Updating a “pop bible”


1989 (Taylor’s Version) is the latest re-recording that Taylor Swift has put out into the world as part of her quest to own all of the six albums she initially released under Big Machine Records. As the name states, the idea is that these new versions are her versions, not only in the sense that she owns them, but also that she now has the creative freedom to tweak them in ways that feel authentic to her artistry. This includes (usually minor) production changes and – most exciting – the release of songs that were originally written for the album but didn’t make the final cut. She calls them songs “From the Vault”.

1989, originally released in 2014, is Taylor’s first true pop album. Titled after the year that she was born, it symbolises her rebirth as a pop artist, but it is also a nod to the sound of the record, which is heavily inspired by 1980’s synth pop. 

2014 was a time when Taylor had recently moved from Nashville to New York. She was chronically online – very active on Instagram and Tumblr – and had firmly positioned herself as an “it girl”. 1989 was a record-breaking commercial success, and it was extremely well received by critics, making Taylor the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice (she would then go on to break her own record by winning the award again for folklore in 2021). Often called a “pop bible”, it is, to this day, the most awarded pop album in history, with 158 awards.

Nine years later, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) seems to be on a similar path. On the day of release, October 27th, it became Spotify’s most-streamed album in a single day in 2023 so far. Such a feat piggybacks on Taylor’s immense recent success, including her sold-out Eras Tour and accompanying film. Being spotted walking through New York City with Blake Lively as if she were on an episode of Gossip Girl, Taylor seems to be living the best of what 1989 represents.

The record starts the same way it has for the past nine years, with the city girl anthem “Welcome to New York”. Although it needs to be said that the point of the re-recordings is not per se to improve her previous work, Taylor does take on the challenge of fixing what is not broken. This is the most recent album to be re-recorded yet, so the differences in production and sound quality are not as stark as in the re-recorded version of her 2008 (also Grammy Award winner) album Fearless. However, in some of her biggest hits, she does manage to make them sound even more anthemic and big.

Most of the producers of the original version made a comeback in Taylor’s Version (TV). Ryan Tedder and Noel Zancanella do a great job in “Welcome To New York (TV)” and “I Know Places (TV)”, really cleaning up the production and giving space for Taylor’s improved vocals to shine. Of course, the most notable loss was the news that Max Martin would not be returning to produce Taylor’s Version. A few of his tracks, including mega-hit “Style (TV)” (the new version is produced by Taylor and 1989 rookie Christopher Rowe), are left feeling a bit too quiet, too soft, missing some of the strength of the original version. Conversely, in the even bigger hit “Bad Blood (TV)”, the new duo of Swift and Rowe truly shines.

Nonetheless, arguably the crème de la crème of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) is in the five previously unreleased vault tracks. They achieved a special feature which I believe that only the Red (Taylor’s Version) vault had achieved previously, which is to not only include “more of the same” to the album, but to have new songs that truly add to what the record and that period of Taylor’s life and relationships meant to her. 

During 2013-2014, when 1989 was being written, Taylor was front and centre in the media spotlight. She was America’s sweetheart, with a self-titled “good girl faith”. Taylor has since admitted that she sees herself as a “pathological people pleaser”, and this is essential to understand how much of her career decisions were driven by taking in what people say about her and using it to improve her next work and prove them wrong. When she faced some backlash on her singing ability and disbelief that she actually wrote her own songs, she addressed it on Speak Now (2010) by having a completely self-written album. After Red (2012) lost Album of the Year at the 2013 Grammys, she was determined to make her new album better and more sonically cohesive – that is how 1989 was born.

It is very powerful when Taylor’s Version, through the vault tracks, brings out a more unfiltered and real approach to the same stories. Red (TV) (2021) gave us this perspective by having Taylor acknowledge for the first time the nine year age gap between herself and ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal (she was 20, he was 29) and the impact that this power imbalance had in the relationship, with strong lyrics such as “You said if we had been closer in age, maybe it would’ve been fine / And that made me want to die”.

The impact of media probing on her life and her relationships was already a prominent theme in 1989 in songs such as “Blank Space”, “Out of the Woods” and “I Know Places”, but it came as a breath of fresh air that the 1989 (TV) vault tracks bring in new layers to this issue. Although they cover mostly the same topic (namely her romantic relationship with Harry Styles), the five of them have the great “Red vault” feeling of songs that were left out not because they weren’t up to par with the rest, but because of a voice of conscience in the back of her head saying, “maybe it’s better if I don’t say this”.

The 1989 (TV) vault starts out with a song called ‘“Slut!”’. It feels fitting to acknowledge that, along with awards, and New York references, and Victoria’s Secret Angel catwalks, the original 1989 era brought in a lot of slut shaming. Every interview and magazine cover had the same tropes: who is Taylor dating now and who is this new song about – which quickly evolved to: Taylor dates too many people and only writes about boys. Most famously, in 2013, Ellen DeGeneres had a slideshow presentation with photos of men that Taylor collaborated with or sat next to at an award show once and pushed her to disclose which of them she had dated. Taylor made it very clear how uncomfortable she was, but Ellen kept pushing until Taylor cried. This interview has since been taken down from Ellen’s YouTube Channel.

‘“Slut!”’, despite the name and the exclamation mark, turned out to be a slow love song. It talks about how she knows that she will be called a “slut” for going out with a certain guy, but she is so in love with him that it might be worth it. Sonically, it is airy, soft, and sweet, with nods to songs in the original record “Clean” and “This Love”. The parallels continue in the lyrics, bringing back themes related to water and, more specifically, the relationship between love and addiction/alcohol: in ‘“Slut!”’, Taylor sings “Got lovesick all over my bed” and “If I’m gonna be drunk / I might as well be drunk in love”, while, in “Clean”, after the relationship ends, she says that she is “sober” and “finally clean”.

