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Speak Now

October 25, 2010

This article is about the album. For its title track, see Speak Now (song).
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). She developed it as a loose concept album about the confessions she wanted to make to people she had met but never had the chance to. It is 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.
Table of Contents

Background and Recording

Taylor worked on Speak Now for two years. Continuing her songwriting tradition on previous albums, she strove to convey emotional honesty with details as specific as possible, believing it was important for her as a songwriter. Departing from the starry-eyed romance of the fairy tale-inspired Fearless, she explored introspection and reflection of relationships in hindsight. Past relationships and romantic optimism are recurring themes. Taylor described her songs as “diary entries” about her emotions, which helped her navigate adulthood. 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
Taylor wrote as many as 25 songs, and by early 2010 began to finesse the track list. To make sure the album would be coherent, she played the songs to her family, friends, and producer Nathan Chapman, to see their reaction; Chapman had produced for Taylor since her self-titled debut album, Taylor Swift (2006). Once again, Taylor recorded much of Speak Now with him at his Pain in the Art Studio in Nashville. Although Fearless‘s commercial success allowed for a larger group of producers this time, she worked solely with Chapman, believing they had the right chemistry. And although he was responsible for much of the production, he said that Taylor’s co-production credit was “not a vanity credit. We were really a team, very collaborative.”

The recording process started with Taylor recording live vocals and playing the guitar, and Chapman singing background vocals and playing other instruments for a first demo. After arranging the demos, they approached other engineers and musicians to tweak some elements, including overdubs and programmed drums. The first track that Chapman produced for Taylor on Speak Now was “Mine“, which they recorded within five hours. For some tracks, including “Back to December“, Taylor and her team went to Capitol Studios in Los Angeles to record string orchestration. They finished recording the album by June 2010.

Title Significance

Taylor chose Enchanted as the working title, but Big Machine Records executive Scott Borchetta recommended that Taylor choose a different title, deeming Enchanted unfit for the album’s grown-up perspective: “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 excused herself from the table. 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:

«I think it's such a metaphor, that moment where it's almost too late, and you've got to either say what it is you are feeling or deal with the consequences forever. [...] And this album seemed like the opportunity for me to speak now or forever hold my peace.»

Taylor Swift

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. Much of Speak Now is about love and heartbreak, but Taylor abandoned Fearless‘s youthful optimism for introspection, inspired by her growth into adulthood. By now, she had achieved fame and was on the precipice of adulthood, while 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.

Release and Promotion

Taylor announced details of Speak Now via a July 20, 2010, live stream on Ustream. After a leak, Big Machine Records released the lead single, “Mine”, to US country radio and onto digital download sites on August 4, 2010 (instead of August 13). Taylor then released the album cover art on August 18 — it depicts her with curly hair and red lipstick twirling in a deep purple gown. Starting from October 4, 2010, Taylor released one Speak Now track onto the iTunes Store each week as part of a three-week countdown campaign, starting with the title track “Speak Now” (October 5), followed by “Back to December” (October 12), and “Mean” (October 19). On October 22, Xfinity premiered a preview of “The Story of Us“. Big Machine Records released both the standard and deluxe editions of Speak Now on October 25, 2010.

To further promote the album, Taylor appeared on many magazine covers and press interviews and performed at various award shows. Her performances at awards shows included the Country Music Association Awards and the American Music Awards in 2010; the Academy of Country Music Awards and again the Country Music Association Awards in 2011. Taylor also appeared on many television shows and concert specials. She also gave private concerts to contest winners and played a semiprivate concert at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

After lead single “Mine”, five other singles supported Speak Now. “Back to December” and “Mean” were respectively released to US country radio on November 15, 2010, and March 13, 2011. Both were top-ten chart hits in Canada (peaking at No. 7 and 10), and the former peaked at No. 6 on the US Billboard Hot 100. “The Story of Us” was released to US pop radio on April 19, 2011. Two last singles, “Sparks Fly” and “Ours“, were released to US country radio on July 18 and December 5, 2011. Both “Sparks Fly” and “Ours” reached the top 20 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and peaked atop the US Hot Country Songs chart.

