Fearless (Taylor's Version)
April 9, 2021
Initially released in 2008, Taylor’s breakout second record Fearless was the one that catapulted her to the stratospheric levels of success she retains today. Receiving largely positive reviews and massive commercial acclaim, it has sold over 12 million copies internationally and it won a 20-year-old Taylor her first Grammy for “Album of the Year” in 2010. When she announced the re-recording, Taylor wrote:
“When I think back on the Fearless album and all that [the fans] turned it into, a completely involuntary smile creeps across my face. This was the musical era in which so many inside jokes were created between us, so many hugs exchanged and hands touched, so many unbreakable bonds formed […] Fearless was an album full of magic and curiosity, and the bliss and devastation of youth. It was the diary of the adventures and explorations of a teenage girl who was learning tiny lessons with every new crack in the facade of the fairytale ending she’d been shown in the movies.” — Taylor Swift
Now, though, she had re-recorded the entire album. There really was no precedent for what Taylor was doing. No artist in their prime, let alone one of the best-selling singers of the century — fresh off her two most critically acclaimed albums yet in 2020’s folklore and evermore — had ever undertaken the full re-recording of a half-dozen enormously successful LPs for sake of owning her music outright. Yet no mainstream star had been more vocal about artists’ rights than Taylor. So off she went, into an uncharted, paradoxical period of her career where she would simultaneously release new songs, old songs made new again, and “From The Vault” tracks that were so old and obscure, they appeared completely new to most listeners.
BACKGROUND AND RELEASE
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was the first release in Taylor’s battle to regain control of her master recordings that would eventually see her re-record each of her first six albums (that’s everything from her 2006 self-titled debut up to 2017’s reputation). This bold step was a first for the music industry and came following several sales of Taylor’s back catalogue.
The first came in 2019, when talent manager Scooter Braun (who reps artists like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber), made a $300 million acquisition of Taylor’s former label Big Machine Label Group, a sale that included the recorded masters of Taylor’s early albums. At the time Taylor shared a piece on Tumblr that read: “For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and ‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in.”
This was followed in late 2020 by another sale by private equity company Shamrock Holdings. When the news broke Taylor said that the company had bought “100% of my music, videos and album art”, making it “the second time my music had been sold without my knowledge”. After years of attempting to regain back these masters, Taylor decided enough was enough and went about regaining control in in her own inimitable way. She began re-recording her back catalog as soon as she was allowed, in November 2020. Basically, you don’t cross Taylor Swift.
“It’s going to be fun, because it’ll feel like regaining a freedom and taking back what’s mine,” Taylor told Billboard in 2019 of rerecording her catalog. “When I created [these songs], I didn’t know what they would grow up to be. Going back in and knowing that it meant something to people is actually a really beautiful way to celebrate what the fans have done for my music.”
STARTING THE RE-RECORDINGS WITH FEARLESS
Taylor’s decision to start the rerecording process not with her debut, but its 2008 successor seemed telling. Her debut went seven-times platinum in the US, but her songwriting came into sharp focus on Fearless, revealing an 18-year-old who could not only knock out indelible melodies and choruses with the efficiency of a Nordic pop factory but who also wrote lyrics that spoke directly to a teenage audience. “Deciding on what album to rerecord first was pretty easy for me,” Taylor shared in an audio clip from her record label. “I always gravitated towards Fearless because I think that, as an album, it was a real coming of age, and I look back on that album and I just — it fills me with such pride. It was an album about hope and lessons learned and the effervescence of teenage youth and all that, so what more fun than to go back and explore that.”
