I was in seventh grade when Taylor Swift’s album“Red” came out. We were still a long way away from the days of Spotify being everyone’s main source of music, so I begged my mom to stop at Target on the way home from my dentist appointment so that we could pick up the album. I eagerly put the CD in our Volvo wagon, and I still remember hearing the first beats of “State of Grace,” turning to my mom, and saying in my best analytical tone, “This sounds a little…folk-y.”
Because the car ride home from the dentist was an hour (that’s what it’s like when you live in rural Delaware), my mom and I were able to listen to the whole thing before arriving home. My immediate favorites were “Stay Stay Stay” and “All Too Well,” because “Stay Stay Stay” made me smile and “All Too Well” made me cry. “I Knew You Were Trouble” incited a kind of dangerous, angsty feeling that I couldn’t get enough of; “Holy Ground” made me feel reflective and powerful. I had no idea that these same songs, recorded anew, would incite new emotions within me nine years later (except “All Too Well,” which still makes me cry—some things never change).
My obsession with Swift in 2012 was unparalleled, and I can now confidently call it what it was: a crush. My walls were covered in magazine cutouts of Swift’s face, I had all of her CDs, and I had decoded every single hidden message in the lyrics of the booklets that came with each album. I looked forward to the day of the release of “Red” with as much anticipation as someone looks forward to, say, their wedding day. I was nervous—what if I didn’t like it as much as the other albums? What if the whole thing was a disaster? How could anything live up to “Speak Now?” I agonized over these questions. Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. The album was near perfect.
At home, the disk went into my pink Hello Kitty CD player and didn’t leave for months. Unlike many of my much cooler peers, I wasn’t yet allowed to have a phone or an iPod. I would sit in my room with the CD player churning loudly, the voice of 22-year-old Swift a balm in the background of whatever I was doing. She helped me through my math homework, she accompanied me while I journaled, and she got me through several crying sessions (being a 13-year-old girl is hard). The following summer, my older brother and I went to the“Red” tour in Toronto. It was my first concert and I was dazzled by the whole scene. I felt like I had access to some greater dimension of coolness; my older sister had let me wear her favorite concert-going shirt and I’d cuffed my jeans. As Swift sang to the crowd, I was so awed by her confidence, the way she was single-handedly able to captivate thousands of people.
Though at 13, I’d obviously never experienced heartbreak, a serious relationship, or the experience of being a young adult, the lyrics of the songs in “Red” resonated with me, along with an enormous swath of teenage girls, not to mention almost all other demographics. Being 13 years old, at least for me, was an experience rife with emotion, confusion, and feelings of loss, especially as the imperfections of the world around me came into focus. Being 13 was the first time I experienced the true feelings of sadness and anxiety that come with the transition to adolescence and later, adulthood. At 13, which incidentally happens to be Swift’s lucky number, you’re at a crossroads, staring down the barrel of immense change. At 22, the same age as Swift was when “Red” came out, you’re also at a crossroads: in a lot of cases, it’s the time when you are forced to do some serious thinking about the trajectory of your life. And it turns out that these formative ages have a lot in common, especially when you apply them to“Red.” You can apply “Loving him was like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street,” to a serious relationship you have in your early twenties, or you could apply it to the dismay you feel in seventh grade when you know your crush is too cool to like you back. The meandering, despondent tone of “All Too Well” can mirror grief and longing of all kinds: a longing for an old lover, longing for a childhood you seem to have lost, and as a side note, there’s no better way to describe a middle school mean girl than “casually cruel in the name of being honest.”
Swift universalizes heartbreak so brilliantly: anger, shame, fear, relief, love, and joy are not just emotions that one feels when their heart is broken by a romantic interest or lover, but ones people feel when their hearts are broken in all kinds of ways. Being 13 felt like a series of heartbreaks as I grieved over a happier and simpler version of my childhood and looked with fear and anxiety at the future. As girls and women, we are told that our emotions are too much and that we need to tuck them away. Swift’s normalization of feeling your feelings and being unashamed of them, no matter how seemingly dramatic or crazy or wistful they might be, was a powerful message to me back then, and it remains so now. Swift also taught me the power of channeling your feelings into art, particularly through writing.
I’m 22 now (yes, my friends and I did dance to “22” on my birthday; yes, listening to the lyrics at age 22 is delightfully relatable), and“Red (Taylor’s Version)” just came out. The new album is longer and more expansive: “All Too Well” was re-released as a ten-minute version, in which Swift really drives home and expands upon some of the central emotions of the original song (“And I was never good at telling jokes but the punch line goes / I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age” is a line that packs a punch), and several new, delectable additions are sprinkled at the end of the album.
However, the thing that draws me the most to the album is the way Swift’s 31-year-old voice sounds singing the songs she once sang at 22. The songs are imbued with a new maturity, a new perspective, and a kind of hauntedness as she sings the lyrics she wrote a decade or more ago. Swift’s mature voice is a physical manifestation of the experience of listening to the original “Red” nearly ten years after it first came out: the lyrics have new meaning and significance to my 22-year-old ears, but the experience of listening to the songs at 13 will forever be meaningful to me. There’s a sweetness with which Swift handles the words of her younger self, and this care is inspiring and soothing. When I look back at my 13-year-old self, I’m always tempted to cringe, to criticize my wrongdoings. But Swift compels us to treat our younger selves with more care. She compels us to not necessarily move on from what our life was a decade ago, but rather to constantly be rewriting it and reclaiming it. At 22, Swift probably hadn’t grasped the depth of what her clearly intense, albeit brief relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, a much older man, meant. At 31, though, she understands it a little more. The narrative of the song, which was already rich, unravels even more into something holistic and wonderful, and heartbreaking. I haven’t stopped listening to it; can you tell?
Swift has reclaimed her agency in re-recording this album. She has spent most of her career under misogynistic scrutiny, and the “Taylor’s Version” songs are a direct response to this. As Ella Dawson ’14 wrote in an article on her Patreon page,
“A woman who writes about the way she is treated, and who dares to quote men when they say something shitty, is public enemy number one. Being unafraid to put pen to paper can be a feminist act, a rebellion.”
Swift has always been unafraid (see: Fearless), but her recent career moves have demonstrated even more profound bravery. The ten-minute “All Too Well” is a perfect example—she was told originally that the song was too long, too much, that it needed to be cut down, shrunken. By releasing the original version, Swift allows herself to be as verbose, as profane, as emotional, as imperfect as she wants, because she is now recording on her own terms, and she can take up as much space as she likes. I like to think that that’s what getting older is all about. At age 22, you understand things a little better than when you were 13. And at 31, you understand things a little better than you did when you were 22.
I’m hoping for a 15-minute version of “All Too Well” in 2031, but for now, I’ll be thanking Swift for the ways she helped and continues to help me, and so many others, grow up and appreciate the versions of ourselves that exist now and have existed in the past.
Annie Roach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.