October 25, 2010
Table of Contents
Background and Recording
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.