Why Can't I Connect with Taylor Swift's 'Red'?
For nine years I've been determined to understand why Taylor Swift's fourth album is such a fan favorite. With the rerecorded 'Red (Taylor's Version)' out today, I'm admittedly still struggling
I should be celebrating today. I want to be! I feel like I owe it to myself to be experiencing the same level of elation and nostalgia and heartbreak and sadness and glee that seemingly every other Swiftie on the planet is experiencing today upon the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), the second in Taylor Swift’s series of re-recordings of her immense, heady discography that allows her to legally reclaim the rights to her own master recordings after Public Enemy #1 Scooter Braun purchased Swift’s entire catalog from her former label head, Scott Borchetta, when Braun acquired Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, publishers of Swift’s first six albums. This is Taylor Swift’s fourth album-length release in a year and a half, following the rerecording of her breakthrough second album Fearless, which was released in April. And while the release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) felt like a sweet and welcome nod to the past during a moment when we all could use a little time to reminisce, Red (Taylor’s Version) feels much more like an event, the classic Taylor Swift album release day excitement crackling through pop culture’s air with unmistakeable electricity. In the nine years since the release of the original Red, the record has become epic—a fan-favorite in Swift’s discography, the epitome of Christian Girl Autumn vibes; for so many, it’s the record that ushers in plaid patterns, long coats, sweaters, and maple lattes simply because it was released in late October 2012 when the cultural hivemind was so permeable that one effective autumnal moodboard on Tumblr could be enough to inform the way we experience the season forevermore.
But for me, there was always a disconnect between Red (and all of its seasonal hype) and my own perception and excitement for the record. I became a Swiftie in 2009 when I was 14 years old and couldn’t drive, resulting in me having to be carted around that summer by my sister, who was obsessed with Fearless and refused to remove it from her car’s CD player at my behest. Through that forced sonic waterboarding, if you will, I began to understand the magic of Taylor Swift’s songwriting and artistry. Here was a girl who felt and wrote so deeply at such a young age, managing to capture the world-ending melodrama of heartbreak with equal parts earnestness and endearing cringe. It was impossible not to be won over by that record, and my love affair with Swift’s music was only bolstered by the following year’s release of Speak Now, perhaps my personal favorite Taylor Swift record, which I sped to Target to buy after school one Tuesday in tenth grade. Speak Now was—and is—an album that feels almost impossibly thoughtful, its relentless commitment to detail informing the stories in its lyrics in ways that still unfold with a new richness upon each listen. To put it simply: among a career with some incredible highs, it’s Swift’s earliest dabbling in masterclass songwriting.
Two years later, in the fall of 2012, I thought I needed Red more than anything. A new Taylor Swift album was exactly what I wanted to help guide me through a highly confusing chapter in my life. I was freshly a college dropout, leaving a small-town liberal arts college in Minnesota with dreams of moving to New York City after falling for a boy online who lived there and who promptly ghosted me upon the first autumn leaves falling. I was lost, completely at a standstill after spending a lifetime running on the same steady trajectory as so many other young people: high school into college into career. I had really no idea what to do next, and similarly, I’m not sure Taylor Swift did either. Red was Swift’s first clear, intentional foray into pop, a chance to dip her toe into the cool, tempting waters of the conventional without completely straying from her country roots. She was antsy, ready to break out of the box that country genre sticklers placed her in. At the same time, she was also trying to write her way through a breakup after a highly-publicized, three-month relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal disintegrated just as quickly as it began. Swift had already had the narrative of being a “crazy maneater” thrust upon her by tabloids and the public, but it was clear to anyone looking closely that Swift fell hard, fast, and steadily while her suitors were often looking for a quick fling. Listening to Red—and especially the rerecorded version—in 2021, it’s easy to hear that Swift’s desire for sonic experimentation and proclivity for lovelorn songwriting were clashing. Neither route was given the chance to be properly explored, and it made Red Taylor Swift’s least cohesive album.
Swift’s album-length intersection between country and pop suffers from being constantly pulled between two polar ends, never quite reaching the mind-boggling greatness of her best albums before or after it. But it does speak to Swift’s ever-present talent that Red contains some undeniable career standouts like “Begin Again,” “The Last Time,” and, of course, “All Too Well,” the fan-favorite track that Swifties have lauded over time as the shining star in Taylor Swift’s catalog. It’s a shame, then, that the struggle to find a solid, sonic (holy) ground in the middle of two warring genres is ever-present in the music, and contributes to an extremely irksome track ordering. There’s simply no good reason that a song like “All Too Well” should be sandwiched between the dated dubstep cut “I Knew You Were Trouble” and the twee birthday anthem “22,” other than the suggestion that maybe Swift didn’t want to embroil fans in too much sadness at once, something that she’s never really had a problem with doing when composing the tracklists for any of her other albums before or since.
