Illustration by Ben Beechener
‘Seeing Red’ is a two-part series that begins to unpack the cathartically confusing experience that is ‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’ written by Jess Steadman and Katharine Spurrier, two students who often seem more invested in the Swift saga than their degrees (Katharine even turning this dedication into a dissertation). In this first article, they debate whether the re-recorded album can ever hope to live up to the dizzy heights of the original cult classic.
Thank God you’re back Red because “I’ve been loving you for quite some time, time, time”. By Katharine
**Spoilers for Jess’ article ahead**
“Oh My God! Okay! It’s happening! Everybody stay calm!”
Never have the eternal words of The Office’s Michael Scott been more applicable. Never has Taylor Swift been more chaotic. Never have I been less focussed on my degree.
It all began to go a little haywire on June 18th, when the aforementioned Swift announced that the next album to be released as a re-record was 2012’s Red. Swiftly (forgive me) following on from Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Red (Taylor’s Version) strikes a very different tone. Fearless (TV) – despite the maturing of Swift’s voice – continued to reside in the land of hope and almost unblemished youthful innocence that could not help but send you right back to 2008. ‘The Way I loved You [it]’ did not change, if anything I think I actually loved it more. Yet, with the release Red (TV) our foundational ‘Holy Ground’ is rather shaken. Swift makes the bold move of skipping over 2010’s Speak Now and diving straight into the pool of agony that characterises Red (both old and new). In doing so she leaves her listeners rather shellshocked – some might call it ‘treacherous’ (sorry the poor punning is likely to continue … you still have Jess’ bit yet). So, I was initially confused, why would she not release them in order? Why break the flow of her musical transformation? But, now I realise how genius the shake-up strategy is. Speak Now is more mature, refined and emotional than Fearless, it was a steppingstone that prepared you for the trauma of Red. But by removing that emotional halfway house, anyone listening to Red (TV) is slapped in the face by heartbreak.
The ignorant multitude (Jess) will ask, what was the point in the re-records, especially the re-recording of Red, which was so vulnerable and so linked to one moment, and one person (someone might need to check on Jake Gyllenhaal)? The matter of the re-recordings is simple and has been explained countless times. In brief though, Swift’s masters were sold, she had limited rights and control, she wanted all the rights and control, she re-recorded under a new label, she regained control. Some might accuse her of milking the ‘swiftie’ cash cow – as a fandom they are renowned for their devotion – but in light of the fact that she has described how she “write[s] songs that are like diary entries. I have to do it to feel sane”, this seems to be an accusation that wildly misses the point.
Red was arguably her most emotionally raw album. I challenge you not to be crushed by lines like “you call me up again, just to break me like a promise / so casually cruel in the name of being honest”, or feel the desolation of the resignation in “I said, “I’m sorry too” / And that was the moment I knew”. Swift has stated that “Red resembled a heartbroken person” and the likes of ‘All Too Well’, ‘Sad Beautiful Tragic’, and ‘Treacherous’ (to name but a few) have always reflected this. But Swift also accurately points out that heartbreak is not all depression, but a “mosaic of feelings” which result in songs like ’22’, ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’, and ‘Stay Stay Stay’. Red was an impossible album to pin down because of the range of emotion it encompasses, and this elusive energy remains in Red (TV). If anything the album feels a little more solid now that Swift isn’t in heartbroken freefall. ‘Begin Again (TV)’ shines with the optimism of someone who has now found a person who throws his ‘head back laughing like a little kid’, and ‘State of Grace (TV)’ has a previously unheard depth gained by the maturing of Swift’s voice.
Yet, still some (Jess) have decided that the original’s range of emotion has been lost. That Swift has lost the essence of Red in the creating Red (TV). I disagree, I think that range of emotion has merely shifted. She used to cry when performing ‘All Too Well’, now she smiles. Over the years the song has changed as she has changed. Why should we have expected Red (TV) to be a carbon copy of the original? Why would that have been an enjoyable experience? How could she have improved on such an iconic album – the “ultimate” album many (Jess) will say epitomised their views and responses to ‘break-ups’? Red (TV) feels different because it is, and this shift can be explained in the same way that we can note a change in ‘All Too Well’. Swift has moved on and her fans have changed the meaning of the album for her. This is no bad thing, our adoration transformed the feelings attached to her experiences – a transformation she has been openly grateful about, “I wanted to thank you for changing it, because it’s kind of nice to sing a song [‘All Too Well’] that you’re proud of, but not feel pain while you sing it”. What monster (Jess?) would want her to wallow just so they could have the album they had mythologised?
Red (TV) is not less emotional, it is not less powerful, and it is not less relatable. It is different, and in many ways it is better. Unlike with Fearless (TV) we are not thrown back into the world of spaghetti straps and cowboy boots, instead we remain in the now with an album which has grown with us, and grown with Swift. Retrospectively, the growth that can be tracked through Red (TV) seems to suggest it fits far better into her canon than any re-record has a right to.
