact of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and the other rerecordings to come is closer to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Its success depends on the audience’s prior investment in the artwork, their awareness of its already accumulated meanings, and appreciation of the time that’s passed between the two iterations. What the original Fearless had going for it was the fresh energy of a young woman finding the voice to express her immediate experience and connect it to the experiences of millions of listeners. What Fearless (Taylor’s Version) offers fans, aside from the purported pleasure of helping Swift stick it to Scooter Braun, is a wistful revisiting of that breakthrough through the frame of the intervening 13 years and the listener’s personal attachment to the arc of her creative and personal life since then. Oh, plus six bonus tracks.

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Sonically, the new edition is all but identical to the original, an invisibly impressive feat of craft. It’s a few shades fuller in sound, the way a remixed and remastered reissue of almost any 13-year-old recording would be. Some people might be surprised how much Swift is able to re-create the mannerisms and tics of her 18-year-old voice here, but it’s worth remembering that she’s been rehearsing that skill in hundreds of live shows for most of the intervening years, so it’s not like delivering old songs in the spirit they were intended is an alien skill to her. That said, today’s Swift is a far better vocalist than she was a decade-plus ago, and all that this version of Fearless needs is a hint of that added maturity to gain unexpected poignancy.

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But as is nearly always the case in human sensory perception, it’s damn near impossible to say how much of that resonance is in the music and how much is filled in by the receiver’s mind. Personally, I didn’t climb completely aboard the Taylor train until 2010’s Speak Now, so I might miss some nuances on deeper cuts outside the obvious Fearless classics (“Love Story,” “Fifteen,” “You Belong with Me,” etc.). But on a first night’s listening, what I noticed most was that I started getting salty-eyed whenever the songs made explicit reference to specific ages, the passage of time, memory, and the like. These have always been central Swiftian subjects, even when what she was nostalgic for seemed like it must have happened last week.

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Part of the reason it was fairer to call Swift’s work diaristic than that of many of her contemporaries is that, like a journal, her songs seemed written partly for posterity: Someday you will remember how it felt to feel this way. She’s only gotten more sophisticated on that score over time, especially on last year’s Folklore and Evermore. I find myself projecting that accreted wisdom onto the old songs and the new voice when I hear her 31-year-old self singing lines such as “I don’t know how it gets better than this” (“Fearless”), “This is life before you know who you’re gonna be” (“Fifteen), “I close my eyes, and the flashback starts” (“Love Story”), or “Now I know why all the trees change in the fall” (“The Best Day”). Though materially almost indistinguishable from its source, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) now sounds like a sentimental family member’s speech at a wedding, a reunion, a memorial. All the Taylor Swift songs that didn’t exist yet are there, sympathetically murmuring in appreciation or chuckling ruefully over the bygone illusions of her most doped-up-on-romantic-princess-fantasies record.

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The bonus tracks, meanwhile, are uncanny for a different reason. They were written in the Fearless years but recorded for the first time now with Swift’s Folklore/Evermore collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, and they split the difference sonically between the two eras. Swift’s fan base is unsurprisingly overrating these songs already, but I may be underrating them because they arrive at the end of an hour-and-45-minute-long listen; artistically, it would be much preferable if Taylor’s Version only included the original Fearless track list rather than the “Deluxe” edition, but that would likely compromise the reclamation project, commercially.

“You All Over Me,” which features a lovely duet with Maren Morris, really demonstrates how the seeds of Swift’s 2020 sound are traceable back to 2008. It also suggests a best-case scenario of how a wholesale reimagination of Fearless might play, if she’d done that instead of a remake. “We Were Happy” would have improved the original if it had replaced something like “Hey Stephen” in the first place, but it probably would have tipped the album too much to the downbeat for its makers’ purposes back then. And Keith Urban comes off surprisingly well on the lite-country-FM duet “That’s When,” also serving to remind listeners of Swift’s days touring with Urban on the country circuit back then.

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On the other hand, “Mr. Perfectly Fine” functions as a piece of the Swiftian mythos (as a previously unheard song about her relationship with Joe Jonas), but its clever-country-anaphora lyrical device of addressing mister something-something in nearly every line wears out fast. (Kelly Clarkson did it better in 2011 with “Mr. Know It All.”) “Don’t You” is fine but forgettable. And unfortunately the closer, “Bye Bye Baby,” suffers for the production—it begs for the big, deliciously dumb drums of 2008 rather than the tasteful Antonoff pitter-patter it gets.

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There were a lot of reasons for Swift to launch her remake project with Fearless rather than, say, her self-titled 2006 debut album: It has bigger hits, so it’s a louder shot over Braun’s financial bow; its voice might be easier for her to recapture than her most girlish, 16-year-old one; and it’s where a critical mass of fans might most rapturously recall falling for her. But with typical Swiftian slyness, it also means she’s unshackled herself from chronology, so nobody can predict what part of the archive she’ll plunder next. She could leap ahead to her most “problematic” record, Reputation, or proceed directly to career hinge point Red. Whatever redrawn map she lays over her previous path, it will create new contact points, new synaptic connections between songs and memories, and new profit centers for Taylor Swift Incorporated. It can’t be any other way, Jake; this is Poptown.

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