Can a re-recorded version of a beloved album recapture the magic of the original? Taylor Swift is betting on the answer being “Yes” as she embarks on a journey to remake her first six albums. First up? 2008’s Fearless, the breakthrough LP that netted Taylor some of her biggest hits, won her a Grammy trophy for Album of the Year (the first of three, so far), and made her a generational pop music superstar.
Chorus.fm contributors Craig Manning, Anna Acosta, and Garrett Lemons took a closer look at the project, revisiting the original Fearless and exploring the various ways that the new Fearless (Taylor’s Version) stacks up.
Outset opinion: Where did Fearless stands in Taylor’s legacy for you, before listening to the new version?
Craig: Fearless has, rather fascinatingly, become one of the most underrated Taylor Swift albums over the years. It’s an album that was inescapable during my last year of high school and my first year of college, though I didn’t personally come to appreciate it until right before Speak Now came out. But it was so dominant as a pop powerhouse that I’m surprised it didn’t take up a cultural place similar to Adele’s 21, as a hit machine with a lot of songs everyone can agree on. Instead, it seems to have become an album that typically gets dropped near the bottom of Taylor Swift rankings. There are some people on our message boards, who came to Taylor’s music later, who have never even heard this album, which is just wild to me.
My opinion? Fearless is one of the best records ever made about being a teenager. It hits all the confusion, all the angst, all the romance, all the anxiety, all the innocence and naivete. It’s a uniquely challenging album to remake, from the vantage point of 31, because it is so distinctly youthful.
Anna: To me, Fearless is high school. I can still smell the bonfire crackling during spring break at my friend’s grandparents’ house. I can still see the face of the boy I cried about while I listened to “Forever and Always” on repeat. I can still see the confusion on people’s faces when I tell them I love Taylor Swift. (Something about a scrawny Latina dripping in Hot Topic merch didn’t scream “I love pretty blonde country music girls” to my peers. Go figure.)
Skeptics be damned, I have been growing up to Taylor’s music since I had my 15-year-old pants charmed off by the “Teardrops on My Guitar” music video, and so for me a lot of these earlier albums are inexorably linked in my mind to my own experiences. I’d imagine that’s true for a lot of her fans, especially those who are around her age. As an adult, Fearless is her fairytale. Everything she feels, she feels with reckless abandon. This album is naïve, this album is honest, and this album is hopeful. It’s… well, fearless. When I listen to it, it’s always going to come from that place.
Garrett: If you know me now, you’d probably be surprised to learn that I was not the biggest fan of Taylor when Fearless first released. A large part of that was your typical “misguided-teenage-boy-into-metalcore” bullshit. Clearly, I came to my senses.
When I think of Fearless, I think of college. I think of doing homework in the café with my friend Sarah who made sure that I heard every song on this (and the self-titled) multiple times over, every week for months. In those sessions, I was drawn more towards the highs of her debut –“Tim McGraw” remains a top-ten favorite of mine in her catalogue – than anything on Fearless. But the singles from Fearless were ever present. “Love Story” pretty much ruled the world that year. “You Belong With Me” was always the one I liked best.
As my appreciation for Taylor continued to grow, Fearless – despite being her bestselling album and her first Grammy Album of the Year winner – was always the “forgotten child” in my fandom. Only about a year ago, when folklore released and I set out on a personal quest to rank every song in her catalog (I still haven’t shared this endeavor), did I realize that I had been doing this album dirty.
So, somehow, I am coming to Fearless 13 years later without much emotional attachment to the original. I am getting to experience nostalgia for the familiar (Fearless has been getting consistently more spins in the last year), but also almost getting to experience it like it’s a “new” project.
I say this a lot, but Taylor and I were born eight days apart. Her creative growth and typical aging into adulthood has mirrored mine in many ways. Over the last two years I’ve been revisiting much of my college time in my writing. I’ve been interested to see how she would approach things from “back then” from the place she is now. For that, with the inclusion of the vault songs and bonus tracks, I am quite excited to see how this works.
Most improved: Which song benefits most from a re-recording?
