If you read the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen” without knowing anything about the song, you might easily assume they were written by an adult woman looking back wistfully on her adolescence.
Told in a series of autobiographical vignettes, “Fifteen” follows Swift and her best friend, Abigail, through their freshman year of high school, as the two become friends and date boys who end up treating them poorly. (Teenage boys, it turns out, aren’t always the nicest.) They learn lessons about broken hearts and forever friendships. And as she sings, Swift looks back on that period in her life with a kind of bittersweet fondness. She didn’t know then what she knows now, and that made all the difference.
Near the end of the song, she muses:
I’ve found time can heal most anything
And you just might find who you’re supposed to be
I didn’t know who I was supposed to be
That sweetly devastating lyric has the feeling of looking back on adolescence after many intervening years. In particular, the idea that Swift didn’t know who she was supposed to be at 15 sounds like a woman in her 20s or 30s smiling and shaking her head at the many twists her life has taken since then.
“Fifteen” is a fairly famous song, so you might well know that Swift wrote it in her own teen years, and released it on the album Fearless in 2008, when she was just 18 years old. Which is not to say that teenagers can’t experience nostalgia for their younger selves — have you met a graduating senior? But it is to say that “Fifteen” has a world-weariness to it that fit Swift a little awkwardly when Fearless was originally released.
Now, thanks to Swift’s decision to re-record all of her old music to gain control of the rights tied to the master recordings, she really is revisiting songs like “Fifteen” from the perspective of a woman in her 30s. And “Fifteen” as released by a 31-year-old Swift sounds surprisingly different from “Fifteen” as released by an 18-year-old Swift, despite little but the singer having changed.
Artists revisit their old work more often than you might expect — but the results are hit and miss
The impulse for an artist to revisit their old work can spark from a number of places. They might feel they didn’t quite get something right the first time. They might now have the power to finally do something with their art they couldn’t do when it first came out. They might just be older and have a new perspective.
I don’t know that I’ve ever met an artist who can look at even their most acclaimed work and say, “Yeah, that’s perfect as it is.” Artists are tinkerers, and no matter how good something is, there’s something that got left behind on the journey from their brain onto the canvas or page.
But it’s relatively rare for a revisited work to turn out better than the original. The Star Wars special editions, for instance, are perfectly fine movies, but their ungainly CGI effects and weird storytelling choices don’t improve upon the original cuts. (Then again, as someone who first saw the Star Wars movies before the special editions existed, I would say that.) Stephen King’s expanded edition of The Stand is totally fine, if you like that sort of thing, but I’m not sure the many extra pages add anything all that special.
But both King and Star Wars director George Lucas (and numerous other filmmakers and authors who have tweaked their work over the years but were less famous than King and Lucas) were making changes to their established works in an effort to improve them, not starting over from the beginning.
What Swift is doing is different. Though her motivations largely stem from wanting to have creative control over her extensive catalog (and though the Billboard charts seem to bear out her creative instinct), she’s also following in a long tradition of musicians who re-record their most famous songs years down the line to show how they’ve changed.
Joni Mitchell, for instance, first released “Both Sides, Now” (the one where she looks at clouds from both sides, now) in 1968, and it went on to become one of her most famous songs, inspiring covers by everyone from Judy Collins to Willie Nelson to Carly Rae Jepsen. But Mitchell herself revisited the song 32 years later, on Both Sides Now, a 2000 album in which she performed covers of jazz standards with backing from jazz musicians. In addition to those standards, Mitchell included covers of “Both Sides, Now” and her 1971 song “A Case of You.”
If you listen to Mitchell’s pure and crystalline vocals on the 1968 and 1971 recordings alongside her more weathered offerings on the 2000 recording, you’ll hear a woman whose maturation, both as a singer and an artist, allowed her a new perspective on a song that ostensibly hadn’t changed. “Both Sides, Now” was still a song about seeing life from multiple perspectives and learning to embrace that complexity. And when she re-recorded it, the weight of that idea was even more obvious.
The practice of re-recording old songs extends beyond Mitchell, too. Just consider Bruce Springsteen, U2, Brian Wilson, the Righteous Brothers, and many others, all of whom have revisited old material for wildly different reasons. (And that’s before we get to artists who perform different arrangements of their most popular songs in concert.)
Swift’s re-recording of her 2008 songs isn’t as radical a reinvention, but in trying to literally remake “Taylor’s version” of Fearless, she’s revealed just how much she has matured and changed as an artist since writing it. And the result is deeply fascinating.
Taylor Swift’s songs haven’t changed. But she has.
Though I am an avowed Taylor Swift super-fan, I always held Fearless at arm’s length. You don’t have to have been 15 to have appreciated “Fifteen” in 2008, but I’m willing to bet it helped. Swift has been a clear and prodigious songwriting talent since she first became a star in 2006, but her talent could bump up against the naturally limited perspective anybody has as a teenager.
As an example, consider “You Belong With Me,” one of Swift’s few big hits that I’ve just never gotten on board with. That song was the centerpiece of the early 2010s discourse over whether Swift’s music was somehow anti-feminist, because of how she had a tendency to frame many of her songs as tales of good-hearted girls next door pining away for cute boys who fell for cheerleader jezebels.