In the second verse, she sings “Everyone wants him, that was my crime”, and the whole idea of a young woman naively falling for a famous, sought-after guy and being slut shamed and condemned worldwide (including by other girls her age, who are para-socially jealous of the relationship) really took me back to Sabrina Carpenter’s “because i liked a boy” (2022). It is a unique feature for two young women to write about their very similar experiences, almost ten years apart, without having heard each other’s song. Taylor has expressed her love for Sabrina’s album emails i can’t send, and has invited her to be the opening act of the Latin American leg of her Eras Tour.

Although ‘“Slut!”’ is pretty and well-written and can maybe be a grower like many of Taylor’s slower songs, it is not the strongest vault track. Taylor has confessed that, back in 2014, she decided between “Blank Space” and ‘“Slut!”’ for the original tracklist (since both songs have similar themes), and there is little need for debate that Taylor chose the right song by putting in “Blank Space” instead.

The second vault track is “Say Don’t Go”, a classic case of an upbeat track paired with devastating lyrics. This one is a definite stand-out in the album, especially for its catchy pop chorus. I can see why it was left out of the original tracklist, since it has a very similar concept to “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, but it is a welcome addition to Taylor’s Version. It brings out more of the angst that Taylor felt by the end of the relationship, of being led on and abandoned. The best part of the song, as is often the case with Ms. Swift, is the bridge, when she confesses “I said, ‘I love you’ / You say nothin’ back”, followed by a heartbreaking moment of silence.

The next track is “Now That We Don’t Talk”, an upbeat open letter to an ex-lover that she does not talk to anymore, but still wonders what is up to. This song is an interesting departure for Taylor, because it does not follow the usual structure of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. Instead, it is her shortest song to date and, though it does have an identifiable chorus melodically, the lyrics change throughout parts. The outro (which functions more like a classic Taylor Swift bridge) is a fun, relatable rant about the men-oriented spaces and hobbies that women put up with in relationships to please their significant other. In this sense, no longer having to be in these spaces becomes a silver lining when the relationship ends.

Moving on to “Suburban Legends”, it is a solid track by itself, but it does not stand out either in 1989 (TV) nor in Taylor’s discography. Many of the ideas present in this song were since re-used and updated by Taylor in future albums (which makes sense, since she never planned to release the vault tracks in the first place). The melodic lines in the verses are similar to Midnights’ “Mastermind” (2022), and the lyrical parallels with school dynamics were used in a more interesting way in Lover’s “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” (2019). “Suburban Legends” is very heavy on analogies, and some of them do not feel effortless – instead, lines like “I let it slide like a hose on a slippery plastic summer” sound like they were forcefully shoved into the song until they fit (I am painfully aware that I am using an analogy to criticise another analogy).

The song’s first highlight is the line ‘You kissed me in a way that’s gonna screw me up forever,’ which, if released in 2014, might have rivalled the popularity of ‘Blank Space’s’ line ‘Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream’ on Tumblr. The second highlight is, of course, the bridge, which is melodically beautiful and has some of the song’s most interesting lyrics, including “I broke my own heart ’cause you were too polite to do it”. Overall, “Suburban Legends” is a good song, but it feels the most unnecessary in light of Taylor’s discography.

1989 (Taylor’s Version) closes with the appropriately titled “Is It Over Now?”. It could also be named “Is It the Best Vault Track?”, and the answer would be yes. “Is It Over Now?” finds the best qualities of two songs in the original tracklist, “Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would”, and pairs them with a bluntness and honesty that 2014 Taylor would be crucified for. It tells the story of a love that you are not sure if is over or not, and you are both trying to move on while simultaneously clinging back to each other. Like “Say Don’t Go”, the chorus is very catchy and very recognisable. 

I can see why she did not include it in the tracklist, since it is an actual brainchild of two other songs – there are clear melodic and lyrical parallels, especially with “Out of the Woods”. The beginning of both songs are so similar that an untrained ear can struggle to tell them apart, and they reference the same events in specific ways (namely, the snowmobile accident that Taylor and Harry Styles were involved in back in 2012). Both tracks also have the same panicky, anxiety inducing questioning (“Are we out of the woods yet?” and “Is it over now?”, the songs repeat again and again). However, it is exactly this fourth wall breaking, purposeful self-referencing that makes “Is It Over Now?” a gem. It is like having a painter make a collage of two of their most famous works, which perfectly encapsulates the nostalgia aspect of the re-recordings for fans.

In the bridge, Taylor mentions “Only rumours about my hips and thighs / And my whispered sighs”, which could well be a reference to the body shaming that she faced in this period and the eating disorder that she developed as a result, especially because she seems to purposefully pronounce “sighs” as a double meaning for “size”. The first time that she talked about her disorder was six years later, on her Netflix documentary Miss Americana (2020), where she mentioned that the 1989 era was when this aspect of her mental health became quite rough.

To sum up, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) has definitely lived up to the honours of the original album, especially through Taylor’s more mature and improved vocals, but also through the overall quality of the production and mixing. It gave Taylor (and her fans) the opportunity to relive a quintessential era of her life and career, and to drive parallels to where she is now. The vault tracks are some of the most impressive yet out of the four re-recordings that she has released, and they are sure to become coveted “surprise songs” in the next leg of Taylor’s record-breaking Eras Tour.

by Gabriela Molina

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