Red Flags – why, in rerecording Red, Taylor gets a little ‘lost in translation’. By Jess
To be honest, I probably asked for too much.
Red was a masterpiece. My ultimate break up album – which I realise is ridiculous given I was literally ten when it came out and the closest I had ever got to a ‘break-up’ was a random year 6 telling me ‘I don’t like you anymore’ in the school playground – I imagined how it would be there for me at every emotional crisis point. The salve that would patch up every broken heart that I thought I would have when I reached the mythically impossible age of ‘22’. To be honest, I was right about how I would always see Red; it’s never left my top 10 most played (though it did have to become a kept secret in Year 10 when the Hiddleswift shenanigans made it suddenly-not-cool to like Taylor Swift, thankfully this didn’t last very long (kind of like their relationship). However, as is the inevitable truth of any piece of music, I became older and Red always stayed the same age. I matured, I grew, I changed, the album didn’t. And so, while I never lost my love for the music itself, I lost the emotional connection that I felt so strongly in the first few years of my love affair with Red.
Plus, hypothetically, if the ‘old Taylor’ truly died with reputation, where does this leave my favourite album? Well, post reputation I think part of Red did die, lacking the defiant electropop energy of 1989 (and the pull of Harry Styles) or the country innocence (and iconic status) of Fearless, it became reduced to screaming ‘now I’m lying on the cold hard ground WOAH’ while disgustingly drunk at parties. Or at least it did for me.
Which is why I was so beyond excited when she announced we would get a ‘Taylor’s Version’. It reminded me that Red was here to ‘stay (stay stay)’. Yay.
Or not so yay. I think ‘sad, beautiful, tragic’ would be an exceptional way to describe this re-release. Yes Red is sad- it’s about a breakup of course it’s going to be sad. Yes, it’s beautiful – Taylor has proven time and time again her god-like command over music and lyrics. But the album itself is a greater tragedy than the famous scarf saga (really somebody ought to check on Jake Gyllenhaal). Despite Katharine’s mildly arrogant challenge, I just wasn’t ‘crushed’ when I returned to Red through this new version all these years later. She will say it’s because I have no heart, because I don’t emotionally engage with songs (or with life for that matter)- I think this is an easy way of bypassing the fundamental issues with Red (TV).
The main issue with Red (TV) is that she just isn’t in the same Redspace she was ten years ago. I don’t think it’s right for Katharine – in her classic blasé fashion – to just brush over the implications of Red being an album that is ‘so linked to one moment, one person’. Taylor doesn’t, she even says as much in her voice note at the end of the album when she tells us that Red was the story of an “all over the place”, “broken hearted person”. Well we know Taylor isn’t broken hearted anymore, she has a Joe Alwyn, her lover, her archer, her happiness. You could get sick of the number of times she sings about how great her basically-husband is both in and out of the bedroom ( ‘sacred oasis’ wink wink). Hence why hearing this new, older Taylor return to the songs that were so emotionally raw and messy just feels wrong.
It might sound like I’m “wildly missing the point”, I’m not. I appreciate why Red (Taylor’s Version) has to exist. I really praise her for wanting to take control of her music and how it sets an example I hope more people in the music industry will follow. It’s an undeniable power move, an open proclamation that her music, her writing, her heartbreak, her identity is hers and should be viewed on her terms. I just wish she changed something, shown the fans how these songs have changed for her. At the very least it would stop the borderline creepiness of having to hear a mature adult voice sing ‘I don’t know about you but I’m feeling 22’. It has all the energy of a fallen Southern belle getting lost a maze of nostalgia as she remembers the golden halcyon days of her youth. A Streetcar Named Desire, but make it (fake) Nashville. In ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together (TV)’ the faux-youthfulness reaches ridiculous heights. The kiddish ‘weeee’ was irritating the first time around, but now it’s just silly, sounding more like botched bit of sampling than a genuine re-record.
I don’t buy all this stuff about the songs “emotionally shifting”, sorry Katharine but you sound like a crazed Swift fan trying to justify why you should like the album because you feel bad about the fact it was needed in the first place. To be honest, there is a laziness to her re-recording of the original Red songs, almost like she is going through the motions. Remember that sensation you have when you write a word down so many times that it begins to lose any resemblance to a word, I think this is a sensation Taylor knows ‘all too well’. You can feel the change in energy when the record flips over to the brand new (and utterly brilliant [on this Katharine and I agree]- but more on that later!) ‘vault tracks’. The first nineteen songs of Red (Taylor’s Version) are musically and lyrically wow; but that’s something we’ve known since 2012. Emotionally, they are just empty, there’s not a ‘mosaic broken heart’ to be seen because Taylor just doesn’t seem to be there like she was before. What can you expect, she isn’t this heartbroken little girl anymore, but then why does it feel like she’s pretending to be?