Home » Albums » RED

RED

October 22, 2012

This article is about the album. For its title track, see Red (song). For the 2021 re-recording, see RED (Taylor’s Version).
RED is Taylor’s fourth studio album. It was released on October 22, 2012 and is the album where she reinvented herself for the first time. Up until then she had been known as a country artist, but RED saw her branching out into pop and experimenting with new sounds. It was a risk, but one worth taking. Today, RED ranks 99th on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The album solidified Taylor’s pop star domination, while also marking her as one of the best songwriters of her generation.
In 2012, everything was going great for Taylor. So far, she had lived a tremendously charmed life – which she was deeply aware of. That’s why RED has an important role in her discography: It marks Taylor’s transition from teen country star to fully fledged songwriter. It is the record where she shows she’s grown up and that she can do everything. Simply put, RED was important to Taylor’s career because it brought her to the next level, out of Nashville and into the pop world. She told Rolling Stone in 2020:

«I've always been very aware of my own relevancy mortality. My career started when I was 16, putting out albums. So by 22, I was already on some days feeling like old news. I was already watching newer, cooler artists come out every week. And I was feeling like, ‘Shit, I'm on my fourth record. What can I offer people?’ And that was when I was like, ‘No, you know what? I want to make music with people I've never made music with before. I want to learn and grow. And I don't want this to be the part of me that just stays in this one place, musically, forever and bores people to death.’ So it actually was an interesting match with my own fears of remaining stagnant that made RED the kind of joy ride that it ended up being.»

Taylor Swift
Table of Contents

Background

Promptly following the release of her self-written third studio album Speak Now (2010), Taylor planned to continue collaborating with her longtime producer Nathan Chapman for its follow-up. By October 2011, she had written around 25 songs. Executives at her label at this time, Big Machine, congratulated her on having finalized the album within one year. Taylor felt that she had been repeating the same songwriting process as she had for Speak Now, which diminished her creativity. Therefore, she sought to collaborate with new producers and Chapman to venture out of her “comfort zone” of writing songs alone. While Speak Now was Taylor’s statement as a songwriter, she envisioned her fourth studio album as a statement of her “thirst for learning”. She subsequently reworked the album while embarking on the “Speak Now World Tour.”

«The first songs that I wrote for the RED album are the Nashville songs, the ones that I did with Nathan Chapman. Songs like ‘State of Grace’, ‘Stay, Stay, Stay’ and ‘All Too Well’. Those are songs that I wrote first. And then I made this journey out to LA and started working with other people. RED was like a wellspring of really important relationships that I carried with me for the rest of my career. I became best friends with Ed Sheeran and he's still someone that I talk to every week. And Max Martin, who was the person who taught me more about writing than anyone I can imagine ever meeting. So this was a really important record for me in terms of, I guess, the origins of things that I carried with me.»

Taylor Swift
Taylor decided that her fourth studio album would not follow one coherent genre, aiming to experiment with as many styles as she could. To this end, she recruited musicians whose works she admired, hoping to “learn from them”. Although Taylor wanted to experiment with various musical styles, she — as a songwriter — prioritized the lyrics over the production, striving to capture her emotions as she had done on her previous songs. The songwriting would start with identifying an emotion to a song, and the production would follow. On songs that Taylor co-wrote with other writers, she first presented them with the feelings that she had been going through, played a rough demo on her guitar, and then asked for their idea on how to convey the story better. Each song would have a different production corresponding to the emotion portrayed, resulting in an eclectic mix of styles.

Title Significance

The album title was inspired by the relationships that Taylor experienced during the process of conceiving the album. She described the emotions she felt as “red emotions” due to their intense and tumultuous nature:

«All the different emotions that are written about on this album are all pretty much about the kind of tumultuous, crazy, insane, intense, semi-toxic relationships that I’ve experienced in the last two years. All those emotions — spanning from intense love, intense frustration, jealousy, confusion, all of that — in my mind, all those emotions are red. You know, there’s nothing in between. There’s nothing beige about any of those feelings.»