Craig: My feeling on Fearless has always been that the first half (through “Breathe”) is completely bulletproof, and that the back half is good but not nearly as strong. As such, I was primed to discover a new appreciation for some of those second-half songs, and that’s absolutely what happened with “Change.” If pressed, I would say this song is my least favorite Taylor Swift closer, in part because it treads similar ground to “Long Live” but does so without the same scope, bombast, or goosebumps-inducing delivery. The new version is the song on this album that most benefits from Taylor’s growth as a vocalist, becoming the massive, unapologetic arena rock set closer that it was always meant to be.
Anna: Here’s the thing: I’m a classically-trained vocalist and a reasonably-well-trained musician in general. I technically have the tools to analyze the mechanics of what has changed in each of the re-recorded tracks. But the fact is, there are a lot of music reviewers and critics who approach their work from that space, and it simply isn’t and never has been the space where my relationship with music exists.
(For context, I want to make this clear: you do not need to be trained in anything to fully enjoy, understand, and appreciate music. The training is primarily about having access to speaking the technical language of music. In other words, snobs: take a nap.)
And with a writer as prolific as Taylor Swift, my first and foremost priority has naturally always been lyrics. So where do we go when the lyrics haven’t changed in the last 13 years?
If your guess was “gut reactions”, then you and I are on the same page. “Tell Me Why” is completely vindicated as one of the album’s best tracks. Her lower register has never sounded better than it does on tracks like “Hey Stephen.” And the way “The Best Day” sucker-punched me in the feelings showed me, in stunning clarity, that I am in no way prepared for “Never Grow Up (Taylor’s Version)” when the time comes.
Yet, my answer is “Change”. And it’s because of what that song means. Taylor is a storyteller, so the story is always going to be relevant. I have also written love songs about friendships I thought were forever, only to end in goodbyes laced with the most bitter of betrayals. So, in a world where I know the backstory [Editor’s note: “Change” is about Taylor’s early journey with Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records], and where the context behind the song “My Tears Ricochet” exists? My answer is “Change”.
Because these things will change.
Garrett: I think “Love Story,” “White Horse,” and “Tell Me Why” got noticeable bumps in the re-recording. However, “Hey Stephen” has long been my least favorite on the album and I think the re-recording sounds fantastic, so I think that gets my vote.
I liked it better the first time: Which song couldn’t be improved, or actually got worse?
Craig: One of my more unusual Taylor Swift takes is that “Fifteen” is 1) the best song on Fearless by a fair margin, and 2) one of the 10 or so best songs Taylor ever wrote. The original version, for me, is such a perfect encapsulation of high school: how it seems to pass in the blink of an eye; how your emotions feel overwhelming in such a technicolor way; how every crush you have seems like it’s worthy of a move script treatment; how you make choices quickly and recklessly, only to realize that you’ll think back on those moments for decades and wonder what might have happened if you’d done things differently.
“Fifteen” is remarkable because Taylor understood all those things even though she was barely out of high school when she wrote it. There’s a rawness to that song that can only come from being so close to the stories and emotions expressed that they bleed through your very voice. The new version, while it’s sung with more distance, perspective, and even vocal chops, can’t recapture the very unique and magical ache of that song.
Anna: I don’t know that I have a “couldn’t be improved” pick, but as far as the “got worse” category goes: “The Way I Loved You” is the only track that I actually got bored listening to for the first time (again) in 2021. And honestly, that kind of checks out, given that I found this song vaguely annoying even back in 2008 – when I, like Taylor, was more or less too inexperienced to technically know that chaos does not equal passion. (Sorry, but craving drama and dysfunction doesn’t become cute or healthy simply because you’ve compared it to a perfectly fine but rather perfunctory and allegedly passionless love. The song isn’t problematic, it’s just youthful.)
However, that isn’t why the song bored me. Something about the finished product feels underproduced, and lacks the driving energy that powered the incredibly catchy choruses in the 2008 version. This one…plods along. I could speculate wildly as to why I think that might be, but instead I will simply say this: I don’t know what the fix would have been or what exactly went wrong here, but as things go this song remains my biggest skip on the record.
Garrett: I was most worried about “Fifteen” and “The Best Day” losing what made them special, but I released a huge sigh of relief listening to both. They are two of the best examples of what makes Taylor special on Fearless and having both lose too much would’ve hurt the album.