This whiplash effect between genres makes Red feel obnoxiously discombobulated and, at times, plain messy. And hey, maybe that’s intentional! Life after an earth-shattering breakup can be hard—one minute you’re caught in a pool of seemingly never-ending despair, too tired of treading water so you think you may as well just let yourself drown, and the next you’re going out with your friends wearing porkpie hats and a bold red lip (perhaps a little too bold for your complexion, but you’re trying new things in your state of heartbreak). Swift noted that feeling, the “happy, free, confused, and lonely” in “22,” the rare Taylor Swift novelty track that speaks to being young and dumb, but never so young and dumb that you ever really do anything you’ll regret. Even when trying to write from a hedonistic side, Swift is holding back. The craziest thing she’ll admit to doing at 22 and heartbroken is having breakfast at midnight and crushing on a stranger. Hardly fodder for the most thoughtful Taylor Swift record, but certainly light enough to pander to radio—largely thanks to a co-writing credit from pop music svengali Max Martin. Prior to Red, Taylor Swift was making much more compelling pop music when she wasn’t even trying to write pop music; songs like “You Belong With Me” and “Mine” broke through to radio because of their unguarded sincerity, which was relatable to audiences of a similar age. Red’s most poppy cuts don’t share as much vulnerable honesty as those prior songs or any of the shiny, Swiftified pop songwriting from Swift’s most unapologetically pop albums, 1989 and reputation. Most of Red’s midtempo cuts and ballads feel just as half-baked, with the exception of the few standouts mentioned above.
Red always felt to me like it was less lived-in, less passionate, less important. I theorized for a long time that it was never intended to be outstanding, just a bridge album to carry Swift into a new place in her career that would eventually allow her to experiment and play with sound and lyrics in ways she hadn’t before, giving her carte blanche to make pop, country, and folk in whatever way she wanted without being gatekept by the industry’s genre purists. It’s an important album in Swift’s discography for the change that it represents, and seems just as important to her for that reason—the transitional element—but I’ve never been convinced that it was supposed to become as lauded as it has been in the near-decade since its release. Yet somehow, Red found its way to fan-favorite status—likely because of how mythic “All Too Well” has become in the years since it first dropped into the ether. There’s a reason why the confirmation of the new, 10-minute version of “All Too Well” came packaged directly with the announcement of Red (Taylor’s Version): that song, its tender and heartbroken brilliance, and the well-publicized story about Swift leaving her scarf at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s apartment have buoyed Red to the top of Taylor Swift’s discography. It’s just a shame that the rest of the album can’t hold a candle to it.
Sometimes, at a certain point, songs that are so popular can become almost the property of fans. They help to control the narrative, causing songs that are great to become infamous. These are the songs that artists can’t run from and can never express their true feelings about. At a screening of the upcoming “All Too Well (10-Minute Version)” short film, being released tonight, Taylor Swift told audience members to “feel their feelings” when watching the clip, explaining to them that “All Too Well” is a song that is “a special song in every setlist [she does]” because fans chose the song. They latched onto its narrative and transformed it from a deep-cut album track to one of Swift’s most popular songs. Which isn’t for nothing, “All Too Well” really does hold up as one of the most stellar productions of Swift’s career so far. The lyric, “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest” alone is the kind of instantly memorable, cutting sentiment that any artist would kill to write.
As I listened to the entirety of Red (Taylor’s Version) last night and again today, I hoped that a switch would finally flip, that I would feel that emotion and connection to the music that I had been craving for nine years. But besides “All Too Well” and “Begin Again,” nothing was really clicking. I’ve been through worse breakups and more heartache than I ever could’ve imagined in 2012 when I was mourning the loss of a “relationship” with a guy I had never even met in person, and yet, these songs just will not speak to me no matter how much I try to open my heart to them. I don’t know that it’s just me. I have been a staunch but critical Swiftie since 2009, instantly wary of some career lows featured on Lover, and then moved to write an essay about grief after hearing a song from evermore. Every song on every album simply cannot be a win, and that’s okay! In some ways, Red was more experimental than anything Taylor Swift has done up to this point. It was her first exercise in knowingly, willingly merging country with pop. And it turns out that as soon as that choice became a conscious one, the album became overthought and watered down, overproduced and (mostly) underwritten. Most of the songs on Red just don’t go deep enough for my taste, and that’s okay! Other songs, like the laborious “Stay Stay Stay” which has the dishonor of possibly being Swift’s worst to date, move past the point of irritating into migraine-inducing. The Red (Taylor’s Version) vault tracks also feel very much like they were left off the album for a reason. They’re mostly fine, ranging from the occasional smirk-inducing lyric (“But it turned out I’m harder to forget than I was to leave”) to songs that sound like they were intended for the end credits of an animated children’s film—a tough blow after “ME!” was initially written off by longtime fans as something fun that was only going to be intended as a promotional single for The Secret Life of Pets 2.
I think it’s okay to admit when an artist you love makes art that you’re having a hard time connecting with. It makes for a much more interesting conversation surrounding an album when it’s loved near-universally by most and others missed the moment entirely. I’ll keep listening to Red (Taylor’s Version) in hopes that something will finally click for me, but I think it’s alright for me to finally settle in my own truth, which is that I don’t really get it. To me, Red is all aesthetic—obligatory autumnal fare and mostly surface-level lyrics that almost never have the same bite or bruise as Swift’s richest work. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but I do think it’s not very good, at least not as good as the fan-favorite hype has turned it into supposedly being. It’s time to accept that Red isn’t for me, but I’m glad that it can be a favorite for so many others. All that really matters is that people can use it to connect with something in themselves, art only has to touch one person to matter and take on new life. After all, “Begin Again” clearly states: “He always said he didn’t get this song, but I do.”