Taylor Swift

Exploring A New Sound

Taylor wrote more than 30 songs for the album, of which 16 made the final cut of the standard edition. Of the 16 tracks, Taylor was the sole writer of 10 and co-writer of the remaining six. The first song that she wrote was “All Too Well“, during a rehearsal of the “Speak Now World Tour” in late 2010. Having gone through a recent breakup, she began ad-libbing self-written lyrics about heartbreak on a four-chord guitar riff as her touring band spontaneously provided backing instruments. After writing a first draft of the song, she experienced a rare writer’s block that lasted about six months. A critical point came about later, when Taylor was in the midst of the recording sessions with Chapman for the song “Red“, on which her creativity “started wandering to all the places [she] could go”. Big Machine’s president Scott Borchetta overheard the original production by Chapman and suggested a more pop-oriented sound. After several failed attempts at the desired sound, Taylor asked Borchetta to recruit Swedish producer Max Martin, whose chart-topping pop tunes had intrigued her by “how [they] can just land a chorus”.

«RED was the first time I ever ventured outside of Nashville and was in full exploration mode of almost like a songwriter apprenticeship. I wanted to see how every producer that I admired worked and I got to on RED

Taylor Swift

Martin and his frequent collaborator Shellback produced three songs on the album: “22“, “I Knew You Were Trouble.“, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together“, all of which are characterized by the pair’s trademark synthesizers and electronic production. The final version of “Red” was produced by Swift, Chapman, and Dann Huff. Huff, who had produced for several country artists, worked with Taylor and Chapman on two other songs: “Starlight” and the Grammy-nominated “Begin Again“.

Another new collaborator was Jeff Bhasker, whose production of the song “We Are Young” (2011) by indie band Fun captivated Taylor by its drum instrumentation. Bhasker produced two songs: “Holy Ground” and “The Lucky One“. Taylor also worked with Butch Walker on the song “Everything Has Changed“, a duet with English singer Ed Sheeran. She admired Walker for “how he creates this really organic but emotionally charged music”. The songs “Treacherous” and “Come Back…Be Here” were produced by Dan Wilson, whose works with his band Semisonic served as an inspiration for Taylor. She enlisted musicians Gary Lightbody and Jacknife Lee of the indie band Snow Patrol, saying, “they can just hit you when they are singing about loss or longing”. Lee produced the song “The Last Time“, on which Lightbody is a featured vocalist.

«I love Jackson Pollock, and I really do see this album as my splatter paint album. I'm using all the colors and throwing it at the wall and seeing what sticks. And I really think that when RED came out, it had a lot of people that were criticizing it for its (the fans make fun of me for saying this so much over the course of a couple of years) lack of being sonically cohesive. It was absolutely not cohesive, but it was sort of a metaphor for how messy a real breakup is. I look back on this as: This is my only true breakup album. Every other album has flickers of different things, but this was an album that I wrote specifically about a pure, absolute to the core heartbreak. And you do a lot of vacillating and changing when you're going through something like that. So this record actually is an accurate depiction symbolically of that.»

Taylor Swift

Lyrics and Themes

Most of the songs on RED were inspired by one specific ex-boyfriend, and according to Taylor, that ex-boyfriend contacted her after listening to the album and described the experience as “bittersweet”. While the album’s music transcends Taylor’s country roots, her storytelling ability, nurtured by her country background, remains intact in her songwriting. The lyrics delve into intense feelings of heartbreak, describing a full range of emotional intensity. Compared to the fantasy-driven narratives with happy endings of Taylor’s previous songs, RED realizes the uneasy reality where the most seemingly enduring relationships can painfully end. Hints of sex, a theme absent in Taylor’s previously released music, are also apparent on the album, which coincided with her outgrowing her public image as an innocent sweetheart. NPR‘s J. English noted that the album portrays Taylor at her most vulnerable and mature, for recognizing her coming-of-age in “plaintive, reflective tones”. Billboard similarly noticed the album’s portrayal of maturity through vulnerability, “where she most effectively lays bare her emotional life in all its messy complexity”.