However, “You Belong With Me,” my favorite song on the original release of the album, was the biggest miss here for me. “The Way I Loved You” also didn’t go as hard as it needed to for me.
Best new song: Which of the “vault” tracks is your favorite? And should this song be on the album? In place of what?
Craig: I said in the forums that Taylor could have released the vault tracks as an EP 10 years ago and it would have sold a million copies in a week. I’ve always felt like Taylor was a smart editor of her own material, with most of her B-sides falling well short of the songs that made their respective records. These tracks made me reconsider that stance a bit. “You All Over Me,” in particular, is such a superb piece of songwriting that it’s almost baffling to me that it didn’t make the record (or get given away to some Nashville artist in the years since). I would absolutely swap it into the tracklist, probably in place of “Tell Me Why” – a good song that has never particularly moved me.
(“Mr. Perfectly Fine” and “That’s When” are also hugely catchy jams that wouldn’t have been out of place on this record’s first half.)
Anna: I dunno if my pick is the best one. In fact, I don’t think it is: I think the “best” one for me is probably “We Were Happy.” But if we’re talking the one I’d swap in, the answer is “Mr. Perfectly Fine.” Because… WHAT THE HELL, TAYLOR? Holy catchy, Batman. My answer isn’t going to get super deep here. I just needed this song in 2008, that’s all. I needed this back when I was firmly occupying the “dramatic tater tot” stage of my romantic endeavors.
Also, while we’re causing chaos, I’d kick “The Way I Loved You” out for this one, and not because “The Way I Loved You” isn’t a catchy-as-hell jam. It is. But even when the album came out and I was just a dramatic tater tot, those lyrics just felt distinctly “icky” to me and I often skipped it.
Garrett: “You All Over Me” is the precursor to “Clean” that we deserved and needed. “Change” is the perfect album closer for Fearless in the same way that “Peace” is the perfect album closer for folklore…so let’s tack “You All Over Me” after “Change.”
“Mr. Perfectly Fine” should’ve been on (and actually fits the album) over “Hey Stephen.” This is the one that’s hardest to comprehend being left off of the album, when considering the project as a whole.
The “From the Vault” EP series we were never going to get (but now are thankfully getting in a different way) would’ve been legit if this collection of songs is any indication. “You All Over Me,” “We Were Happy,” and “That’s When” are all massive home runs that would’ve made this album if Taylor had made it at any other age, I’m pretty confident in saying. Meanwhile “Bye Bye Baby” is the clear B-side from this collection and makes the most sense as being in the vault.
New revelation: Did you discover anything new about Fearless from the re-record?
Craig: “Love Story” is as universal and as crucial to the pop landscape as any Beatles single. Taylor was bound to be a superstar almost no matter what: that much was clear from “Our Song” and “Tim McGraw.” But I can’t think of another song from Fearless or from the rest of her catalog that would have leveled up her career as quickly and completely as “Love Story” did. It’s a lightning bolt: simple enough for anyone to get it, but smart enough to show off a genius songwriter at work. It’s remarkable that she wrote it herself, in the space of twenty minutes, when she was 18 years old. I’ve spent more than 20 minutes writing these responses!
Anna: I noticed smaller things, like how bits of “You All Over Me” became 1989’s “Clean”; or the nod to casual cruelty on “Mr. Perfectly Fine” (which resurfaced in Red’s “All Too Well”); or the not-so-invisible-string between “We Were Happy” and evermore’s “Happiness”. Those kinds of things are not surprising; even in my own songwriting, I frequently steal phrases or lyrics from myself that I especially liked, if I think I won’t end up using the song they were originally written for. But that stands out to me simply because of how crucial little lyrical touches are to grasping Swift’s quite extensive catalog.
Another thing I felt was impossible to miss from the re-recordings is that there is a deeply unique beauty in hearing the way a 30-plus-year-old sings songs about her life when she was 18, versus the way the same 18-year-old would have (or in this case, did). Musicianship and the unreal amount of vocal improvement she’s done over the years aside, these re-recordings are dripping with adult Taylor’s experience and maturity, and the result is a sonic love letter to the girl Taylor was. And in a way, to who we all were when this album came into our lives the first time.
Side note: I also discovered that I was absolutely correct in my 17-year-old belief that “Change”, “Tell Me Why” and “Today Was a Fairytale” are god-tier Taylor from this era, and always were.
