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Taylor Swift's 'Red (Taylor's Version)' shows how far she's come

Swift isn't the same woman she was in 2012 — and it works in everyone's favor.
Illustration of Taylor Swift during her RED Tour in 2013 and Taylor Swift in 2021.
Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC; Getty Images

In October 2012, The New York Times ran a review of “Red,” Taylor Swift’s fourth studio album.

Swift, who had put out her first album when she was still a teenager, was now 22. She was “grasping for what her next stage is going to be, and trying to become a sort of pop superstar that currently doesn’t exist,” wrote critic John Caramanica. “Ms. Swift moves her own market, and Ms. Swift is patient. This combination of calculation and instinct makes for a savvy musician, but does it make for an adult?”

Nearly a decade later, we have a clear answer to Caramanica’s question. At nearly 32, Swift is very much an adult, and she has succeeded in becoming the sort of pop superstar that didn’t exist in 2012. Nothing could solidify this fact as poignantly as the release of “Red (Taylor’s Version),” a re-recording of that original iconic album, which dropped Friday.

Anyone who is loosely familiar with Swift’s career likely knows why she is in the process of re-recording her first six studio albums. For those who aren’t: In June 2019, talent manager and investor Scooter Braun acquired Big Machine, the independent record label with which Swift had a contract until 2018. That deal included ownership of the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums. (For any music neophytes, that means Braun gained ownership over the recordings from which all copies must be made, as well as the rights to make, distribute and sell those copies.) In the wake of the acquisition, Swift spoke out against Braun and Big Machine and claimed she had been trying to buy her masters from Big Machine for years but was never offered good terms to do so.

“Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy,” Swift wrote in a Tumblr post in response to the news of Big Machine’s sale. Braun, she claimed, had bullied her for years through his current and former clients: “Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.”

When Swift first got big, I turned my nose down at her persona even as I enjoyed her songs.

That August, Swift announced she would re-record her first six albums and release them, creating a situation where she owned all of the rights herself. When Braun then sold her masters to a private equity firm last year, she confirmed she was in the studio working on the new versions. “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is the second of those re-recorded albums.

There is something powerful about listening to “Red (Taylor’s Version)” in all its catchy, pop-perfect glory and knowing these are Swift’s songs, owned by the artist and heard the way she wanted them to be heard. The Swift singing “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “All Too Well” in 2021 is not the same Swift from 2012, and the album is all the better for it. Swift has aged: Her voice is deeper and richer, more emotive, less bouncy in all the best ways; her barbs pierce a little deeper, emblematic of her deeper well of lived experiences.

Her fans have aged, too.

When Swift first got big, I turned my nose down at her persona even as I enjoyed her songs. (They were, after all, great pop music.) Swift had all the markers of a specific feminine ideal, one that had been relentlessly shoved down the throats of women of my generation by the music industry during the late ‘90s and early aughts. The only way to distance ourselves from an ideal we felt certain we could never fulfill was to reject the women who embodied it. I wasn’t one of those girls, so I wasn’t about to become a Swiftie.

But a lot has changed since 2006. I grew up, got to know myself more, got more confident about what I liked and what I believed — and so did Swift. Swift stuck it out and transcended the country genre she came up in. She also slowly let the world see more of her genuine self, always strategically, but in ways that chipped away at the “innocent,” apolitical, I’m-not-a-feminist-because-I-don’t-hate-men persona that she and her team had long cultivated. By the time she (finally!) started being open about her progressive political views and grappling with her white privilege, I had mostly come around.

It’s not just us, the listeners, and Swift, the artist, who have grown and changed during the nine years since “Red” first was released. The culture has, too. “Red” was birthed into a world where no one was talking about Britney Spears’ conservatorship, where Lindsay Lohan’s various “scandals” were being gleefully documented by mainstream news sites in obsessive detail and poked at by David Letterman, where it was still considered cute to casually call Swift a “psycho” in blogs about her boyfriends.

It’s not just us, the listeners, and Swift, the artist, who have grown and changed during the nine years since “Red” first was released.

“Red (Taylor’s Version)” — which includes the song “The Lucky One,” which people have long speculated is about Spears — enters a world where the #FreeBritney movement has not only gone mainstream but succeeded (the very day “Red (Taylor’s Version)” dropped! Poetic!); a world in which Tarana Burke is practically a household name, and everyone knows what #MeToo means; a world in which we are deep into collective re-examinations of the way the media has long treated powerful, famous and infamous women (see: Jessica Simpson, Anita Hill, Tonya Harding, Janet Jackson, Monica Lewinsky, Whitney Houston, Paris Hilton and, of course, Spears).

Swift has given all of us the opportunity to listen to her music with the benefit of hindsight, to take in its glory with a richer understanding of the creator and the world she moved in. “Red (Taylor’s Version)” isn’t just re-recorded old hits. It’s something new — better than new.