“Fearless” (2008) is best described by Swift herself: “an album full of magic and curiosity, the bliss and devastation of youth.” Released just as Swift’s career was about to take off, the album possesses all the hope and anxiety of knowing something huge is about to happen, whether that be a first love, first breakup or first massive success. Swift’s sophomore album and first to win her the Grammy for album of the year, “Fearless” (2008) brought us some of Swift’s staples such as “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story,” and became a roadmap for a generation of teenage girls exploring these firsts.
So “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” (2021) is an appropriate starting point for Swift’s journey to re-record her first six albums. She’s jumping “head first, fearless” into a creative project that she’s been hinting at for years, since she failed to secure ownership of her master recordings in 2018. There’s an unmistakable parallel between the breakups Swift mourned in 2008 and her breakup with her first record label, Big Machine Records. Swift, who signed her first record deal when she was 15 years old, lost her shot at ownership of her first six albums in 2018 when she rejected unfavorable conditions to re-sign with Big Machine and signed a new contract with Universal Music Group. So the re-records are not just a creative project but also an opportunity for Swift to regain full ownership of the first two-thirds of her discography.
The lyrics and musical arrangements of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and the original “Fearless” are essentially identical — Swift brought back many of the musicians who played on the 2008 album. Like 13 years ago, Swift teeters the line between country and pop, except now instead of experimenting, she’s recreating her own journey between the genres.
It can be unsettling to hear a thirty-something year old singing a song designed for teenagers. Swift sometimes struggles to recreate the strong emotions in her original recordings — she was still pretty pissed at Joe Jonas when she called him a “scared little boy” in “Forever & Always,” but she’s thirteen years separated in “Forever & Always (Taylor’s Version).” Her range has changed, as has her country accent.
But in the songs where Swift sounded old for her age in 2008 — confronting the end of a relationship on “White Horse (Taylor’s Version)” and standing up for herself on “You’re Not Sorry (Taylor’s Version)” — she has a new confidence, one that lends itself to such ballads. In songs that dare to dream of moving on and healing, she is convincing and self-assured.
The re-recorded songs that succeed the most are the ones where you can almost hear Swift comforting and honoring her younger self. “Fifteen (Taylor’s Version)” has aged remarkably well considering it was written about high school by a high schooler. “But in your life you’ll do things greater than/ dating the boy on the football team,” Swift, who now has three Grammys for album of the year, sings to her naïve, Grammy-less self. “The Best Day (Taylor’s Version)” is a timeless tribute to the relationship between a girl and her mom as she grows up. I went to a concert with my mom around Mother’s Day after my first year of college, and Swift played “The Best Day.” We both cried. “Change (Taylor’s Version),” which borders on pop rock, is so optimistic that it could only be written by a teenager with no understanding of the American political system. But re-recorded in 2021, it’s an anthem about loyalty, perseverance and Swift’s eventual success in claiming ownership of her work.
The inclusion of songs “From The Vault” is its own reclaiming of the album; Swift stated that many of her vault songs were kept off the original album by Big Machine in 2008 for being too downbeat or focusing too much on breakups. Adding them in is undoubtedly a move to increase the value of the re-recordings over the originals, but it’s also a subtle statement on controlling her own voice and storytelling.
The highlight of the vault songs is the petty, scathing “Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault).” In under five minutes, Swift hurls sarcastic insults at an ex-boyfriend whose crime is getting over her too easily. “And I never got past what you put me through,” Swift sings over a jingle crafted for the Radio Disney days, “But it’s wonderful to see that it never fazed you.” The sweet “You All Over Me (feat. Maren Morris) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” and Jack Antonoff-produced “Don’t You (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)” round out the album, adding a sad kind of vulnerability. The other three vault tracks, while youthful and reminiscent of “the old Taylor,” are forgettable and were wisely left off the 2008 album.
“Fearless,” in its 2008 version and its 2021 version, is an album about the inevitable heartbreak of growing up, about all the phases of realizing that love really does suck sometimes. Every time Swift dreams of perfect dates and Romeos dropping to one knee, she throws in a biting verse about bad attitude and broken promises. The most whimsical part of this teenage album is that, amid all the fairytale shattering, Swift still comes out optimistic and forward-looking. The greatest moment of triumph on the album doesn’t come from a newly released track, or even the anthemic “Change (Taylor’s Version).” Instead, it’s a re-record of the first truly devastating song that Swift ever released, “White Horse (Taylor’s Version).” In a rare, tiny lyric change, Swift sings, “I’m not your princess, this ain’t our fairytale/ I’m gonna find someone someday/ Who might actually treat me well,” replacing “a fairytale” in the original recording with “our fairytale.” She built her whole discography expertly on this search for someone. She built an entire career on writing, rewriting and revisiting her “love story.”
As a final middle finger to Big Machine Records after a year of record success, Swift croons, “It’s too late for you and your white horse to catch me now.”