Garrett: After folklore and evermore, I was ready for Taylor to feel fun again. There’s always been a cheeky (and a little corny) personality bubbling in her songwriting, and those quarantine albums, while excellent, do miss something by not having that side of her as a present force. Diving back into Fearless has highlighted how well that side of her can support her serious side. Where folklore/evermore stripped away a lot of her personality, Fearless revels in it in a way that I’ve never considered before.
Verdict: Wow are we feeling about this re-record project? Is this better than the original version? Will you buy it/listen to it regularly, or will the original always be your go-to version?
Craig: Taylor gave herself “mission: impossible” here: remaking a beloved album that her fans have listened to hundreds of times and hoping the new recordings could replace the originals as the definitive versions. It’s impressive just how close she and her team got to creating an exact carbon copy of the original.
But as somehow who almost always prefers the version of a song that he hears first, I can’t say that Fearless (Taylor’s Version) swayed me from my opinion that the original version will always be the definitive one. Here’s the thing: this is an album about being a teenager and all that entails. Taylor has grown profoundly as a vocalist, and often sounds better than she did back then, but songs like “The Way I Loved You” and “You Belong with Me” just don’t hit quite the same way when they’re not being sung by a teenager.
With that said, the vault songs are spectacular and make this whole process well worthwhile –even if I might have personally preferred listening to a career-spanning, Springsteen-esque Tracks boxset of unreleased material.
As for the business side of this whole equation: go Taylor, go! Artists should have rights in this industry, and the one at the very top of the list is getting to retain ownership of their work. That she has the power and influence to chip away at the value of an asset that was unfairly sold out from under her…that’s just a big chef’s kiss.
Anna: I am absolutely and hopelessly in love with this re-record project. I don’t know if it’s better than the original. It’s very, very different, because of course it is: she’s a grown-ass woman singing (the hell out of) songs she wrote as a teenager.And as a listener – “The Best Day (Taylor’s Version)” existing in a world that has the context of “Soon You’ll Get Better” is just devastating.
At any rate, I pre-ordered the vinyl and I have already replaced the old Fearless in my digital library. So, at this point, I’ll see Scott n’ Scoot in hell.
Going into this, I thought I wanted her to change everything. I thought (and still think) that hearing these songs the way Taylor would record them now would be a gift beyond words, but after hearing these faithful recordings, I get it. These tracks are freedom for her, exactly BECAUSE they are so like the originals. And it works.
Garrett: When Taylor announced that she was doing this re-record project in order to own her masters, as a fellow creator, I was all-in on supporting her in that endeavor. Because of that (and because I got a good record player for my birthday last year), I bought the vinyl of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) when it was announced, though I do already own the Platinum Edition on wax. I think this is an excellent project for vinyl, once the From the Vault songs are considered.
I do take some issues with how the rollout has happened. After fees, taxes, and shipping I paid $50 for the record. 26 songs, less than $2 a song, that’s fine. But to charge an additional $13 for an mp3 version is frankly unacceptable. When you look at the costs of the items in the store, it’s hard to not sour on the project and feel like it’s a cash grab in disguise at times.
But what about the actual art: is it better than the original? Will I listen to this over the original?
I don’t think tracks 1-13 are better than the original as a whole, because they’re a 98 percent carbon copy. She is undoubtedly a better vocalist now (but she wasn’t a bad vocalist then) and despite trying to turn her vocal growth off to match some of the OG Fearless’s vocal tics…she didn’t quite nail it most of the time. Scott Borchetta, Scooter Braun, and the new owner group aren’t getting any new money from me if I choose the original 13 songs in my iTunes, so in that regard, they will remain canon.
However, when you look at the next 13 tracks, I’m sure that I will return to them regularly. Many of those songs – even the ones we’ve heard before – don’t feel constrained to the preconceived notions we have of what they are supposed to sound like, in the way that the album tracks do. And like, “You All Over Me” shot into my Fearless top five (top three?) pretty much overnight.
So…I guess my overall verdict is still “We shall see.” We’re getting new songs from my favorite living songwriter, higher production value on B-sides we already know, and artist empowering herself with a real chance to empower others less powerful down the road.