Taylor Swift is having a better lockdown than any of us

Something about the great pause gripping the world has brought out the best in her

July 2020 was a red-letter month for Taylor Swift. On the 24th, giving fans just a few hours notice, she released her eighth album, Folklore. A secretly-recorded homage to folk rock and indie pop, it was quickly heralded one of the great lockdown long-players. But last summer held an additional significance for the singer. It marked the 10th anniversary of Swift’s first stadium concert at 60,000-capacity Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

She was just 21 at the time of the Foxborough show and still depicted in the media as a furnisher of starry-eyed country ditties to easily-impressed teens. Back then, nobody would have considered Swift one of the most important artists of her generation. Much less one who would go on to move effortlessly between pop and alternative music. The sense coming from critics was that it might all be over in a few records for the squeaky-clean upper-middle class 20-something from Nashville. From Debbie Gibson to Britney Spears, that is how it went for young women in pop.

Swift is perceived in a very different light today. And now, less than a year after Folklore, and four months on from its companion release, Evermore, she rewinds time and revisits the Taylor Swift of that Foxborough show. April 9th sees Swift issue a newly recorded version of her second album, Fearless. It is a reminder that, if some of us are having better lockdowns than others, Swift is having the most productive one of all. Something about the great pause gripping the world has brought out the best in her.

Fearless (Taylor's Version) is part of an epic act of reclamation by Swift to reassert ownership over her back catalogue after it was acquired by  Scooter Braun

Originally released in November 2008, Fearless gave Swift her first number one in the United States. It also saw off Beyoncé’s I Am . . . Sasha Fierce and Lady Gaga’s The Fame to win the album of the year Grammy. Yet she stakes a different claim with the new recording. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is part of an epic act of reclamation by Swift, who last year announced plans to recommit to tape her studio long plays “one through five”.

She is doing so to reassert ownership over her back catalogue after it was acquired by Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun in a $330 million deal with Big Machine, the Nashville label to which Swift signed when she was 16 (which Braun later sold to a holding company).

So Fearless (Taylor’s Version) isn’t an exercise in nostalgia by a 31-year-old mega-star reconnecting with her more vulnerable teen self. It is Swift taking control of a negative situation – the loss of her catalogue – and turning it into a win (one condition of her new deal with Universal is that she owns all her master tapes). Included in the 26 tracks will be new “from the vault” recordings of previously unreleased material from the Fearless sessions. The first of those, a duet with country star Maren Morris entitled You All Over Me, came out in late March.

“She had a very productive lockdown when the rest of us were baking banana bread,” says RTÉ 2FM radio presenter Tracy Clifford.

“She must be the sort of artist where music is just her daily routine. It’s not a struggle for her. It would be a struggle for her if she didn’t write. She writes about everything that has been happening in her life. Her whole Reputation album was about her reputation being on the line after she was called a snake by the Kardashians.

“She made art out of that whole controversy. And when she was in a relationship with Calvin Harris, one of his big hits was This Is What You Came For with Rihanna. She [Swift] wrote that. That’s her voice on the hook, not Rihanna’s. Everything she touches she has to turn into music.”

Folklore was especially extraordinary, blending the shaggy cardigan folk rock of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National with Swift’s diamond-cut melodic sensibility. For many of us unmoored by lockdown and other personal circumstances, it was more than an album. It served as a coping mechanism through the bleakest summer in living memory.

Just so nobody missed what she was aiming for with the project, she went so far as to recruit the actual Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner to work with her. And then, because she and producer Dessner were on a streak, they did it all again in December with Evermore, extrovert twin to the inward-gazing Folklore.

Some might argue Evermore was perhaps even superior to Folklore. Lighter on the hand-made sweaters and all in on the hooks, it featured a full-scale National duet and a collaboration with all-sister trio Haim. And then, seemingly without taking a breather, Swift has gone on to recast Fearless as something more stripped down and grown up.

