It’s the summer of 2012 and I am 13 years old. Fresh out of that first year of high school, no bruises visible to the naked eye but plenty of newly formed scars jostling for space under my skin. High school is rough. It’s Christmas morning. There’s electricity in the air; the kind that comes with still being a kid, but knowing there are only a finite number of holidays left before you have to grow up. If you couldn’t already tell, I was an anxious melancholy old soul daydreamer of a kid. It’s noisy at my grandparents house. There’s wrapping paper everywhere. My mum hands me a small square-shaped package. My heart jumps Could it be…?
I tear into it eagerly, Come on. Come on. Come on. YES! It’s RED, Taylor Swift’s fourth album, the one thing I wanted that year and dropped about a billion hints for, ever since it was released a couple of months earlier in October. Too close to Christmas for me to buy it, my mum had said. But now it’s here, and it’s mine. A whole new world of songs for me to dive into, learn well enough I could probably sing them backwards, and use as a friend to lean on, to lessen the sting of lonely lunchtimes and surgery that was beginning to mark my life like clockwork. The only question left to ask is, “Is it rude if I listen to this now?”
It’s the spring of 2021 and I am 22 years old. I have just finished my final year of university, after handing in an essay exploring the sexist and misogynistic habit society has of immediately devaluing music when it is made by young women for young women. I also explored why society has a habit of shitting on things liked by teenage girls and what it means that they’re never taken seriously as people who have their finger on the pulse of pop culture. Among references to the Beatles, Britney Spears and Madonna, my main case study was none other than the career of Taylor Swift.
A lot of things have changed in the past 9 years but Taylor and I; we’ve never wavered, not since I first heard her music over a decade ago. I’ve already talked about my deep love for Fearless as an album and what it’s meant to me as an adult to hear the songs of my childhood reimagined so warmly, now that they belong firmly in the hands of the woman, who has deserved to own them since the very first day. My relationship with RED, much like the album itself, is a little more complicated.
RED is an album filled with the desperate frustrating longing to forget someone, but also to love them, and find yourself again somewhere along the way. This all comes after being shattered into a million pieces by the cruelest wrecking ball of all; heartbreak. I didn’t really have a lot of reference points for heartbreak at 13 – back then, I saw the world in a very black and white way. Things were either right or wrong. There were heroes and villans. Happy endings and sad ones. So, essentially, a lot of the pain, nuance and depth on this album went over my head as did Taylor’s desire to experiment and express herself in different musical styles. It’s only as I’ve gotten older and a little more experienced in this world that I can sit with this album and see it more fully.
Now, at 22, I know that heartbreak can be a lot more than romance. It’s grief, loss, loneliness, nostalgia and a million other emotions. Sometimes the worst version is when you break your own heart. I see shades of grey in the world, that I didn’t before. Now I know that people are flawed and confused, that we all make bad choices, and mistakes. That just because something ended doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. I get what people mean when they say that your twenties are HARD, that there really is truth to the idea that we can be happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time. Basically, all we are is bundles of exposed nerve endings walking around hoping that the people we brush up against make us feel new and alive instead of damaged and unprotected.
All of that is why I’m so excited to revisit this album and get a few more pieces of the mosaic along the way. Plus there’s always got to be some magic in listening to an ethically sourced version of 22 when you are ACTUALLY 22 and then the beautiful irony of knowing that the man who thought indie records were cooler than Taylor’s has had to live in a world where two of the best in recent memory are hers. History-making. Sometimes, fate works in delicious ways…
From the opening minutes of State of Grace with those drums and electric guitars, I knew this reimagined album would pack a punch.
The instruments are clearer, crisper, cleaner. Taylor’s vocals are stronger, surer. She’s less worried about convincing us that this patchwork quilt of songs and genres work together and more focused on us understanding the story of this colossal shattering time in her life all too well.
I’ve always said that the reason Red was such a divisive album upon its first release, was because there was not one scrap of filter in it. There was no hiding of emotion behind carefully concealed vague songwriting. Everything was raw and on the surface. It slapped people in the face and left red handprints in its wake. It rattled the heartbreak skeletons they’d shoved in the back of their wardrobes and brought them out to feel.
No song does this quite like All Too Well, the song I once saw Taylor cry over as she played it to an arena full of people, her heart spilling over the piano keys. From the second she mentioned a 10-minute version in an interview almost a decade ago, we as her fans have latched onto it, always masochistically curious about what breathless further evocative detail it might give us about the scarf in a drawer that she never got back. Well, holy hell. Now we know.
While the world made jokes fueled by sexism and misogyny, too busy warning guys to stay away from Taylor Swift, god forbid she use her prodigious talent as a songwriter to immortalise moments captured between them, Taylor was being maimed by a love affair that really should have been the centrepiece of a powerful conversation about power dynamics in relationships and emotional manipulation, not to mention the toxicity of pseudo-feminism. “You said if we had been closer in age, then it would have been fine and that made me want to die” LIKE HELLO. This is all reinforced by the beautiful short film to accompany the 10 minute version of the song starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien.
And before you ask, yes their age gap is intentional. Yes, seeing them intimate is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable and voyeuristic. Yes, you are supposed to want to scream at him when he’s gaslighting her, and then ruins her 21st birthday by not showing up at all. I think this short film and the song together mark perhaps the bravest and most important thing she has ever released in her career.
You know what else is brave? Opening the vault door and in giving us these songs we’d never heard before, coloring the album darker than ever imagined. As one of my friends online noticed, even though the original tracklist gave us all sonic and emotional whiplash, in hindsight it was the santinised version. First of all, there’s Ronan, a song I will probably only ever listen to the once, so raw and deep is its expression of grief for Ronan Thompson, a four-year old who died as a result of an agressive and cruel cancer, co-written with his mum Maya Thompson from her perspective. I couldn’t get through the lyric video, full as it was of these gorgeous and devastating moments and photos from Ronan’s short life. If you are brave enough to watch, grab the tissues. And Maya, if you’re reading this, I’m so glad your beautiful boy has a forever home with Taylor. Now, he will be looked after and never fade from memory.
And then there’s the sucker punch of Nothin’ New, a Joni Mitchell inspired Phoebe Bridgers duet that builds on The Lucky One and the fear of fame eating you alive. The first glimpse of the elephent graveyard society builds for female artists in the spotlight, who are often discarded as they age, losing their newness and shine.
It’s terrifying for 22 year old Taylor and might explain why she was so desperate for Red to be such an experiment in trying on new versions of herself, her music and the people she worked with. The internal battle between the rose garden and Madison Square has thankfully been won at 32 it seems; Taylor has the anchor of a shared life with her partner Joe Alwyn, she has rebuilt her world to be steadier after the maelstrom of 2016 and honestly, she seems to have carved out a life that is distinctly hers while the work and art still gets to be ours.
Forever Winter is a song that I think might get overlooked by people when they talk about this album, but I want it to have its moment here because when I realised what it meant, it pulled the air from my lungs for a moment. Oh God. I can’t even really write about it without getting choked up, so I’m just going to leave it here and say, as someone who has walked both sides of that terrifying faultline, thank you for writing that, Taylor. It means a lot.
Finally, Taylor I know this is all a decade in the past for you, but I want you to know that I appreciate you going back to these scars and giving us your heart in this way, all in the name of owning your art. There’s such power and grace in this moment, a movement for anyone who shares part of themselves in the making of things. I’m so glad you made it through and honestly, that I did too ❤