Speak Now is the most pivotal album in the Taylor Swift discography. It’s not the one that started the story (2006’s self-titled debut) or the one that made her a global superstar (2008’s Fearless), nor is it her biggest album (2014’s 1989) or her straight-up best (2012’s Red). But it was on Speak Now where Swift took full control of her creative enterprise, came into her own as a songwriter, and established many of the key elements that would ground her career for the next decade. It also might be the album that, more than any other, sets the table for the next 10 years of country music, from the pop influences to the confessional style of songwriting. It is, in a word, a landmark.
Swift, unlike many mainstream country stars, was always a songwriter first and foremost. Her debut self-titled record dropped when she was just 16 years old, but she still had writing credits on all 11 songs (and wrote three of them solo, including the number-one country smash “Our Song”). On Fearless, she more than doubled that number, taking solo writing credits on seven of the 13 songs (including “Love Story,” which briefly became the best-selling country single of all time). Still, Swift racked up a lot of co-writes on those first two albums, particularly with veteran Nashville songwriter Liz Rose, who has 12 writing credits across Taylor Swift and Fearless. On Speak Now, the big selling point isn’t that it’s a concept album about wild romance and dramatic heartbreak (Red), or a leap into pop (1989), or a rejoinder to her haters (Reputation), or her “indie” record (folklore). No, the big selling point here is the simple fact that Swift wrote all 14 tracks by herself.
Perhaps more than any album released since—in the country genre or otherwise—Speak Now reads like a diary. While Swift never stopped being a confessional singer-songwriter, her pivot to pop on 1989 sanded some of the rougher edges off her lyrical approach, removing a bit of the personal specificity and rich detail in favor of songs that are, for the most part, more simplistic and more universal. Red still had plenty of nuance and detail, but felt more deliberate with what it revealed—like Taylor was shining the spotlight on the parts of herself and her life that she wanted her listeners to see. Speak Now is different. It’s a gloriously messy overshare of an album. All the things Taylor ever did best are bursting out of the seams of this record: the romance, the heartbreak, the pathos, the grand evocations of growing up. But there’s also the awkwardness and clumsiness and naivete that comes with being a young person trying to be an adult but not being quite there yet. There are contradictions in the songs themselves: in “Better Than Revenge,” for instance, Taylor savagely rips a girl who stole her boyfriend, admonishing the subject of her ire that “stealing other people’s toys on the playground won’t make you many friends”; but then in the title track, she shows up at a wedding uninvited to confess her love to the groom—and they end up ditching the ceremony and running away together. There’s a fair amount of hypocrisy here, but who ever made it to their twenties without being a hypocrite once or twice?
The uncharitable read on Speak Now is that, due to its relative immaturity (and because Taylor came clean about all the celebrities who the songs were about), it’s aged the least well of her albums so far. Certainly, the songs about Twilight it-boy Taylor Lautner and Owl City frontman Adam Young date the album squarely to the beginning of the 2010s. And yes, “Innocent,” the ballad where Swift forgives Kanye West for interrupting her moment at the MTV Video Music Awards, feels a bit quaint (and plenty patronizing) now that we know how the rest of that story played out. “Better Than Revenge” is probably the worst offender, a problematic slut-shaming anthem that pits one woman against another over a fucking Jonas brother.
The fairer read, though, is that Speak Now is exactly the kind of record that young artists usually aren’t allowed to make—one that reflects the true warts-and-all experience of making that perilous journey from youth to adulthood. Label interference is typically a given with performers that hit the big time in their teens, to the point where it’s almost remarkable that Big Machine let Swift write every word and note on the record that was arguably going to make or break her career. Fresh off Fearless, armed with two ubiquitous hits (“Love Story” and “You Belong with Me”) and a boatload of Grammys (including Album of the Year), Swift was poised to hit a new level of fame that Speak Now could have mucked up if it had missed the mark. Most labels, at this stage, wouldn’t risk changing the formula: they’d keep the cowriters, play it safe with a few clear-cut radio singles, and let the money role in. Instead, to Big Machine’s credit, they gave Taylor creative carte-blanche and released a record that didn’t have a clear smash hit candidate; it sold a million records in a week anyway, and I’d argue that’s because of how fiercely, unapologetically honest it is.
Obviously, Taylor had written confessional songs before, but not like this: not like “Dear John,” where she savagely flays John Mayer while aping his exact musical palette; not like “Long Live,” where she recaps her entire success story like she’s the hero of an epic fantasy novel; certainly not like “Last Kiss,” a painfully raw breakup song that, up until last year’s “Soon You’ll Get Better,” had the honor of being the saddest thing Taylor had ever written. These songs and the others on Speak Now capture the visceral, technicolor rush of emotions you feel when you’re 19 or 20 and it seems like everything that happens in your life deserves a big-screen adaptation, complete with an epic soundtrack. This album captures all those moments. It calls back to when your relationships felt as “us against the world” as the one in “Mine,” the Springsteenian first single. It brings back those crushes that felt profound for about a week and then faded off into the ether, like the one in “Enchanted.” It recalls those moments when your own self-centered worldview started to break apart and you realized that you maybe haven’t always been awesome to your significant others (“Back to December”) or to your parents (“Never Grow Up”). It certainly captures how dizzying the butterflies were during the first kiss of a youthful romance (“Sparks Fly”) and how it absolutely felt like your heart was going to split in half when that romance came to an end (“Last Kiss”). And it even brings back those big pinnacle moments of your young life, when your achievements felt like an apex worthy of a fairytale storybook but really turned out to just be one more stepping stone on a much longer and grander journey (“Long Live”).
When Speak Now came out, I was a few months into a relationship with the girl I would end up marrying. I was a sophomore in college and we were doing the long-distance thing, and it felt like we were living for the weekends and those fleeting hours and days we’d get to spend together. This album, more than any other piece of music, seemed to capture what I thought love was at the time. It wore its heart and its youth on its sleeve so proudly, and it felt every bit as dramatic and emotional and intense as the sugar rush of young love I was experiencing at the time. Eventually, you trade that tumultuous innocence and naivete for maturity. You trade the insane excitement and infatuation of the honeymoon stage for the stability of deep, abiding love. Just as Taylor grew out of writing songs the way she did on this album, I eventually grew out of needing these songs in way I did back in 2010. I can’t remember the last sad solo night drive I took with “Last Kiss,” though suffice to say there were plenty of them back then, when every five-day stretch without the girl I loved felt like purgatory. But the great thing about Speak Now is that, while you eventually age out of the moments and emotions described in the songs, you never get too old to remember how those moments and emotions felt. Every once in awhile, my wife and I still listen to this album together and sing along. We do it because we love the songs, but also because they remind us of the former us: the kids who drove 100 miles to see each other every weekend, foregoing college parties and other experiences or responsibilities because we knew, somehow, that the feelings we had in our hearts were more important.
Speak Now is also a reminder of former Taylor Swift, the girl who was willing to spill every ounce of feeling she had in her heart for the sake of the music. These days she’s more reserved, more deliberate, less self-absorbed. The triumph of this year’s folklore is that it finds as much nuance and emotional vibrancy in imagined narratives as Swift once found in her own stories. But there’s something so raw and unfiltered about Speak Now, even 10 years later. Back then, I was obsessed with the idea of giving my life a soundtrack, with processing every good or bad moment through the prism of a song. Taylor did that too, except that she was doing it through songs she penned herself. As she sings in “Dear John,” “The girl in the dress wrote you a song.” In 2010, Taylor Swift had a song for everything.