Taylor Swift Knew Everything When She Was Young

A blended image of the album covers for 'Fearless' and 'Fearless (Taylor's Version)'
Republic Records / Big Machine Records / The Atlantic

At 18, Taylor Swift had some regrets. Across her smash second album, Fearless, Swift sang about moments she wanted to relive and, in some cases, rewrite. “Wish you could go back / And tell yourself what you know now,” she said on “15,” a reminiscence about her freshman year of high school. On “White Horse,” she chided, “Stupid girl, I should’ve known,” as she thought back to a breakup. The album captured the act of painting over naïveté with experience—a common process in adolescence, when a couple of months of aging can feel like a lifetime of education.

The Taylor Swift who’s now 31 does not sound like she wants to change her past. Her new rerecording of Fearless, titled Fearless (Taylor’s Version), simply affirms who she was in 2008. Her voice has deepened, she sometimes emphasizes fresh syllables, and her team has tweaked some instrumentation and sonic mixing, but the compositions are fundamentally the same. If notes, lyrics, or tempos have shifted, you can isolate how only with careful use of the pause button. “You Belong With Me” remains one of the best songs in pop history, and the pre-chorus simile in “Breathe” is still kind of clunky. Swift’s faithfulness to her teenage vision is unexpectedly moving. Think back to something you expended a lot of effort on 13 years ago. Does it make you cringe? She’s telling you to go easier on your past self.

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The most obvious reason for Swift’s fidelity to the original Fearless is business. In 2019, Scott Borchetta, the CEO of her previous record label, sold the master recordings of her first six albums to Scooter Braun, a powerful talent manager whom Swift has clashed with. Swift found that deal to be a betrayal, and she broadcast her displeasure on social media. Braun has since resold the masters to a third party, but Swift has forged ahead with a plan to devalue her old tracks by releasing new versions of them. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the first album to come out of that effort. Fans, radio DJs, TV producers, and anyone else who wants to use old Swift songs now have a choice of which versions to pick. By declining to substantively tweak her music, Swift minimizes the role of aesthetic preference in that decision. The question becomes: Do you support the person who sings and writes the songs you enjoy, or do you support her enemies?

In a deeper way, though, Swift’s business disputes put Fearless in a new light—and not the golden-tinged one of the new version’s cover photo. For years, Swift’s public narrative was closely tied to Borchetta, the Nashville exec who signed Swift to his small indie label, Big Machine, when she was only 14. She always said that the final song on Fearless, the triumphant David-beats-Goliath anthem “Change,” was inspired by seeing Borchetta happily sobbing in the audience while she accepted a prize at the Country Music Association Awards. Today, Swift portrays her former patron and mentor as a jerk—someone “for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” as she wrote in 2019. Swift’s vengeful 2020 song “My Tears Ricochet” drew from the Borchetta spat.

Fans may now choose to hear “Change” as being about Swift’s post-Borchetta victories. But the experience of listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) isn’t quite of hearing songs in a new context. It’s of really appreciating the context in which they were created—by a teen girl who’d, in the previous few years, had to grow up a lot. In the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, Swift said that she felt as though her psychology was “frozen” at the age she became famous. Fearless captured the moment of that freezing, when she was flush with early-career success but also beginning to understand the challenges of growing up, dating, and simply existing in the public eye. It captured her, in other words, trying to figure out how to hold on to joy while also defending herself against harm.

Fearless can thus be heard as an album-long meditation on betrayal, a theme that complements its more blatant motif of infatuation. On almost every song, Swift sings of exposing her heart to someone who then cherishes that vulnerability (as on the tingly, gushing “Love Story”) or dishonors it (as on the mosh-through-the-pain delight of “Forever & Always”). Unhappy endings peek out more often than the cheery banjos might suggest. “This ain’t a fairy tale,” she sings on “White Horse,” a reality check on an album full of fairy-tale scenes. By celebrating rom-com fantasy—kisses in the rain, Romeo and Juliet thwarting tragedy—while also chronicling romantic disappointments, Swift conveyed the mature notion that even if dreams don’t always come true, they’re still worth dreaming. That wary optimism, she explained in the liner notes, was what the word fearless meant to her.

The complexity of that message got lost in Swift’s public narrative for a while. She showed up to the 2009 VMAs in a horse-drawn carriage; she became a meme for flashing all-too-earnest looks of surprise at good news. Fearless is a strong pop album, but the repetitiousness of its imagery and sound contributed to the caricature-like view that many people had of Swift. The only attempt Fearless (Taylor’s Version) makes to mix up the vibe comes on six previously unreleased cuts that Swift rerecorded with collaborators from 2020’s Folklore and Evermore. Those albums deliberately complicated every preconception that listeners had about Swift, and they had a gauzy, elegant sound that now extends to these unearthed tracks. Even so, Fearless’s concise melodic punch comes through—as does its blend of uplift and realism.

The best Fearless (Taylor’s Version) “from the vault” song is the closing track, “Bye Bye Baby,” which opens, “It wasn’t just like a movie,” and wends its way to Swift saying farewell to “everything I thought was on my side.” With its swaying groove and laid-back aura, it can’t help but sound like an unbothered kiss-off to Borchetta and his allies. Yet online, you can find a demo of the song that’s been kicked around for more than a decade. Was Swift prescient about the ties she’d eventually have to cut? Or did she develop, early on, the kind of resilience that helps explain her enduring success? The Folklore song “Cardigan” already answered that question with this refrain: “I knew everything when I was young.” She really did.