Taylor Swift Misses the Old Taylor Swift, Too

A stylized, black-and-white photo of Taylor Swift singing into a microphone
Emma McIntyre / AMA2019 / Getty / The Atlantic

When Taylor Swift, the pandemic’s most productive pop star, announced that she’d be re-recording her albums in a push for ownership over her work, the venture sounded risky. Swift cast her decision as both a personal vendetta against the music executive Scooter Braun and a moralistic stand against the industry’s treatment of artists. But at face value, re-recordings seem to offer little to look forward to for listeners. Ostensibly, these tracks are near-identical to the masters, with the same lyrics and production.

Yet “Love Story (Taylor’s Version),” her first re-recorded track, is no mere copy of the 2008 single that helped launch her to her first Album of the Year Grammy. Swift’s voice at 31 is much richer. Her tone is more controlled, her staccato more precise. She sings the name “Romeo” at one point with a cheeky clip—“Rome-ee-oh”—that suggests the “involuntary smile” on her face that she described in her note announcing the release of the new version of Fearless. Made with the same collaborators she used on the first Fearless, the song works in conversation with Swift’s original recording. If 19-year-old Swift’s eager, breathless vocals captured that thoroughly teenage sensation of fantasizing over a new crush, the older Swift conjures a mature, amused wistfulness. It’s as if the artist is reminiscing about writing the song with a fondness for her younger self’s melodramatic tendencies. She’s not making a passionate plea; she’s warmly recalling a memory.

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The re-recording, which has already topped the U.S. iTunes chart, certainly marks another instance of pop culture’s obsession with nostalgia paying off. Many similar industry efforts—TV reboots, extensions of film franchises, covers of childhood favorites—service fans through cameos and casual references without meaningfully considering the original work’s impact. But Swift, through her stronger vocals, engages with her younger self, scrutinizing her lyrics. She joins in on the act of being a Taylor Swift fan.

And Swift, after all, is a master at knowing her fans. She lurks on social media, sends them holiday gifts, and rewards them on tour by playing deep cuts and mashups, reinterpreting the songs she wrote years earlier as codas to the diaristic lyrics she’s written since. She’s carried that intimacy into the rollout of her re-recordings: In packaging the new tracks not only as a business decision, but also as a chance to right a moral wrong, she mobilized her fans. In transparently describing her desperation, she made them feel like they could help.

These moves have culminated in the reframing of “Love Story,” which is now a love letter to her fans. The lyric video features her old photos with meet-and-greet attendees and candid vlog footage from the time of Fearless’s release. The new album art mimics the original cover, Swift with her eyes closed and hair whipping across the frame. The announcement letter included a secret message in capitalized letters, just like the ones she hid in the liner notes of early albums. This re-recording, she’s making vehemently clear, is not a simple throwback. It’s a shared appreciation: You know that old Taylor she once declared dead? She misses her too.

Swift’s next albums on deck for re-recording may be harder to reimagine through her new, grown-up gaze. After 2008 come trickier narratives—those she didn’t want to be a part of and those she created—that are perhaps more resistant to redefinition. But in the updated “Love Story,” she has successfully deployed a potent nostalgia that, like the lyrics to her best songs, reshapes time. The sentimentality of her re-recorded version comes not only from remembering a specific moment, but also from reflecting on the distance between that one moment and, well, now.

Indeed, “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” surprised me with its ability to extract a memory I’d long forgotten. As the chorus played, I recalled a friend in high school who had painstakingly held an audio recorder to the radio, waiting to commit to tape the line from the original “Love Story” where Swift pleads, “It’s a love story, baby, just say yes.” He planned to use the recording to ask his crush to prom, and I remember thinking this was the pinnacle of romance. (It worked, by the way.) Listening to the new version, with its sage, winking tone, made me feel an affection for my younger, more naive self, and a gratitude for the growth since. Any cheap nostalgia play can conjure a fuzzy burst of pleasant memories. But Swift, in this re-recording, merges those memories with the present.