There are moments growing up that feel jarring and alien and terrifying for how wildly different they seem from everything else that came before them. Your first kiss; the first time you drive a car without anyone in the passenger’s seat; the first time you feel the buzz of alcohol; the first night in your college dorm room, knowing you’re in uncharted territory. These moments can feel like swimming off the deep end without a lifejacket for the first time, or maybe even like skydiving without a parachute. They’re exciting because of the unpredictability, because they feel dangerous. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, but you do know that you’ve just crossed some invisible line on the journey of growing up, and that you can’t turn around and go back.
On Red, Taylor Swift captured the unpredictable, stomach-dropping, dangerous rush of perhaps the most important growing up “first”: falling in love. The result was her best record, the greatest album released in the 2010s, and one of the most complete documents ever made about young love’s roller-coaster highs and crushing lows. Even good albums about love often cover only a fraction of what it’s like to go from strangers to friends to how-can-I-ever-live-without-yous and then back to strangers again. Even great albums about love might only paint with a hue or two from that expansive, explosive palette of technicolor emotion. On her fourth album, Taylor Swift painted with all the colors in love’s deep, endless rainbow – even if, at the time, she probably would have told you she was only painting with one.
What’s so notable or significant about Taylor Swift writing an album about love, you might ask? Even in 2012, this girl was already a seasoned veteran of love-song writing, as matters of the heart are the predominant fodder across Taylor’s first three albums. With a few exceptions, though, those albums are full of songs about teenage love, high school love, puppy love. They’re about high school summer crushes soundtracked by Tim McGraw songs, or imagined fairytale romances, or the exquisite sting of first heartbreak. The love songs on Red feel different. There’s gravity to them. They feel adult in a way the songs on Fearless and Speak Now rarely did. These romances aren’t just kid stuff anymore. There’s an implicit understanding in the songs that, if this romance works out, it might just be forever; and if it doesn’t, well…if it doesn’t work out, someone is going to get really hurt. Not high school heartbreak hurt or breaking-up-at-the-end-of-summer-camp hurt; true the-entire-path-I’d-planned-for-my-life-has-been-knocked-off-its-axis hurt.
“We are alone, just you and me/Up in your room, and our slates are clean/Just twin fire signs/Four blue eyes.” So ends the second verse of “State of Grace,” the big, booming, U2-esque anthem that opens Red. It’s a lyric that’s always struck me, because it so perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being on the precipice of a new relationship, with nothing holding you or the other person back from leaping off the edge and taking the plunge together. It’s an intoxicating feeling, being in that moment, but there’s also something daring about it. Being willing to let your guard down completely and let another person in, for better or worse, is a major form of bravery. “I never saw you coming/And I’ll never be the same” is the chorus refrain of “State of Grace,” and for good reason: Once you really, truly fall in love for the first time, the chips are down, and there’s no way to take them back. All that’s left is to let the cards fall as they may and hope you don’t go bust. Win or lose, you’ll never be the same person you were before you made that big, big bet. But, as Taylor sings two songs later, the risk is part of the reward, and vice versa: “This slope is treacherous/This path is reckless/This slope is treacherous/And I like it.”
Red is an album all about where the cards fall when you go all-in on what your young, naïve self thinks is surely a winning hand. Sometimes, the cards are favorable: Sugar-rush love songs like “Holy Ground,” “Everything Has Changed,” and “Starlight” swoon with the intoxicating high of a honeymoon-phase romance. Sometimes, the cards are mixed, like on the title track, about how a relationship that seems good one minute can suddenly feel like driving a brand-new Maserati down a dead-end street the next; or “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” about on-again-off-again relationships and arrogant boys who play you hot and cold. And sometimes, the cards just betray you entirely, like on “All Too Well,” a break-up song about a relationship implosion so epic that it might as well be biblical.
