Well, it’s finally here. The one the world has been waiting for. 1989 (Taylor’s Version) has arrived, a shimmering joyous, looser take on the album that launched everyone’s favourite blonde superstar into a whole new world. Except, now we take her seriously as the mastermind she has always been. We wondered if she'd be able to re-capture its lightning-in-a-bottle essence and the answer, with more confident vocals and the surety of a decade working with Jack Antonoff is a resounding YES!
Yes, we knew her name before. But with 1989, finding a person on the planet who hadn’t heard of Taylor Swift or spent at least one afternoon with the chorus of “Shake It Off” rattling around in their brain became as impossible as finding someone who hadn’t heard of David Beckham in the early 2000’s. She was everywhere, from Instagram and Tumblr to a revolving door of special guests in stadiums and famous friends celebrating the 4th of July (more on that later). As Taylor herself would reflect years later, this was a time when she “had a lot of powers but didn’t really know how to use them.”
This album always gave Taylor a bigger silhouette, her presence in it somehow made it a little smaller (in hindsight) by how hard she was working to prove to the world and herself she could fill it. This time around though, there's not a question or a flicker of doubt and as a result, our favourites ooze with a stronger confidence
The original album was released exactly nine years ago, a sleek dare I say, sonically cohesive beast of a pop record. It was clean, precise, polished, exactly the kind of sharp deliberate landing you’d expect from someone so hyper-aware of and obsessed with the need for reinvention. A principle applied somewhat ruthlessly to everything at the time from her image and sound to her dating life and relationship with fame – something I now understand was all about feeling in control.
As a side note, perhaps the most surprising revelation for me as a long-time fan throughout the re-recording process has been realising just how long that reinvention anxiety’s existed, no doubt its first shades peeking through on Speak Now’s ‘Castles Crumbling’ and truly becoming a looming force on the melancholic duet with Phoebe Bridgers, from Taylor’s version of Red, ‘Nothing New’. With 1989 she laid those fears to rest, at least for a little while by conquering modern pop as smoothly and easily as she’d done with country all those years before.
Or, at least that’s how it seemed. Behind the shiny short-hair-don’t-care, perfectly put together popstar was a human desperate to find herself. As someone who crossed over so successfully into the pop genre, the pressure of ever trying to top it became stifling.This is the girl who wouldn’t even smile on the original album cover for fear of disrupting the enigmatic mystery cool girl, free in her singledom image she was working overtime to effectively cultivate. Compare that with the wide toothy full-face grin on her version, and the metaphor speaks for itself.
Besides, we now know that even if it looked like Taylor Swift was on top of the world and projecting intensely unbothered in 2014, there were cracks. Big ones. This is the first time the public has got a glimpse of what were then seemingly simmering tensions between Taylor and her label, Big Machine. They weren’t happy with her releasing a full-blown pop album, afraid it would isolate the fans and destroy her value. But Taylor persisted, trusting her gut and pushing back, a muscle she’d come to flex a lot over the next decade. That dogged persistence is what got us here in the first place, because artists deserve to own the art they make. Why Scott Borchetta ever thought betting against her was a good idea, I’ll never know. Do you think he wakes up in a cold sweat watching this unfold as the future he walked away from?
Then there’s the sheer depth of the heartbreak she was recovering from, chronicled so vividly on Red. As her version revealed, it was less the casual fling the media had us believe and more the kind of thing it takes years to process, formative and disruptive, thrusting a person from girlhood into womanhood before they’re ready, all set against the backdrop of a New York City skyline. With that in mind, the anthemic dancey LGBTQIA+ positive ‘Welcome To New York’ feels less kitsch, more defiant, a reclaiming of the land once stained by the ahem red of a crushed heart. (How devastating she’d have to do it again only a few years later, in full snakeskin embrace). Could it be that the girl squad the world was so quick to sneer at as a ‘showy false girl power that was everything wrong with white feminism’ was actually just a twenty-something trying to get back on her feet with the friends she’d always dreamed of, back at the lonely lunchtimes of her youth? I can’t help but wonder if we’d be so harsh to judge in 2023, bereft as we all were by the loneliness of the pandemic?
It’s not the only recasting of the era I’ve considered. Given all that has unfolded in the post #MeToo world over the last few years, ‘Blank Space’ feels more loaded than it ever did. Not only is it a mark of her skill at inhabiting characters (which so much of the world would only come to appreciate when cloaked in the indie-dad alternative of folklore), but the very basis for the song’s existence – the intense slut-shaming and sport made of Taylor’s dating life – feels decidedly un-feminist for a world so concerned with Taylor’s own. I also just don’t think it would fly in 2023, ironically in part because of all the shit Taylor and so many other women endured that has woken us up in the last decade to demanding better.
That feeling remains on ‘Clean’, a song made more poignant in its messaging of freedom and rebirth since the brave disclosure of an eating disorder, a few years ago. Understanding that as the lens through which Swift saw herself, especially when so much was made of her appearance at the time, reassigns the song and its emotional tour speeches, not just as the feeling of being washed clean from heartbreak, but also as a hopeful plea at the beginning of a long and storied recovery, which remains ongoing.
If everything had to be tightly controlled and kept inside on the original, with 'Clean' packaged then as a perfect 'tie it all in a bow it's fine now', Taylor's version of this generation-defining pop album is messier and somehow as a result, infinitely more. Maybe it's the fact that the Vault literally starts with a song called "Slut!", the most jaw-dropping title she's ever had, a slick summer hit just waiting to explode.
Or maybe it's that this time she's not keeping it all in for the sake of steering the narrative away from her love life, because back then she knew the woman took all the heat. Now, she's letting her anger, hurt and passion fly free as it should when directed at a muse who wouldn't say I love you, strung her along, made her feel as though the answer to getting his attention was to 'jump off a tall something', the implications of which made me shaky. And then he got to be above the fray when it ended while filling the void with sex and other things. It turns out 'Is It Over Now' might actually be the 'Question' she was looking for an answer to on Midnights... the answer by the way is; Taylor, you were better off without that boy. Thank god for the men who make friendship bracelets these days, huh?
But at the end of the day, the ultimate hero in every version of the story we see unfolding right now is Taylor. It always has been. And right now, in this era of taking back what's hers, flexing her creativity and coming into her own, we are seeing a woman take up a glorious mountain's worth of space. It's extraordinary, an act of granting permission that I think will have echoes for every young woman finding their feet right now and generations to come. Taylor Swift is unprecendented. And she's only 33, born in 1989. What on earth will the next decades hold? I for one, can't wait to find out.