Album Artwork

Taylor wanted a fresh look for the album artwork of RED. She turned to her photographer friend Sarah Barlow: “She’s really young. She’s really wonderful, and she’d never done an album shoot before,” Taylor said. Sarah herself told the following story:

«What ended up happening was one of her background singers needed headshots. When Taylor saw them a few months later, she came to me and was like, 'Liz showed me the shots you took of her, and I need my album to look exactly like that.' Clearly, this was a no-brainer. I said, 'OK!' Before then, I’d been kind of burned out on music photography. A lot of the shoots were super controlling. I needed a new perspective on the field itself and wanted future shoots to be very free-flowing — just the artist and a minimum crew. Luckily for me, that’s exactly how Taylor presented the RED album shoot. So it was just us shooting everything together. She wanted everybody else to remain off set, allowing for a more personal and intimate experience.»

Sarah Barlow
The album cover photo was shot in the backyard of designer Ruthie Lindsey’s house in East Nashville. As soon as Taylor saw that shot, which shows her face covered in shadow with a shock of red lipstick adding color, she knew that would be the one that made the cover. “We’ve never had that happen before,” Taylor explained. “We’ve always been like, ‘Well, maybe this one -– maybe that one — maybe that one,’ but I knew it when I saw this photo because it’s really mysterious and you don’t quite know what I’m thinking and you can’t quite see me.” That elusive cover photo is an indication of the confessional lyrics found on RED. In 2014, Sarah Barlow also handled the photoshoot for Taylor’s iconic 1989 album artwork.

Release and Promotion

Taylor and Big Machine implemented an extensive marketing plan for RED. On August 13, 2012, Taylor gave a live webchat via Google Hangouts, through which she announced the details of RED, including the release date and cover, and answered fan questions. She concurrently released the lead single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which topped the US Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. It was Taylor’s first No. 1 on the chart. An alternate version was released to US country radio. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for ten weeks.

On September 22, 2012, Taylor announced that she would preview one song from RED each week on “Good Morning America,” as part of a four-week release countdown from September 24 until the album’s release week. The four songs — “Begin Again”, “Red”, “I Knew You Were Trouble.”, and “State of Grace” — were also released for digital download ahead of the album’s release. “Begin Again” was later released to US country radio as an official single on October 1, 2012. It peaked at No. 7 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Both the standard and deluxe versions of RED were released on October 22, 2012. In the US, the standard edition was available in digital and physical formats, and the deluxe edition containing six extra tracks was available exclusively for physical purchase at Target. Taylor also had tie-ins with corporations including Keds, Wal-Mart, and Papa John’s. A day after the release, Taylor began a cycle of television appearances, starting with a live performance on “Good Morning America.” She made many appearances on radio, giving interviews to as many as 72 stations, mostly in the US, and a few international outlets from South Africa, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, and Mexico. She also performed at awards shows including the MTV Video Music Awards, the Country Music Association Awards, and the American Music Awards.

RED was further promoted by a string of singles. “I Knew You Were Trouble.” was released to pop radio as an official single on November 27, 2012. It was a big hit on pop radio, peaking atop the Billboard Mainstream Top 40/Pop Songs for seven weeks. The single peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a top ten chart hit in Oceania and Europe. “22” was released to pop radio in March 2013, and “Red” was released to country radio in June 2013. The singles peaked at No. 20 and No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively. Other singles were “Everything Has Changed” and “The Last Time”; the latter had a limited release to UK radio.

Critical Reception

RED received generally positive reviews from contemporary critics, most of whom commended Taylor’s songwriting. Jon Dolan from Rolling Stone lauded her autobiographical lyrics which are depicted in songs that “linger on like tattoos”. In a retrospective review published in 2019, Pitchfork‘s Brad Nelson described the album as Taylor’s fully-realized effort as a versatile songwriter, who explored her deeper observations and perspectives.