On November 23, 2010, Taylor announced the “Speak Now World Tour“, which started in Singapore on February 9, 2011. The tour visited Asia and Europe before the North American leg started in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 27, 2011. Within two days of announcement, the tour sold 625,000 tickets. Taylor released Speak Now World Tour: Live, a live album recorded from the tour, on November 21, 2011. In December 2011, she announced an extension of the tour to Australia and New Zealand, starting in March 2012. Upon its completion on March 18, 2012, the “Speak Now World Tour” covered 110 shows, visited 18 countries, and grossed $123.7 million.

Critical Reception

Speak Now received generally positive reviews from contemporary critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream publications, the album received an average score of 77, based on 20 reviews. Most critics approved of Taylor’s songwriting craftsmanship. Reviews published in AllMusic, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone complimented the songs for portraying emotions with engaging narratives and vivid details. In AllMusic‘s review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote: “[Swift] writes from the perspective of the moment yet has the skill of a songwriter beyond her years.” American Songwriter approved of Taylor’s self-penned material and artistic control. The album’s dramatic themes of heartbreak and vengeance received mixed reviews. On the contrary, Steven Hyden from The A.V. Club opined that Speak Now‘s strength laid in those tracks: “Swift’s niftiest trick is being at her most likeable when she’s indulging in such overt nastiness.” Ann Powers appreciated Speak Now‘s soft and introspective tracks for making pop music personal. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times lauded the experimentation with genres such as blues and pop punk, and called Speak Now a bold step for Taylor.

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 contains 14 songs of the standard, three bonus track s— “Ours“, “If This Was a Movie“, and “Superman“, acoustic versions of “Back to December” and “Haunted“, a “pop mix” of “Mine”, a 30-minute behind-the-scenes video for “Mine”, and the music video for “Mine”. 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”.

Accolades

Speak Now ranked 13th on Rolling Stone‘s list of the best albums of 2010. The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica ranked the album No. 2 in his 2010 year-end list. The album also featured on lists of the best country albums of 2010 by PopMatters (5th) and The Boot (2nd). In 2012, Speak Now featured at No. 45 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the “50 Best Female Albums of All Time”; the magazine commented: “She might get played on the country station, but she’s one of the few genuine rock stars we’ve got these days, with a flawless ear for what makes a song click.” In 2019, Billboard featured Speak Now on its lists of the best albums of the 2010s decade (51st) and the best country albums of the 2010s decade (2nd). The album also featured on 2010s decade-end lists by Spin (37th), and on 2010s decade-end country music lists by Taste Of Country (4th) and PopMatters (5th).

Speak Now received industry awards and nominations. It was nominated for “Album of the Year” at three US country music awards shows—the Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Country Awards, and the Country Music Association Awards —in 2011. At the 2011 Billboard Music Awards, Speak Now was nominated for “Top Billboard 200 Album” and won “Top Country Album”. It won “Favorite Album (Country)” at the 2011 American Music Awards and “Top Selling Album of 2011” by the Canadian Country Music Association. At the 54th Annual Grammy Awards in 2012, Speak Now was nominated for “Best Country Album,” and its single “Mean” won  for “Best Country Solo Performance” and “Best Country Song.”

Impact and Legacy

In a 2019 retrospective review, Pitchfork considered Speak Now an important step for Taylor to transition from adolescence to adulthood, as showcased through songs about heartbreak and celebrity. Vulture acknowledged that the heartfelt songs about love shaped Taylor’s persona and artistry in her later career. According to Consequence, Speak Now set a precedent for the rest of Taylor’s career, in regards to her willingness to experiment sonically and the “bravery in writing intimate songs about public experiences and relationships.”

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.
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