If you’ve been a longtime fan of Taylor Swift, you remember all too well how divided reviews were over her album Red when it debuted in 2012. While they largely praised her Swift’s songwriting prowess, critics dubbed her fourth album as “mediocre,” or many of its songs as “inauthentic and awkward;” Swift, by many, was written off as a twee singer-songwriter—a “woman-child”—straddling the lines of country and pop. The fact that Swift appealed so deeply to young girls (accepted now as arguably the best tastemakers) was deemed an Achilles Heel. But teen girls saw the genius of Swift from the beginning — how precisely the pop singer could capture every emotional detail of her life into a compelling manifesto. And they saw how Red was a masterclass in pop songwriting and poetry ahead of its time.
Take a section of Swift’s liner note letter from the album, a manifesto she includes with each of her records. Beyond its obvious romantic implications, all but a declaration of the artistic risk she was taking with Red: “[T]here is something to be said for being young and needing someone so badly, you jump in head first without looking,” she wrote. Red, in many ways, was a turning point for Swift, an opportunity for her to push beyond the confines of country music and redefine both her sound and her image. Before Red, Swift had been the embodiment of Southern innocence: flowy dresses, blonde curls and an acoustic guitar attached to her side. With Red, Swift ditched her then-signature look for a polished, hipster-esque aesthetic with straightened hair and vibrant, red lipstick. And her sound? The presence of a blistering electric guitar and pulsating dubstep (“I Knew You Were Trouble”) interspersed between country-pop tracks all but solidified that the old Swift was dead.
Prior to the Red era, Swift had been working to prove herself a songwriting savant. She had penned a handful of tracks on both of her first two studio albums, Taylor Swift and Fearless, along with co-writes with collaborators like Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. On her third LP, 2010’s Speak Now, the calculated singer made a bold move—she took ownership of her songs completely as a writer and producer. Swift was already priming herself for more creative control, taking a more authoritative role over the direction that her career would take.
When Red was released, it was the epitome of Swift being at a crossroads. Swift was just 16 when she shared her eponymous debut, while Red came out when she was 22—she was an artist on the cusp of adulthood, grappling with leaving her teen years behind. In the years leading up to Red, there was increasing media scrutiny surrounding Swift. She faced the infamous public humiliation of Kanye West storming the stage with an unwelcome interruption while she tried to accept an award at the 2009 VMAs. Then she’d win Album of the Year at the 2010 Grammys, skyrocketing her into a level of global renown that few artists her age ever see. With the release of Speak Now, whose songs fans believed detailed a handful of Swift’s relationships with famous men, like Taylor Lautner and John Mayer, an interest in Swift’s love life mounted further, becoming a core part of her public image. The media presented Swift as prone to skewering her ex-flames, gossiped about her, and sent photographers after her to fuel the news cycle. While fans embraced her for going through love and heartbreak right alongside them, the media machine had no such sympathy, painting her as a boy-crazy, vengeful ex.
Swift’s starpower was blinding, and Red made plain the private tension she faced because of it. Sure, the singer could have continued making solely country-lite ballads perfect for her youngest audience and country radio, but Swift opted to put the fraught transitional period of her life on display with a sense of confessional intimacy. Red’s tracks plunged even more deeply into Swift’s heavily gossiped-about romantic life, with all-but-confirmed odes to famous exes like Harry Styles and Jake Gyllenhaal scattered across the tracklist and an intriguing level of specificity that fans pored over. (We have truly been looking for that scarf that allegedly was in a drawer at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s house for nearly a decade.) More than ever before, the conversation around Swift had changed: From Red onward, we were as obsessed with Taylor herself, not just her music.
But it’s the music that has allowed Swift’s career to persist; it’s what fans continue to obsess over and critics came to celebrate, even if they weren’t ready to in 2012. Without Swift’s boundary-pushing sonic palette on Red, it’s possible that Swift’s current sound as we know it might not have existed. Red signaled Swift’s initial experiments with pop, folk, rock, and even EDM. What Red did most of all, however, was prime Swift’s full-blown, cinematic pop transition for her next album, 1989. It teased her future embrace of introspection and exploration of adulthood with Reputation’s dark synth-pop, and it anticipated her hard-won liberation on the ’80s dream-pop record Lover. The foundation Swift laid with Red gave way to her becoming a musical chameleon, so that when she released her surprise, back-to-back indie-folk albums Folklore and Evermore in 2020, they landed more like a well-earned homecoming to her earlier work—a full-circle moment for an artist who never left her singer-songwriter roots behind.
With the opportunity to re-record her music for Red (Taylor’s Version), the latest in her re-recording project born out of a very public battle over her original work, Swift was not only able to once again own her masters but also re-assert Red’s place in the pop canon. Swift was able to capture the essence of the 2012 release ( for instance, selling us on the playful “heys” on “22” and the innocent giggles on “Stay Stay Stay”) while showcasing how much stronger her voice has become in the near-decade since. Taylor’s Version touts a more refined production than the original release and a confidence stemming from her evolution as an artist, making it at once a perfect re-animation of her 2012 self and portrait of Swift (2021’s Version).
It’s the so-called “From The Vault” tracks that Swift included on her re-release that may best convey the significance of Red and flaunt her range. In the years since the album first came out, Swift revealed that she’d originally created a 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” the painful breakup ballad that has emerged as a cult favorite over the years. On Taylor’s Version, Swift included the extended track, reworked it into its full 10-minute glory, and released it as the album’s promotional centerpiece. And Swift wrote and directed an equally devastating short film to go with it — something noteworthy, considering the track was never a single before. The expanded rendition of “All Too Well” is an even more perfect refinement of her infamous heartbreak, with untold, illuminating details about the painful situation. The other new tracks fare just as well: She recruited Chris Stapleton for “I Bet You Think About Me,” a twangy kiss-off marketed to country radio, and Phoebe Bridgers for the delicate folk duet “Nothing New,” which details the insecurity that stems from belonging to an industry that chases the next shiny, young ingénue. There’s also the kaleidoscopic electro-pop “Message In a Bottle” that could have been a sister track to 1989 bonus tracks “New Romantics.” The ultimate result of this melange of material is that it provides further proof that there is pretty much nothing Swift can’t do at this point.
Red (Taylor’s Version) has forced a much-needed reevaluation of the album for initial skeptics. Now nine albums (plus two re-recorded ones) into her career with 11 Grammys under her belt, Swift’s tour de force can’t easily be brushed aside: The release of Red (Taylor’s Version) has received much stronger reception, both because Swift has established a critically unparalleled reputation, and because this version of the record is better than the original—proof positive of how strong of an artist she’s become. For starters, Swift broke two Spotify records in one day with her release—one for becoming the most-streamed album in a day by a female artist, the other for earning the most streams as a female artist. Taylor’s Version also earned the coveted “Best New Music” honor from Pitchfork, an outlet that never deigned to review the original release back in the day, and a perfect, five-star review from Rolling Stone.
Red wasn’t just an album—it was a pop evolution, one that shaped one of music’s biggest stars as we know her now. It not only laid the groundwork for Swift’s pivot genres, but it also paved the way for her to finally receive recognition as one of our best songwriters. Those who looked the other way the first time around—well, shame on you now.