Even then, I thought this anti-feminist reading ignored how willing Swift was to play both women in that dichotomy — including literally in the song’s music video — and how playfully over the top her music could be in its yearning. But the gap between Swift’s songwriting talent and the raw emotionality of her subject matter created a kind of earnest vulnerability that could be alienating to those of us who, at the time, were about to lose the “young” in front of “adult.” And “You Belong With Me” thrived on earnest vulnerability and raw emotionality. (It could also be alienating to those of us who prided ourselves on being detached and above it all because we would need to start taking synthesized estrogen to truly get in touch with our own earnest vulnerability and raw emotionality, but that might just be me.)
Now it’s almost 13 years later, and I am obsessed with the 2021 re-recording of “You Belong With Me,” even though outwardly it shows very little difference from the original.
One difference is readily obvious, I think: Swift’s singing voice is much, much better in 2021 than it was in 2008. Her vocals on her earliest recordings were a bit thin — not bad, but really not her greatest strength. In her 30s, as a product of both her age and just having been singing professionally for so much longer, her voice is stronger all around. Where 2008 Swift sometimes chased high notes she could barely cling to, 2021 Swift is much more comfortable settling into her natural alto range. (Listen to the 2008 version and you’ll hear Swift pushing her vocals so they sit just on top of the pitch, like a hat; in the 2021 version, she sounds much more comfortable settling into the exact middle of a note, like a belt. The notes are the same; her approach is different.)
To my mind, though, the even more notable difference between these two recordings is the perspective that the passage of time naturally brings to Swift’s delivery. An 18-year-old singing about how deeply she longs for the boy of her dreams will inevitably have a different outlook from her 31-year-old self, now in a successful romantic relationship, looking back on that young woman.
“You Belong With Me” has an element of over-the-top theatricality to it that Swift has always been aware of, but where the 2008 version hitched that theatricality to the franticness of furiously texting your best friend after learning that your crush was dating your worst enemy, the 2021 version is warmer and more empathetic. It’s gonna be okay, kid, Swift seems to say to herself, even as she has a smile on her face at how excessive her teen angst can be. The song hasn’t changed; the singer has.
Swift has also revealed across the rest of her career just how good she is at writing songs in so many different popular music idioms, so hearing her return to her country music roots after nearly a decade of making pop music has a similar sense of homecoming. And because the emotional tone of country music is so often nakedly nostalgic for something within the singer’s memory but no longer available to them, just the simple act of having aged gives Swift an advantage in returning to this form. (It will be interesting to see how her perspective shifts on, say, the poppier 1989 when she re-records it.)
But our understanding of Swift as listeners has changed too. Her 2008 self was on the cusp of becoming a global superstar, so her image was somehow at once more malleable (we didn’t know a lot about her ...) and more susceptible to “definitive interpretation” (... so lots of other people could tell us what her deal was). In 2021, as a global superstar, Swift’s persona can now encompass everything from queer readings (notice how the singer of “You Belong With Me” lavishes so much attention on this other girl and not their mutual crush?) to anti-anti-feminist readings that directly rebut earlier interpretations of her work. Swift’s ubiquity, paradoxically, makes it possible to shape her work into whatever you need it to be to enjoy it.
When Swift began the process of re-recording her old songs, I was entertained by the thought of her foiling the plans of the much-loathed music exec Scooter Braun, but I also wondered if there was really so much to gain from revisiting this music, to make it worth the time and effort she might otherwise invest in making new stuff. (Swift, who released two albums of new music in 2020, can clearly do both at once, so who knows what I was worried about.)
Now, I’m all in. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is both a terrific album in and of itself and a fascinating document of a woman accidentally exposing herself in the process of trying to literally recreate who she was more than a decade ago. After hearing it, I’ve come to view Swift’s re-recordings as one of the most captivating creative projects across all of American pop culture right now, and I can’t wait for more. The songs haven’t changed, but the singer has. (Taylor, if you’re reading this, and if I may be so bold as to call you “Taylor”: Do Speak Now next? That album is super underrated.)
And to get nakedly autobiographical (my new friend Taylor would want it that way): Maybe I just love this version of Fearless so much because I’ve changed too. We all have. I really do believe that Swift’s maturation as a singer and a human has brought something new to her old songs, but it would be very silly to pretend that my life is no different in 2021 than it was in 2008, in ways both immediately obvious and in ways that I’m still not aware of.
I wasn’t really me in 2008, and I had a tendency to define myself not by who I was but by who I wasn’t. Sure, I found Taylor Swift songs catchy, but I wasn’t a fan! I was a cool guy critic! I wrote about pop culture on the internet! You wouldn’t catch me praising something so nakedly mainstream.
But I wasn’t that person after all, and being a critic wasn’t about blindly lashing out at things I didn’t like in an attempt to define myself against them. I was an adult woman, whose Swift fandom was fluttering around inside of me. Those songs struck me as so impossibly catchy because they were trying to lead me back to who I had been all along. And now, here I am, in 2021, the same but incredibly different, and getting to hear these songs again, with fresh ears, feels like an unexpected gift. The songs haven’t changed, but the listener has.