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Unveiling ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’: A fresh look at Taylor Swift’s transformative musical work

by Sophia Chen
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Speak Now (Taylor's Version)

In 2010, following her triumph as a Grammy winner, Taylor Swift introduced “Speak Now,” her third studio collection and her first that had no co-written tracks.

Her initial works, the 2006 self-titled debut and 2008’s “Fearless,” stirred a mix of praise and critique for her audacious choruses and sharp lyrical style. Critics maintained that while these country-pop songs were masterpieces, they could not have possibly been crafted by a teenage pop star. Swift rebutted these doubts with “Speak Now,” an album that surfaced just before her transition from country music’s rising star to pop’s refreshing new talent.

The album acted as an intimate account of her budding fame and future career aspirations. Now, after 13 years, it has been re-released. “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” launched on Friday, is the third of six albums Swift plans to re-record. Initiated in response to music manager Scooter Braun selling her early catalogue, the Taylor’s Version albums embody Swift’s endeavor to have authority over her own music — an appropriate philosophy for “Speak Now,” an album entirely constructed from her own thoughts and emotions.

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In the lead up to “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” The Big Big News engaged Taylor Swift experts to examine the various aspects of the album that listeners can and should reconsider.

JOURNEY FROM YOUTH TO MATURITY

“Enchanted” was the working title of the album that eventually became “Speak Now,” named after a potent ballad from the collection. The narrative is that Swift’s then label president, Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta, suggested she evolve beyond whimsical and fairytale imagery, as she was stepping into her 20s and this record deserved a more adult title.

The shift from youth to maturity forms an intriguing context for this album: Primarily written between the ages of 18 and 20, and released when she was 21, “Speak Now” is a series of songs at a crossroads — of adulthood, fame, and claiming ownership while still dealing with issues that preoccupy young adults, such as romantic infatuations (“Superman,” “Sparks Fly”) and melancholic breakups (“Back to December,” “If This Was a Movie”).

“These songs resonate with youthful emotions,” states musicologist Lily Hirsch, author of “Can’t Stop the Grrrls: Confronting Sexist Labels in Music from Ariana Grande to Yoko Ono.” “The entire world revolves around these romantic connections, which is so characteristic of that age. Hence, it’s intriguing to hear the re-recordings deliver a more mature interpretation of those early preoccupations.”

Elizabeth Scala, who conducts a course on Taylor Swift’s music at the University of Texas at Austin, uses it as a starting point for literary studies and research methods.

Scala believes the lyrical content of ‘Speak Now’ reflects Swift’s recognition that, at the age of 18, her life experience was not sufficient to create a completely autobiographical work, but she would leverage her readings and knowledge gathered from others to “craft beautiful, cohesive narratives out of the disorder and inaccuracy of our recollections.”

ADDRESSING CRITICS AND EMBRACING FAME

A year after Kanye West disrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, “Speak Now” marked Swift’s career phase where she began utilizing her celebrity status to reflect on her personal life.

“Mean,” a critique of a rock critic, is a banjo-infused discourse on antagonism, while the blues-tinged “Dear John” focuses on a young woman’s turbulent relationship with an older man.

Hirsch comments on “Dear John” and “Mean,” saying, “Insults are common in music, and men don’t receive the same backlash for it. There’s a double standard where women are considered ‘catty’ when they challenge inappropriate behavior, like in ‘Dear John.’”

Swift fans often indulge in guessing the real-life inspirations behind her songs. However, Scala thinks “the least interesting way to approach Taylor Swift is through her biography.”

In a recent concert in Minneapolis, Swift seemed to share this sentiment, performing “Dear John” live for the first time in over a decade after a preamble:

“I’m 33 years old. I don’t care about anything that happened to me when I was 19 except the songs I wrote and the memories we made together. So, I’m telling you, I’m not releasing this album so you should feel obligated to defend me on the internet against someone you suspect I wrote a song about a billion years ago.”

Scala finds a continuity between this album and its successors, with “Dear John” seen as a precursor to “All Too Well” and “Mean” hinting at “Blank Space,” a track that satirizes her portrayal in the media.

REWITING THE PAST

A significant part of the conversation around the re-recording of “Speak Now” has focused on “Better Than Revenge,” a pop-punk track that criticizes another woman rather than the man who wronged them both. It echoes both musically and thematically Paramore’s 2007 pop-rock hit “Misery Business,” a similar song about the same subject. (In the re-released album, Paramore’s lead singer Hayley Williams lends her vocals to an unreleased track, “Castles Crumbling.”)

In the original chorus of “Better Than Revenge,” Swift sings, “She’s an actress / She’s better known for the things she does on the mattress,” a rare misstep in Swift’s otherwise poetically-tinged career. In the 2023 version of “Better Than Revenge,” the lyrics are rewritten as “He was a moth to the flame / She was holding the matches.”

Hirsch quickly points out that Swift has also been a victim of sexist vilification, although she acknowledges the slut-shaming rhetoric prevalent in 2010 movies and shows. Swift’s modification of the song in her re-recording is part of a trend of pop stars revising offensive lyrics, with artists like Lizzo and Beyoncé having done the same recently.

Swift’s ownership of her work is the ultimate goal of these re-recordings, particularly for “Speak Now,” an album completely penned by her and celebrated for its dismissive attitude towards manipulative male characters and poetic acknowledgment of girlhood.

The move to reclaim her masters symbolizes Swift’s intent to regain control, says Hirsch. “What it communicates is powerful: we all have agency, we don’t have to passively accept circumstances, especially when they involve our own voice.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)

Why did Taylor Swift re-record ‘Speak Now’?

Taylor Swift re-recorded ‘Speak Now’ as part of her larger effort to regain control over her early discography. This decision came about following the sale of her initial catalog by music manager Scooter Braun.

What changes were made in the ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’?

In the re-recorded ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’, Swift brings a more mature voice to her earlier preoccupations. There are also alterations in some lyrics like in the song “Better Than Revenge”.

How do the re-recordings reflect on Taylor Swift’s growth as an artist?

The re-recordings reflect Swift’s growth as she lends a more mature perspective to her younger self’s concerns. Her voice has evolved, and her lyrical missteps are addressed, adding a depth to her original work.

What is the significance of ‘Speak Now’ in Taylor Swift’s discography?

‘Speak Now’ holds special significance in Swift’s discography as it was her first album without any songwriting collaborations. The album also marked Swift’s transition from a country to pop artist.

Why is ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’ considered an exercise in artistic autonomy?

‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’ represents Swift’s efforts to regain control over her own songs and how they are used. The re-recording process has been seen as a move toward artistic autonomy.

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