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RED

October 22, 2012

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 and Release

On August 13, 2012, Taylor hosted a live webchat to over 72,500 viewers, in which she answered fan questions, previewed the lead single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together“, and announced her fourth album’s title, RED, as well as its release date. She also revealed that she wrote more than 30 songs for the album, of which 16 made it on the record. A few years later, in 2020, Taylor told Rolling Stone in an inerview for the “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” that these songs were the beginning of her constant reinvention:

«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

Exploring A New Sound

RED touches on Taylor’s signature themes of love and heartbreak, however, from a more mature perspective while exploring other themes such as fame and the pressure of being in the limelight. Contrary to her previous self-written album Speak Now (2010), Taylor enlisted the help of several of her favorite songwriters and producers to create a new sound.

What makes RED so special are all the different things that are on the album; the different genres, the different approaches. It gets more impressive as the years go by. It doesn’t feel like a lot of artists nowadays have the guts or the chops to take out that many things on a single album. But for Taylor, it works. On top of that, RED is one of the few 19-track records to be a truly great and long album. Taylor told MTV News in 2012 that the album “is interesting because each song stands on its own. It’s this patchwork quilt of different sounds and different emotions, and I don’t think anything on the record sounds like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’.”

«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

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

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 Barlowe
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 Barlowe also handled the photoshoot for Taylor’s iconic 1989 album artwork.

Critical Reception

RED was well received by critics and earned Taylor Grammy Award nominations for “Best Country Album” and “Album of the Year”. The album had a critical resurgence in the late 2010s, and it deservedly got a spot on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time” list. Up until folklore was released in 2020, RED was (and for some still is) the critics favorite album when it comes to Taylor Swift. “I was actually really heartened to see that it was RED because RED was the reason why 1989 happened”, she told Rolling Stone. “I didn’t know it was in the top 100. But I was surprised that it was RED, to be honest. Because 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. So I’m really stoked to see that that’s the one that’s the highest on the list.”

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. 

«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
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