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‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’: How to reconsider Taylor Swift’s transformative album

Ahead of Friday’s release of the re-recorded album, the Associated Press talked to Swift scholars about how listeners can and should think about it.
 
Taylor Swift performs during the opener of her Eras tour in Glendale, Ariz., on March 17. In preparation for Friday's release of “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” The Associated Press reached out to Swift scholars to discuss all the ways listeners can and should think about the album.
Taylor Swift performs during the opener of her Eras tour in Glendale, Ariz., on March 17. In preparation for Friday's release of “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” The Associated Press reached out to Swift scholars to discuss all the ways listeners can and should think about the album. [ ASHLEY LANDIS | AP ]
Published July 7, 2023

LOS ANGELES — In 2010, newly anointed as a Grammy winner, Taylor Swift released “Speak Now,” her third studio album and her first without a single songwriting collaboration.

Her 2006 self-titled debut and 2008′s “Fearless” had inspired both acclaim and criticism for her bold bridges and keen lyricism — these are masterful country-pop songs, critics argued, but surely a teen idol wasn’t responsible for them. Swift proved her detractors wrong on “Speak Now,” an album that arrived just before her pivot from country’s youngest hope to pop’s freshest voice.

The album served as a close document of her nascent fame and future career ambitions, and now, 13 years on, it’s back. “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” released Friday, is the third release of the six albums Swift plans to re-record. The Taylor’s Version albums, instigated by music manager Scooter Braun’s sale of her early catalog, represent Swift’s effort to control her own songs and how they’re used — a fitting ethos for “Speak Now,” a record built exclusively of her own voice.

In preparation for “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” The Associated Press reached out to Taylor Swift scholars to discuss all the ways listeners can and should think about the release.

Adolescence to adulthood

Before “Speak Now” became “Speak Now,” the working title was “Enchanted,” named after the power ballad of the same name. The mythology (folklore, anyone?) behind the shift is that Swift’s label president at the time, Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta, told her to move on from whimsy and fairytale iconography — she was entering her 20s and this LP warranted a more mature title.

Transition creates an interesting framework for thinking about this album: Written largely between the ages of 18 and 20, released when she turned 21, “Speak Now” is a collection of songs on a precipice — of adulthood, of fame, of declaring ownership but still concerned with the subject matters that concern a young adult. There are crushes (“Superman,” “Sparks Fly”) and bittersweet breakups (“Back to December,” “If This Was a Movie”), alike.

“You hear a youngness when you listen to these songs,” says musicologist Lily Hirsch, author of “Can’t Stop the Grrrls: Confronting Sexist Labels in Music from Ariana Grande to Yoko Ono.” “It’s all about these romantic relationships. The world hinges on all of that, which is so typical of that age. So, it is interesting hear the re-recordings bring a more mature voice to those earlier preoccupations.”

Elizabeth Scala teaches a course on Taylor Swift’s songbook at the University of Texas at Austin as an introduction to literary studies and research methods.

“I think ‘Speak Now’ is still in the vein of ‘I don’t have enough life experience at my ripe age of 18 to give you a fully autobiographical anything, but I’m going to use what I read and what I know from other people,’” she says of the songs’ lyrical content, which still manage to “make really beautiful, coherent things out of the messiness and inaccuracy of our memories.”

In conversation with her critics and celebrity

Coming a year after Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, “Speak Now” is the moment in Swift’s career where she began to use her celebrity as a mirror to her interior life.

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“Mean,” a takedown of a rock critic, becomes a banjo-led treatise on antagonism of any kind; the blues-y “Dear John” centers on a young woman’s tumultuous relationship with an older man.

“Insults are everywhere in music, and men don’t get the same flak for it,” Hirsch says, in reference to “Dear John” and “Mean.” “There’s this idea that women especially are supposed to take the high road, turn the other cheek and all of that, and men can get away with the low road, and they certainly do in music. It’s a kind of double standard. Women are labeled ‘catty’ when confronting bad behavior, like in ‘Dear John.’”

A common pastime among Swift fans is to unearth the identities of her songs’ subjects. But, to Scala, “the most boring way to think about Taylor Swift is in terms of her biography.”

At a recent stop of her Eras Tour in Minneapolis, Swift seemed to agree, playing “Dear John” live for the first time in 11 years after delivering this introduction:

“I’m 33 years old. I don’t care about anything that happened to me when I was 19 except the songs I wrote and the memories we made together. So what I’m trying to tell you is, I’m not putting this album out so you should feel the need to defend me on the internet against someone you think I might have written a song about 14 billion years ago.”

Scala sees a throughline between this album and its successors, with “Dear John” as a precursor to “All Too Well” and “Mean” as prescient to “Blank Space,” a song that parodies how she’s been portrayed in the media.

Revisionist history

Much online chatter surrounding the re-recording of “Speak Now” has centered on “Better Than Revenge,” a pop-punk song that takes aim at another woman instead of the man that wronged them both. It takes both sonic and thematic cues from Paramore’s 2007 pop-rock hit “Misery Business,” a similar song about the same subject. (In fact, on “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” Paramore singer Hayley Williams lends vocals to a “vault” song, “Castles Crumbling.”)

In the original chorus of “Better Than Revenge,” Swift sings, “She’s an actress / She’s better known for the things she does on the mattress,” a rare lyrical misstep in a career underscored by poetic turns of phrases (in the opener “Mine,” she sings “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter”). In her 2023 “Better Than Revenge” version, the lyric becomes “He was a moth to the flame / She was holding the matches.”

“If we think about 2010, slut-shaming rhetoric certainly existed in movies and shows. She’s certainly not the only one who has done this at that time,” Hirsch argues, quick to point out that Swift has also been the target of sexist vitriol.

Swift’s alteration of the song in her re-recording follows a lineage of other pop stars doing the same. Lizzo and Beyoncé recently changed lyrics to songs deemed offensive. Weird Al no longer performs his Michael Jackson parodies. And because Swift hasn’t performed “Better Than Revenge” live for well over a decade, she hasn’t needed to confront this particular song, in this particular way.

“We are willing to replace the old version with Taylor’s Versions because they are exact replicas, as much as they can be,” Scala argues. “If she does something different, it becomes a different song.” A different song, this time, owned by Swift.

Art evolves over time

“From a literary historian’s point of view, when you first hear ‘Speak Now,’ you could only look at her career up to that point: It meant something in her creative timeline,” says Scala. “And now we have the rest of her career to compare it to, so it’s hard to listen to the record the same way. You can compare it to the older recording, but its deeper and richer.”

Technology has changed from 2010. So has Swift: Her voice has matured, no longer possessing the sweet self-restraint that colored her earliest releases.

Each release comes with a few “From the Vault” tracks, unreleased songs from each album’s period reimagined for the current moment. They, too, give a fuller picture.

An exercise in artistic autonomy

Beyond all of the music and cultural considerations, the fact is: Taylor Swift is re-recording this album to own her work, like she is doing with so many of her records — but this is the only album in her discography that is entirely self-penned, the one celebrated for its dismissals of exploitative male characters and poetic embrace of girlhood.

In fact, it’s hard not to think of “Could’ve, Would’ve, Should’ve” from her 2022 LP, “Midnights,” where Swift sings “Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first,” as a self-reflection of her “Speak Now” self. That track is a creative reclamation of the teen who wrote “Dear John” as an adult; “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” is the literal reclamation.

“Owning these masters, she decided to take back that control,” Hirsch says. “I love what it communicates: that we all have power, we don’t have to just sit back and take these situations, especially when it concerns our own voice.”

By MARIA SHERMAN, AP Music Writer