In the liner notes to Red, Taylor introduces the album by quoting a line from a poem by Neruda: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” Over the years, one of the criticisms I’ve seen thrown at Taylor Swift most is that she doesn’t “get over” things very well: boys and heartbreaks; sexism in the music industry; being fucked over by her (former) record label; Kanye West stealing her moment at a frivolous awards show. But part of what makes Red so wonderful is that it comes from the perspective of a person who isn’t “over it” just yet – and who might never be. I am a person who tends to remember things more vividly and hold onto memories and moments from the past more dearly than most of my friends or family members. So perhaps it makes sense that I latched onto an album built around that Neruda line, and around that idea of how forgetting and moving on can sometimes be the work of a lifetime. Moments in time may fade – the moments Taylor also cites in her liner notes, “of newfound hope, extreme joy, intense passion, wishful thinking, and in some cases, the unthinkable letdown” – but those memories and the marks they leave linger; they shape us. Red might be the greatest breakup album ever made because it understands more deeply than all the rest the ways in which even an ill-fated love story can change you and shape you, for all days to come.
I fell in love with Red during my senior year of college, in the fall, just two months shy of my 22nd birthday, and on the precipice of adulthood. Hearing it for the first time felt momentous in a way that few albums have, before or since. At the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about this album that felt so deeply personal and relatable for me. After all, I was happily in the midst of year three of a relationship with the girl I’d end up marrying, with no breakup or tumultuous romantic drama to connect to all the themes of lost love I heard running through these songs. But Red still had a beguiling gravitational pull for me. I remember so many Friday afternoons and Sunday evenings in my car, driving back and forth between my college town and Chicago, where my girlfriend was living at the time, playing this album on repeat. Sometimes, I’d get stuck on a song and listen to it over and over and over again. The bombast of “State of Grace”; the delicate, autumnal beauty of “All Too Well”; the desolate loneliness of “Sad, Beautiful, Tragic”; the blissful revelry of “22.” I wanted to crawl inside these songs and spend the day there. I wanted to knit their words and music and meaning into my very soul.
Years later, I came to understand what it was about Red that struck me so hard. College is a bizarre time in a person’s life – a paradoxical period where you’re grown up but still wildly immature, smart but still dumb as hell, independent but still dependent, chasing something but still directionless. For me, the most striking paradox of all was that, at least early in my college years, I was more surrounded by other people than I had been at any other point in my life, but also as lonely as I have ever felt. By the fall of 2012, it seemed that most of those paradoxes were fading into the past. I was comfortable in my own skin, I had a great group of friends, and I (finally) felt assured about the way my life was going. My girlfriend had also graduated from college and was off making a go of things as a grown-up, and when I’d visit her, it felt a little bit like we were starting our life together, in a way it never had when we were visiting each other’s dorm rooms or college apartments. At school, I was enjoying the last fleeting bits of youth – the joy of being 22 and reveling in riotously fun nights out with friends, just as responsibility started to close in. But a big part of me felt like I’d already stepped through the door to adulthood. Red may be an album about love that gets dashed on the rocks, but it’s also an album about all that in-betweenness, all those paradoxes. It’s about traversing that wild, weird, electrifying no-man’s land of Almost Adulthood and finding every single step you take as alien as those firsts I mentioned earlier – those skydiving-without-a-parachute life milestones. I’d had albums like this before, at moments when it felt like my life was shifting. But Red was unique both for how closely the moment of its release synced up with what I was experiencing at the time, and for the simple fact that Taylor Swift was someone my age, a contemporary rather than an elder, a songwriter living through these revelations at the same time I was.
For her part, Taylor might have thought this album was about something very specific: “love that was red,” as she wrote in the liner notes. But the thing that makes Red so exceptional is that it’s even more universal than that. It’s an album about the twists and turns of a love story, but it’s also about the twists and turns of life. Pages flip by in the blink of an eye. Chapters start and end faster than you’ll ever realize it. And sometimes, your entire story feels like it might just be stalling out with no clear narrative path forward. But after the endings you get to begin again, and after the heartbreaks you get to love again, and after the pain, you just might find you’ve grown into a whole new version of yourself – one that is older and wiser and more prepared to take on the world. Red for me is about that kind of growth, and about the journey through the tumult of youth to get to the person you’re meant to be on the other side. More than any other album, I took that journey with Red, and it means the world to me for having played such a crucial role in my own life story. That story was treacherous; it was miserable and magical; it was starlight and refrigerator light; it was sad and it was beautiful and it was tragic. And it sounded a whole lot like Red.