The RED Era
SHIFTING FROM COUNTRY TO POP
In a 2020 episode of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” podcast, Taylor opened up about how “RED” helped her successfully crossover from country to pop, making her the star that she is today.
“At 22, I was already watching newer, cooler artists come out every week. I was already feeling like, ‘You know, shit. I’m on my fourth record, what can I offer people?’ That was sort of when I was like, ‘No, you know what? I don’t want this to be the part of me that stays in this one place musically forever and bores people to death. It was an interesting wrestling match with my own fears of remaining stagnant that made ‘RED’ the kind of joy ride that it ended up being.” — Taylor Swift
Taylor turned in 20 songs to her label for what would become “RED”. They were all further outgrowths of the pop-country sound she had mastered in her early years, as a teenager finding her voice in the Nashville scene. As she amassed a body of work for “RED”, she was writing songs about love and its fugitive presence, songs about relationships that swelled like an obsessive thought, songs that picked up and enhanced the smallest pixels of intimate detail as if they were scanning security footage in a crime procedural. When she strummed a chord, it shimmered and just hung there. It sounded like Taylor, an organic progression from her previous records.
Taylor had certainly done well trusting her instincts. She was the reigning Billboard Woman of the Year, an honor that recognized her sales (more than 50 million digital tracks and 22 million albums at the end of 2011, according to SoundScan) and multitude of awards (Academy of Country Music and Country Music Assn. Entertainer Of The Year; Billboard Music Awards for Top Country Album, Top Billboard 200 Artist and Top Country Artist).
BECOMING A POP PHENOMENON
In August 2012, Taylor released “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” as the album’s lead single. An international success, it became her first no. 1 in the US and New Zealand. The song reached the top slot on an iTunes chart 50 minutes after its release, earning the “Fastest Selling Single in Digital History” listing in the Guinness World Records. She released the album’s second single, “Begin Again“, in October 2012. Other singles released from the album included: “I Knew You Were Trouble.“, “22“, “Everything Has Changed“, “The Last Time“, and “Red“. “I Knew You Were Trouble” was a major international commercial success, peaking at no. 2 in the United States.
“RED” was finally released on October 22, 2012, incorporating new genres, such as heartland rock, dubstep and dance-pop. The album was a critical and commercial success, and debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 with first-week sales of 1.21 million copies. This marked the highest opening sales in a decade, and made Taylor the first female to have two million-selling album openings, a record recognized by Guinness World Records.
“RED” hit no. 1 in more than 50 countries; meanwhile, Taylor won another Grammy (for “Safe & Sound“), and rocked karaoke with the Duke of Cambridge, after she had wrapped the North American leg of her “RED Tour” near the end of 2013. In the same year, Vulture wrote: “In an age of catastrophic music-industry contraction, Swift stands apart; sometimes she has seemed like a one-woman bulwark against the collapse of the traditional record business.”
One thing that differentiated Taylor from her competitors was her undeniable business skills. Taylor Swift was a valuable brand. Her squeaky-clean image made her an attractive advertising partner for Target, Sony, CoverGirl, Keds, Elizabeth Arden (for her fragrances Taylor by Taylor Swift and Made of Starlight), and Diet Coke. But during the “RED” era, something happened to Taylor’s “America’s sweetheart” image and long media honeymoon. Taylor’s tendency to romanticize became more and more criticized. Suddenly people — and not just haters on the internet but public figures — were making fun of her. It started with Ellen DeGeneres’s good-natured ribbing every time Taylor appeared on her show and then progressed to the 2012 Country Music, at which hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley mocked Taylor’s summer romance with Kennedy-family scion Conor Kennedy: “Are they ever gonna get back together?” Paisley asked. “Never, ever, ever,” Underwood replied, referencing Taylor’s No. 1 hit “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” “Like, ever.” Taylor dismissed the snark curtly:
“When we’re falling in love or out of it, that’s when we most need a song that says how we feel. Yeah, I write a lot of songs about boys. And I’m very happy to do that.” — Taylor Swift
ONE OF THE BEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME
In 2020, Taylor said that “RED” was her only real breakup album. In an interview for Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time“ podcast, she said:
“I look back on ‘RED’ as my true breakup album. Every other album has flickers of different things. But this was an album that I wrote specifically about pure, absolute, to the core, heartbreak.” – Taylor Swift
Outside of music, Taylor made a cameo in the sitcom “New Girl” (2013), and had a supporting role in the film adaptation of “The Giver” (2014). In 2013, Taylor co-wrote “Sweeter Than Fiction” with Jack Antonoff for the “One Chance” soundtrack, and received a “Best Original Song” nomination at the 71st Golden Globe Awards. She also provided guest vocals for the Tim McGraw song “Highway Don’t Care“, featuring guitar work by Keith Urban. Taylor performed “As Tears Go By” with The Rolling Stones in Chicago as part of their “50 & Counting” tour.
TOUR AND ACCOLADES
Promoting the album, Taylor embarked on the “RED Tour”, which ran from March 2013 to June 2014 and grossed over $150 million. It holds the title for highest grossing tour by a country artist in music history. “RED” earned over 50 accolades, including four nominations at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. Its single “I Knew You Were Trouble” won “Best Female Video” at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Taylor was named “Best Female Country Artist” at the 2012 American Music Awards and “Artist of the Year” at the 2013 ceremony. She received the Nashville Songwriters Association’s “Songwriter/Artist Award” for the fifth and sixth consecutive years in 2012 and 2013, respectively. At age 23, Taylor was also honored with country music’s highest award: the CMAs “Pinnacle Award”, making her only the second recipient of the accolade after Garth Brooks. Having achieved global fame as a country artist, Taylor soon after decided to leave the Nashville scene behind and reinvent herself: as a pop phenomenon and industry force to be reckoned with. She told Rolling Stone in 2020:
“I felt so proud and still feel so proud of my origins in Nashville. But at a certain point, I started to feel like, ‘Am I allowed to color outside the lines here?’ And it really was amazing, on ‘RED’, to realize, ‘Oh, I’m allowed in these rooms, I’m accepted in these rooms.’ That was something that freed me up for a world of change and challenge and innovation. I never would’ve had the bravery to make the full leap into pop music, if I hadn’t been able to do what I did with ‘RED’ and to work with the people that I worked with. I will always look back on it and think, ‘Wow, that was really the beginning of everything that I’m doing [now].” — Taylor Swift