Fearless — be it the 2008 or 2021 version — deals in wistful reminiscence about female adolescence. Its best writing offers a brilliant fixing of the understandable teenage impulse to mythologize the recent past, to carry on as if it’s ancient history, because teenage lives are in constant flux and forward motion, packed with events that invite nostalgia because they can only happen once. As a result, Fearless is the kind of album in which fans have always had a genuine emotional investment:
“Before anything else, let me just say that it was a real honour to get to be a teenager alongside you. And for those of you I’ve come to know more recently than 2008, I am ecstatic that I’ll get to experience a bit of that feeling with you – now that I can fully appreciate it in its whimsical, effervescent, chaotic entirety.” – Taylor Swift
If you wanted to construct a narrative of a beloved female artist pouring her heart and soul into work that resonated with her audience versus the dead-eyed male music-industry operatives interested in nothing but money, Fearless was a very smart place to start.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE ORIGINAL AND TAYLOR’S VERSION
Listening back to the whole Fearless (Taylor’s Version) album has a similar effect to reading back an old diary – especially as these songs are steeped in nostalgia given the prominence on first release. Taylor both celebrates and stays true to her Fearless era. The labor involved in this level of meticulous replication is difficult to fathom. The arrangements, this time performed mostly by Taylor’s longtime touring band “The Agency” as opposed to the original session musicians, are near-perfect facsimiles of the first cuts, down to the last twang. Taylor never cringes away from her younger self. Instead, she revisits the songs with kindness and affection, celebrating the success of her teenage releases. She told People:
“In terms of production I really wanted to stay loyal to the initial melodies that I had thought of for these songs. But if there was any song where we could improve upon the sonic quality of it, we did. I did go in line by line, and listened to every single vocal and think, ‘What are my inflections here?’ If I could improve upon it I did. I really did want this to be very true to what I initially thought of and what I had initially written – but better. Obviously.” — Taylor Swift
All the previously released songs were co-produced by Taylor and Nashville-based Christopher Rowe, who worked on some remixes during the Fearless era but was not the album’s original producer. Nathan Chapman, who did handle the original mixes, did not return. That didn’t seem to matter. Throughout the whole album, banjos are crisper, guitars are fuller, drums are heavier, and Taylor’s strong 31-year-old voice leads the music. The changes made to beloved tracks like “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story“, simply made them shinier. Clearly taking care to not step over her 19-year-old self, all the changes feel totally natural, like they should’ve been that way to start with. Overall, you can hear the drive. You can hear exactly what Taylor was thinking as she strived to re-make Fearless, but better, if she was going to be forced to sacrifice the original record.
FROM THE VAULT
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) features 26 songs, consisting of all the tracks from the Fearless [Platinum Edition] (2009), as well as her 2010 soundtrack single “Today Was A Fairytale“. And then we get to the vault. Releasing six previously unheard songs that were penned as she was writing Fearless, Taylor took on a unique challenge of playing with her 12-year-old drafts:
“These are songs that I’m calling ‘from the vault,’ and I call them that because there are songs that I wrote over the course of my career that were meant for certain albums, but didn’t end up making the track list for reasons that, to me, don’t really matter now. Artists should own their own work for so many reasons, but the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really *knows* that body of work. For example, only I know which songs I wrote that almost made the Fearless album. Songs I absolutely adored, but were held back for different reasons (don’t want too many breakup songs, don’t want too many down tempo songs, can’t fit that many songs on a physical CD). I think curating an album is really important, but at the same time, it’s really fun to go back and show the fans the full picture of what I had created at that time. The new version is the whole story, the entire vivid picture…. the entire dreamscape that is my Fearless album.” — Taylor Swift
