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Speak Now

October 25, 2010

Speak Now is Taylor’s third studio album. Released on October 25, 2010, it was written entirely by Taylor as the follow-up to her blockbuster Fearless (2008). The album expands on the country pop style of her previous work. Speak Now was included on Rolling Stone‘s list of “50 Best Female Albums of All Time” in 2012, ranking at number 45. This gave Taylor, age 22 at the time of publication, the distinction of being the youngest artist across all genres to be included on the list. Speak Now is also the best-selling solo-written album in music history.

Speak Now was a reaction. After two massive albums, as her star was ascending to new heights, Taylor was tired of hearing that she didn’t write her own songs. So for her third studio album, she decided not to write with anyone else — let the credits show that she could make a sparkling country song catchy enough to cross over to pop radio all on her own. And so she did. It wouldn’t stop those doubts about her authenticity, but for anyone willing to take Taylor at face value, Speak Now was proof that she is a formidable talent.

BACKGROUND AND RECORDING
Taylor worked on Speak Now for two years. At the time of release, she wasn’t yet ready to admit that she wrote the album alone to prove her critics wrong. Instead, she insisted it was pure convenience. Speaking on a live webcast on July 20, 2010, she said:

“I actually wrote all the songs myself for this record. It didn’t really happen on purpose, it just sort of happened. Like, I’d get my best ideas at 3am in Arkansas, and I didn’t have a co-writer around and I would just finish it.” — Taylor Swift

Recording sessions for the album took place at several recording locations, including Aimeeland Studio, Blackbird Studios, and Capitol Studios in Hollywood, California, Pain in the Art Studio, and Starstruck Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and Stonehurst Studio in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Some of the songs feature live strings, and some, a full orchestra.

TITLE SIGNIFICANCE
According to Big Machine Records president/CEO Scott Borchetta, the album’s original title was Enchanted. He explained: “We were at lunch, and she had played me a bunch of the new songs. I looked at her and I’m like, ‘Taylor, this record isn’t about fairytales and high school anymore. That’s not where you’re at. I don’t think the record should be called Enchanted.” After the discussion, Taylor then excused herself from the table at that point. By the time she came back, she had the Speak Now title, which comes closer to representing the evolution that the album represents in her career and in her still-young understanding of the world.

LYRICS AND THEMES
Speak Now is especially interesting because it presents Taylor at her most writerly, favoring narrative over hooks while still providing plenty of hooks. The message dictates the mood. It demonstrates how effectively she can work on her own, through sheer determination. It is also a preternaturally mature record that finds Taylor grappling with new changes in her life. On Speak Now, she has achieved fame and is on the precipice of adulthood but is still trying to hold on to a childhood that seemed easier. The entire album is tied together by a sense of not knowing where to go once she’s gotten everything she wanted.

The run-up to Speak Now was, of course, marred by the infamous Kanye West VMAs incident, which had taken place a year previously. Taylor would spend much of the next decade, in one way or another, reacting to or running away from that situation, but for the most part Speak Now doesn’t concern itself with all that. It’s promptly dealt with in one song, “Innocent,” which despite its languishing moodiness still ends up giving West the benefit of the doubt: “Who you are is not what you did/You’re still an innocent.”

Even at its most cutting, Speak Now usually finds Taylor channeling much of that vitriol inward. It’s even there on “Mean,” a plucky and petty callout of her critics that, in true writerly fashion, ends up admitting that all the criticism directed at her is only confirming what, deep down, Taylor feels about herself.

It’s not surprising that Taylor was still concerning herself with what the critics had to say. Speak Now is a transitory album, on which she’s caught between two worlds. It’s the last time she was foremost regarded as a country musician, but her impressive chart dominance placed her in pop’s highest echelons. The songs on Speak Now mostly fall into two categories: those that are swept up in a rush of romance and soaring choruses and fresh possibility, and those that are downtrodden and world-weary and lovesick. The former, to no surprise, ended up accounting for the most popular singles from the album, and they are also the songs that have the most in common with Taylor’s work prior to this. They’re gleaming and twangy and always cascading. Most of them hinge on hindsight, moments when Taylor could have said or done something to change her current trajectory but didn’t. At her best as a storyteller, Taylor pinpoints these junctures when everything could have changed and spins them into a glossy web.

COMPOSITION
Taylor’s country background is what makes for the most enduring material on Speak Now, the songs that are more often than not just Taylor and her guitar and a clarifying narrative sweep. Though inspired by the stories from her personal life, removed from all that tabloid context they stand as universal paeans to lost love and youthful regret and growing up and never knowing when you might find your voice. Taylor is at her best on songs like “Back to December,” which uses a single month as the pivot point for a failed relationship, and the withering “Dear John” which lays out a story in each verse and crescendos around a massive payoff that’s all words.