The album’s production polarized critics. While Taylor and Big Machine promoted RED as a country album, its diverse musical styles sparked a media debate over Taylor’s status as a country singer-songwriter. Music magazine Spin argued that it was hard to categorize RED, given that the genre country itself is “the most dynamically vibrant pop genre of the last decade or so”. Others noted that Taylor had always been more pop-oriented than country, and described RED as her inevitable move to mainstream pop. Taylor responded in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that country music “feels like home”, and dismissed the debate regarding her country status: “I leave the genre labeling to other people.” On a positive side, The Guardian‘s Kate Mossman described it as “one of the finest fantasies pop music has ever constructed”. Jon Caramanica from The New York Times agreed, calling the production a striking feature of RED which proves that Taylor is more of a pop star than a country singer.

Commercial Performance

RED debuted at No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart, giving Taylor her third consecutive chart topper in the US. Its first week sales of 1.21 million was the third biggest debut in history for a female artist and became the fastest-selling album in over a decade. It made music history for claiming the biggest first week sales of all time by a country act, a record previously held by Garth Brooks. RED was also just the 18th album in United States history to sell one million copies in a single week. By the end of 2012, the album marked the fourth time Taylor had an album ranked in the year’s top three sellers.

The album was a huge global success as well, becoming Taylor’s first chart-topper in the UK. It also topped the album charts in Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand while charting in the top ten in every other major market including China. RED has sold over 7 million copies in the US and 14 million worldwide as of December 2018. 

Award Recognition

At the 56th Grammy Awards in 2014, RED was nominated for “Album of the Year” and “Best Country Album.” The album also received nominations at US country music awards, including two nominations for “Album of the Year” at the 2013 Country Music Association Awards and the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards. It won “Favorite Country Album” at the 2013 American Music Awards, “Top Album” and “Top Country Album” at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards, “Top Selling Album” at the 2013 Canadian Country Music Association Awards, and “Top Selling International Album of the Year” at the 2014 Country Music Awards of Australia.

RED (Taylor's Version)

Following the dispute over the ownership of the masters to her back catalog, Taylor began re-recording her first studio six albums in November 2020. Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the first of her six re-recorded albums, was released on April 9, 2021. On June 18, 2021, Taylor revealed that RED (Taylor’s Version), the re-recorded issue of RED, would follow on November 12, 2021. It contains all 30 songs that were meant to be on the 2012 release of RED, including the charity single “Ronan” (2012), her own recordings of the 2016 Little Big Town single “Better Man” and 2018 Sugarland single “Babe“, the ten minute version of “All Too Well”, as well as six other new tracks.

Impact and Legacy

RED appeared on many publications’ lists of the best albums of the 2010s. According to Metacritic, it was the fifteenth most acclaimed album of the decade. It was ranked within the top 10 by Insider (first), Uproxx (three), Billboard (four), Rolling Stone (four), the Tampa Bay Times (nine), and Stereogum (10). Taste of Country ranked RED as one of the best country albums of the decade. In 2020, Rolling Stone ranked RED at No. 99 on their revised list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

The New York Times critic Steven Hyden credited RED for emerging a new generation of indie artists, whose works are “aesthetically much closer to Swift’s pop than anything in the rock underground”. Fans and critics have dubbed RED an “autumnal album” due to its aesthetic and lyrical imagery. Jordan Sargent of Spin named RED “one of the best pop albums of our time”.

The album’s production straddling between country and pop inspired Taylor to venture into genres she had not tried before. The successful pop radio singles, specifically the dubstep-infused “I Knew You Were Trouble.”, served as a “signal flare” for her to collaborate again with pop producers Max Martin and Shellback, known for radio-friendly pop.

«We were having these successful songs at pop radio, like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. We had ‘I Knew You Were Trouble.’ But I also had songs like ‘Begin Again’ that were absolutely, completely and totally country songs. I really felt like I was standing on a state line and I had a foot on either side of the borderline. And I was just getting to exist in both worlds, which for me at the time was really thrilling.»

Taylor Swift
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on tumblr
Share on reddit