By rerecording her albums Taylor is not only regaining control of her music, but she is setting an important precedent for other artists and record labels

An appetite-whetter is already out in the form of a new version of the 2009 single Love Story – in which Swift retells Romeo and Juliet but gives it a happy ending. The re-do features the track’s original fiddle player Jonathan Yudkin and backing vocalist Caitlin Evanson, with Swift explaining: “It was really important to me to have my band who have toured with and shared a stage with for so many years playing on the record.”

“By rerecording her albums Taylor is not only regaining control of her music, but she is setting an important precedent for other artists and record labels, and setting in motion important conversations over artists’ rights,” says Dr Andrew Mooney, a Swift superfan from Dublin who last August received a hand-written letter from the singer congratulating him on completing his PhD.

“Taylor Swift has been very vocal about her personal battle to own her own music and, as a long-time fan, this is such a long-awaited and powerful moment. I can’t wait to re-experience all of her older music once again.”

Swift may appear to have had one of those rare fairytale careers in which early commercial success was followed by critical acclaim (Folklore was named a top five LP of the year by everyone from The Irish Times to the New York Times).

But in pop, as in life, there is, of course, no such thing as a true fairytale. And even taking into account her privileged upbringing as the child of wealthy parents (her father is a former Merrill Lynch stockbroker), Swift has had to endure huge quantities of vitriol and misogyny.

“My entire moral code as a kid and now . . . is a need to be thought of as good,” said Swift in Lana Wilson’s 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana. She would learn the hard way that not everyone saw the world in the same terms.

I went backstage and cried, and then I had to stop crying and perform five minutes later

The first significant setback came at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards in New York, at which she blinked away tears as Kanye West grabbed the microphone and declared Beyoncé should have won best female video instead of Swift. In the space of 30 seconds, you could see all of the self-belief drain out of her. She looked like a tiny rabbit caught in the world’s brightest, cruellest headlights.

“When the crowd started booing, I thought they were booing because they also believed I didn’t deserve the award. That’s where the hurt came from,” Swift later told GQ magazine. “I went backstage and cried, and then I had to stop crying and perform five minutes later.”

Years afterwards, the Kanye feud would heat up again amid claims and counterclaims as to whether Swift had okayed the lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex” on his album Life of Pablo (incidentally West’s last great record). Swift said that West had played her the line but not the following one, “I made that b**ch famous.” Her reward was a shade-throwing Instagram by Kanye’s then wife, Kim Kardashian, that declared, “Wait it’s legit national snaked?”

Snake emojis had already started to pop up on anti-Swift social media after she and her ex Calvin Harris had a public falling out. Now if felt the whole world was taking the hiss. At one point, #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty was trending globally.

Yet much like the new recording of Fearless, Swift’s response was to claim ownership of the hate by incorporating giant inflatable snakes on her Reputation tour (which she brought to Croke Park for two nights in June 2018). She had already pushed back with the single Look What You Made Me Do, which drew a bead directly on Kardashian. “Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time,” she sang. “I got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.”

“Similar to Britney Spears, Taylor Swift has been an ongoing victim of everything from sl*t shaming to being publicly branded a liar and a snake, with #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trending number one worldwide in 2016,” says Mooney. “However, Swift has become an expert at reclaiming her own narrative, often through her music, as demonstrated by [Reputation] which was a direct response to both the media’s portrayal of her and Kanye West’s explicit mention of her in his own music.

“By presenting her own side of the story, Swift called out the behaviour and double standards she has been subject to for more than a decade, something which was both refreshingly relatable and helped to rebuild her fanbase,” he continues. “This is also mirrored in her recent battle to reclaim the rights to her own music from a media holding company, highlighting even bigger issues in the music industry and how vulnerable artists can be.”

There is an argument that as the world shut down so the impetus on Swift to be “good” has diminished. Touring is off the agenda. And there is no pressure to connect with fans by hosting listening parties or flying them to secret playback sessions. That has left space just for Swift and her art. And with Folklore, Evermore and the new “Taylor cut” of Fearless, she has proved that, for all the noise and drama in her career, it is peace and quiet that perhaps fit her best.

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is released on April 9th

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