Leaning into all her influences, the vault tracks range from catchy country pop on “Mr. Perfectly Fine“, to more folklore-esque minimalism on “We Were Happy“. With no original to re-create, these tracks were a perfect collaboration between Taylor’s old and new self, building something bigger around the core of her old lyrical style as sweet country phrasing was bedded within a more complex musical background where her recent indie accolades came into play. The vault provided a space for her then recent sound, with “You All Over Me” having big radio potential and “Bye Bye Baby” rounding off the defiant album with an apt message; “Bye, bye, to everything I thought was on my side”.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was met with universal acclaim upon release, achieving a score of 82 on Metacritic, and thereby surpassing the original album’s score of 73. The Independent‘s Alexandra Pollard praised the album’s nostalgia, faithfulness to the 2008 record, and the addition of “oddly comforting” vault tracks. Saloni Gajjar of The A.V. Club wrote that Fearless (Taylor’s Version) showcased Taylor’s mature vocals and “sharp sense of musicianship and instrumentation”, describing it as a “mellifluous upgrade to an already remarkable album”. Will Hodgkinson of The Times said Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was “a masterclass in classic Nashville songwriting”, a “sweet, nostalgic” and “wholesome” record that documents Taylor’s coming of age. Alexis Petridis of The Guardian wrote that it emanates “wistful reminiscence about female adolescence”, with “a brilliant fixing of the understandable teenage impulse to mythologise the recent past, to carry on as if it’s ancient history”.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) garnered the biggest opening day for an album on Spotify in 2021 at the time, tallying more than 50 million global streams in its first day on the platform. Its tracks claimed the top ten spots of Apple Music‘s global country songs chart. Fourteen tracks from the album charted on the Billboard Global 200 chart, with 8 inside the top 100. In the US, the album reached No. 1 on the US Apple Music chart, making Taylor the first female country artist to top it. It became her ninth consecutive album to open atop the Billboard 200, earning 291,000 album-equivalent units, recording the biggest opening week since Taylor’s own evermore (2020). In that week, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) sold 179,000 pure copies in the country, marking the biggest sales week and biggest first-week sum of 2021; the album accumulated 143 million on-demand streams, marking the biggest weekly streams for a country album by a female artist in the US, surpassing the former record of 24 million streams by Maren Morris’ Girl (2019). Topping Billboard Top Country Albums as well, the album scored Taylor her sixth No. 1 on the chart, her first since RED (2012). Nine tracks charted simultaneously on the all-genre Hot 100 chart dated April 24, 2021, alongside “willow” (2020). It extended Taylor’s record for the most total Hot 100 entries among women, with 136. Aided by Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Taylor returned to the No. 1 spot of the Billboard Artist 100 chart for a record-extending 47th week at the surmount.
Like she did with folklore and evermore, Taylor released a compilation chapters for some songs on the album, entitled “The Halfway Out the Door Chapter”, “The Kissing In The Rain Chapter”, “The I Remember What You Said Last Night Chapter”, and “The From The Vault Chapter”. The reason why she put out these chapters is simple: There are multiple versions of the old masters of Taylor’s songs on streaming platforms, so she wanted to flood the algorithm by releasing as many versions of the re-records as possible. That way, the chances someone plays a song she fully owns are increased.
Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the first ever re-recorded album to reach No. 1 in the US. With folklore, evermore and Fearless (Taylor’s Version) all topping the Billboard 200 in less than nine months, Taylor became the first female artist to have three different albums top the chart in less than a year, surpassing Donna Summer’s record of 14 months in 1980. The four-month gap between evermore and Fearless (Taylor’s Version) also broke Taylor’s own record for the shortest gap between number-one albums by a woman on the chart.
CELEBRATING AND RECLAIMING THE PAST
Managing to find a purpose beyond a legal battle, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) became a moment of reflection and celebration for both Taylor and her fans, coming together to look back on youth from the other side 13 years later. In an industry that’s so obsessed with never-ending youth, releasing a re-recorded album where the only major difference is the age of her voice, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was a powerful message about her place and longevity in this industry. Previously talking about female celebrities being “discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35”, Taylor was shrugging off the pressure to always move forward. Instead, she re-applied her seemingly endless passion for making music to her old self, collaborating with her past in order to save it. The result: bittersweet magic that had millions feel nostalgic.
|Released||April 9, 2021|
|Recorded||November 2020 – January 2021|
|Studio||Kitty Committee Studio (London)|