Taylor Swift emerged in 2006 as a 16-year-old wunderkind with a gift for articulating all the intimacies and humiliations of falling in love. But throughout her early career, her image was predicated on her youthful innocence as much as her outsized wisdom. Swift “does not drink or swear or flash cleavage,” remarked a profile from around the time of her third studio album, Speak Now—a point that stood in opposition to peers like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, who were quick to jettison their tween-friendly branding. Swift seemed to take up the mantle of youth role model with pride. Though she was careful to never disparage anyone directly, she told The New Yorker in 2010, “I don’t feel completely overcome by the relentless desire to put out a dark and sexy ‘I’m grown up now’ album.”
Speak Now, released in 2010, emerged at an inflection point in Swift’s life. She had recently turned 20 and moved out of her parents’ home, had toured the world, and, as evidenced by gut-wrenching tracks like “Dear John” and “Last Kiss,” had experienced heartbreak that shook her sense of emotional security. On this album, she struggles to balance her love of fantasy and escapism with her new responsibilities. Throughout Speak Now, she asks, How do you believe in fairytales and also acknowledge the depth of your pain?
As with her previous re-recordings of early work, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) remains largely faithful to the arrangements and lyrics of the original. But Swift is not the same singer she was at 20. In more recent material, her starry-eyed optimism has been replaced with nuance and caution. She’s learned to voice regret as much as rage; in songs like Lover’s “Death by a Thousand Cuts” and Reputation’s “Dress,” she drinks and allows her sexual fantasies to run wild. On the new recordings of old Speak Now songs, her maturity is revealed not through the words themselves, but how she chooses to deliver them. The angry songs are presented with a sigh rather than a vindictive grin. The songs about heartache are sung carefully and patiently. It feels less like she’s sending a message to any particular ex than she is conveying a generalized weariness about how draining young adulthood can be.
Written between the ages of 18 and 20, the original tracks on Speak Now depict Swift clinging to her girlhood like someone trying to hold water in their palms. “Never Grow Up,” an acoustic ballad, was ostensibly written for young female fans. But by the end the song reveals itself as a means of mourning her past self. She promises the impossible: that no one will ever leave her deserted, that there will be no pain in her life. “Innocent,” a song about forgiving someone who wronged her, evokes the subject’s childhood—chasing fireflies, relying on someone bigger to get things off the shelf—in order to find something worth redeeming in them. Thumping rocker “Long Live” uses images of castles and dragons to celebrate the larger-than-life experience of touring with her band. It’s full of love but sung in the past tense, as if to memorialize the moment while it was still happening. Hearing these songs on Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), there’s less fear and more gentleness. Losing some of that teenage angst makes the songs less immediately enthralling: In the originals’ jagged inhales, sneered words, and ad-libbed laughter, you could hear how deeply these stories affected their author. Hearing her sing them now, they sound slightly anonymous, more like lullabies and folk songs than expressions of pressing concern.
Swift’s youthful naivete peeks through in the way she sings about other women. In her professional life, she had benefited—however passively—from comparisons to women deemed less wholesome and pure. And in her songwriting, she depicted them as unworthy rivals and master manipulators. In “Speak Now,” Swift’s narrator disrupts a marriage ceremony in hopes of separating the groom from his snotty, overdressed bride. On “Better Than Revenge,” she chastises a woman who supposedly stole her boyfriend. She later revised the sentiment, saying in 2014, “No one can take someone from you if they don’t want to leave.” Since the announcement of the re-recording, it has been speculated that she might edit the song’s most cutting and criticized lyrics: “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” On Taylor’s Version, this line becomes, “He was a moth to a flame/She was holding the matches.” The change feels half-hearted: Diss tracks aren’t supposed to be respectful. No one listens to “Better Than Revenge” expecting a measured response or nuanced feminist take. The song was satisfying precisely because Swift captured the nearsighted perspective of a teenager; in the attempt to distance herself from that person, she sacrifices resonance for optics.
“Dear John” remains the emotional centerpiece of the album, and one of the most devastating songs Swift has ever written. Across a lonely, warbling guitar lick and patiently unfurling blues-rock arrangement, she details mistreatment from an older partner: his wild oscillations between hot and cold, his ever-moving goal posts. John Mayer, whom the song is ostensibly about, was 32 when he dated a 19-year-old Swift in 2010. The new version, released by Swift at the same age that Mayer was then, is more powerful than ever. It provides a showcase for her deeper vocal range, and the way she enunciates each syllable adds weight to every word. When she belts out his name in the chorus, she sounds completely in control.
Since 2010, Swift has written another song about a torturous relationship she was in at age 19, presumably the same one. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” from last year’s Midnights, reveals the lasting impact of the memory. She wails, “Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first.” It’s colored the way I hear “Dear John” and all of Speak Now: This wasn’t run-of-the-mill teen angst or ego that Swift was singing about back then. It was a coming-of-age moment turned crisis of faith, the kind of experience that reveals people’s capacity to inflict hurt. When you’re a 19-year-old girl curious about the world, it’s often implied that older men with deep eyes and brooding stares should be your teachers. But the lessons they offer are not always the ones you expect. Growing up is learning how to hold that knowledge without giving up hope of finding the pleasure and love you deserve.
Like prior album re-recordings, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) includes a handful of newly released tracks that emerge “from the vault.” Hayley Williams joins for “Castles Crumbling,” which repurposes the same fairytale imagery from “Long Live” to relay her paranoia about a dramatic fall from grace. On “I Can See You,” which sounds more like the inky, lilting trap-pop on Reputation than anything on Speak Now, Swift describes an illicit workplace romance with sultriness and authority that stand apart from the album’s otherwise chaste perspective. On the breezy country-pop song “Foolish One,” Swift reminds herself that she is not the exception to the general rule that if someone is acting disinterested, they probably don’t want to be with you. Just one album prior, she was so confident in her exceptionalism that she re-wrote Romeo and Juliet as a love story starring her. Now, she tempers her romantic fantasies with pragmatism and a sense of jubilant freedom, encouraging a younger self to broaden the scope of her desire.
This re-release doesn’t benefit from the same novelty as Fearless (Taylor’s Version) in 2021, when the endeavor of re-recording her catalog to regain control over her masters felt rare and exciting. And musically, the Speak Now material doesn’t stand up to Red (Taylor’s Version), which presented perhaps her strongest album along with an extended version of fan-favorite “All Too Well” and a number of excellent vault tracks. In recent weeks, news of the latest re-release has been overshadowed by intrigue and minutiae from her current Eras tour. Throughout Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), Swift sometimes mutes the messy adolescent impulses that gave these songs their spark. But elsewhere, she divests from fantasy archetypes—the knight on a white horse, the helpless child—that once limited her. Think of the new Speak Now as a call and response between who she was and who she is: a teenager full of questions about what it means to grow up and an adult woman who’s still turning them over to find new answers.
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