The album’s penultimate track, “Last Kiss” is one of Taylor’s finest accomplishments, luxuriantly sad and also triumphant, like maybe each lost love is just another opportunity to get it right. The song’s lyrical specificity has a tragic edge. She remembers the look on her former lover’s face “at 1:58,” how she ran off the plane and into his arm “that July 9th.” It’s devastating, diaristic and poetic, and yet she is still looking for a silver lining.

On “Never Grow Up,” one of Taylor’s most heart-wrenching songs, she switches perspective between her mother and herself. One second she is tiny and looking up from her crib with sleepy eyes, the next she’s asking her mom to drop her off around the block so she’s not embarrassed in front of her friends. The timeline folds in on itself; she’s growing up and getting old all at once. Taylor begs for simplicity but it never works out that way. She warns herself to remember it all, but it’s already fading away: “I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone.” She’s figuring all of this out in real time, as her pen hits the page. Fairy tales can’t last forever.

CRITICAL ACCLAIM
Speak Now received generally positive reviews from music critics, who praised Taylor’s songwriting and themes. It received a Grammy Award nomination for “Best Country Album”, making it her second consecutive nomination in the category, following her 2010 victory for Fearless. Several music critics and publications included Speak Now in their year-end lists.

In June 2012, Speak Now was included in the “50 Best Female Albums of All Time” list by Rolling Stone, ranking at No. 45. In 2019, Billboard ranked the album at No. 51 on its “The 100 Greatest Albums of the 2010s” list, while Cleveland.com placed it at number 71. Billboard also named Speak Now the best country album by a female artist of the 2010s decade, and second overall, and stated that the album was “as raw as she [Swift] ever got”. Speak Now was named the fourth-best country album of the 2010s by Taste Of Country, and the fifth-best by PopMatters. In 2020, Spin placed the album at number 37 on its list of “The 101 Best Albums of the 2010s”.

COMMERCIAL PERFORMANCE
Speak Now debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, giving Taylor her second consecutive chart-topper in the U.S. Its first-week sales of 1,047,000 copies was the fifth-biggest debut in history for a female artist, the third biggest ever by a country album (the first being Taylor’s own RED album, later released in 2012), the biggest in five and a half years, and the biggest first week sales of 2010. The album also made music history for claiming the biggest one-week sales tally for an album by a female country artist. Due to strong digital sales, all fourteen songs from the standard edition of the album charted on the Billboard Hot 100, with the lead single “Mine” having the highest peak at No. 3. Six singles were released from the album, all of which have either received a platinum or multi-platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

As of 2014, Speak Now is ranked 17th in United States history to sell one million copies in a single week. As of December 2018, the album has sold over 6 million copies in the United States and 10,6 million copies worldwide. It is also the tenth best-selling digital album of all time.

DELUXE EDITION
The Speak Now (Deluxe Edition) was released exclusively to the Target Corporation and features an alternate cover, with Taylor in a red dress instead of the standard edition’s purple. It was released on the same day as the standard edition and includes three additional tracks, two acoustic songs, a pop remix of “Mine”, and 30 minutes of enhanced video content: the music video for “Mine”, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of its production.

A deluxe edition was also released internationally featuring the same three bonus songs, acoustic songs and behind the scenes feature from the deluxe edition at Target. The international deluxe edition contains the US versions of “Mine”, “Back to December”, and “The Story of Us”, as well as the pop mix video for “Mine”. On November 8, 2011, the three bonus songs were released individually as singles on iTunes and Amazon.com and the bonus remixes were released individually as singles on iTunes. On January 17, 2012, the Target exclusive deluxe edition was released to other retail stores.

THE MAGIC OF NOSTALGIA
Speak Now finds Taylor between two worlds and it sees her using this in-between period to seek perspective and empathy. So much of Speak Now is Taylor acting wise beyond her years, all while fixated on a time when those years were just beginning. She returns to the idea of childhood a lot, a simpler time that she recognizes was never all that simple, really. The album’s original working title, Enchanted, was deemed too childish, evocative of sleeping beauties waiting for princes and princesses trapped at the top of a tower. Taylor had moved past the need for all that. There are still songs on Speak Now that practice in that fantasy, but the reality hits so much harder. Speak Now perfectly captures the imperfect moment when you’re letting go of your old self to become someone new. It’s sad having to grow up so fast, but it’s inevitable.