As a Taylor Swift fan, I’ve greeted the past year’s cornucopia of fresh content with joy and gratitude. Every day, I wake up and wonder: will there be a new Taylor Swift album today? With astounding frequency, there is!
The latest entry into the T. Swift COVID-era canon, following folklore and evermore, is the re-recording of her 2008 smash-hit album Fearless, now available as a 27-track pop-country marathon known as Taylor’s Version. Of course, the original Fearless was also, strictly speaking, ‘Taylor’s Version’. But the master recordings of that album, which can be monetized through lucrative avenues like sampling and commercials, belonged to the label she signed with as a teenager, who refused to sell them back to her. To add insult to injury, the owner of these masters was a personal nemesis of Swift’s, the music-industry mogul Scooter Braun, whom she’s described publicly as a ‘bully’ and an emotional terrorist — insults worthy of an early Taylor diss track.
To add even more insult to injury, Braun sold the masters not to Swift, who wanted to buy them and whose budget is probably unlimited, but to private equity. (Though the idiom ‘safe as houses’ expired around the same time as Fearless’s release, Taylor Swift’s catalog is probably about as close as you get now, investment-wise.) In 2020, for contractual reasons, Swift was able to re-record all her songs, creating new masters that render the old superfluous and collect the ensuing revenue.
Though I don’t feel passionately that Swift — or in fact anyone — should be much richer than she already is, you have to see where she’s coming from here. Fearless, perhaps more than any other Swift album, is an emotional, deeply personal work. Imagine Blackstone collateralizing a loan with your high-school diary! If I still get weepy at ‘Fifteen’ and ‘You’re Not Sorry’, Taylor must feel profoundly more protective. Now her many fans have a simple way to demonstrate their loyalty: by listening to her version.
They have something perhaps even more valuable, too: permission to listen to Fearless approximately five times a day at the age of 30, on feminist and even anti-capitalist grounds — or because it’s being written up in the New York Times and is therefore a defensibly highbrow activity.
And it holds up! Taylor’s Version sounds almost exactly the same as the original, except for Taylor’s voice, which is richer and fuller, plus a few new lyrics. But the melodrama, the cathartic vindictiveness, that vibe of venting on the landline to your best friend — that’s been missing from Swift’s more mature work. It not only survives in Fearless, it’s affirmed and ratified by Swift’s enthusiastic return to the material. Look, it’s OK to still be this petty in your fourth decade of life!
Yet something about the pleasure of listening to Taylor’s Version gives me pause. Shouldn’t my tastes have evolved in the past 13 years? And the millions of other fans currently streaming Taylor’s Version, shouldn’t they also have moved on? What does it mean that we haven’t? It’s not just musical tastes stagnating here. We’re reading headlines about many of the same politicians confronting many of the same problems — inequality, healthcare, racism, endless war — and promoting the same solutions, if a little less convincingly, as the last time I listened to Fearless on repeat, as a teenager.
The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat might suggest an answer. He argues in his book The Decadent Society that our popular culture has stopped innovating new forms in the last 40 years, preferring to riff on or repeat the old. He argues that decadence makes public and private institutions useless in the face of crises. While Hollywood’s total absorption into the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t responsible for America’s chaotic response to coronavirus, for example, our collective imagination does seem to have been stunted or at least slowed in the last few decades. Sluggish, repetitive pop culture could be a symptom.
And what could possibly be more decadent than re-recording, with near-perfect verisimilitude, a decade-plus old pop album? Even folklore and its lesser sister evermore were basically backward-looking in their re-treads of 90s alt-pop trends. Taylor’s Version drops the pretense of ‘reinvention’ and simply repeats.
I’m not waiting for Taylor Swift to solve our political problems. But with mainstream pop culture looking ahead to more Marvel, more Star Wars and more Taylor Swift re-recordings, I’m reminded of Taylor’s own lyrics, in Fearless’s ‘Change’: ‘You know it’s all the same, another time and place / Repeating history and you’re getting sick of it.’ Let’s hope we get to the next part: ‘These things will change / Can you feel it now?’