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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.
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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.