Yes, we’re going here, and for good reason.
Taylor Swift’s Speak Now is the best album of her career. That’s certified by how it sold the least amount of copies out of her original five albums. It includes her best song, “Dear John.” It includes her most country song, the double Grammy-winning “Mean.” It includes all songs that she wrote by herself—something absolutely unprecedented in mainstream country, let alone from a woman, and even more striking from one under the legal drinking age at the time the album was released. Swift also produced the album, with assistance from multi-instrumentalist Nathan Chapman.
Speak Now marked a significant shift in the career of Taylor Swift, in the trajectory of country music, and in all of popular music in ways that are still resonating today, both positively, and in many respects, adversely. It symbolizes a crossroads in Taylor Swift’s life from girl to woman, and from a career of pretend country to almost purely pop. But the songwriting is what has endured, and makes it worth remarking upon as the new “Taylor’s Version” of this album is released.
No strong opinion is tendered here about Taylor deciding to re-record her music after the sale of her masters to Ithica Holdings and Scooter Braun, who later sold them to Shamrock Capitol. Though Big Machine Records owner Scott Borchetta has been handsomely criticized for not selling the masters to Swift directly, it’s not as if the vast majority of major label artists ever get the opportunity to own their own music. Borchetta took a chance on Swift when nobody else would, and except for Taylor herself, he is the person most responsible for her overwhelming success. This opinion is coming from someone who in 2010 when Speak Now was originally released was regularly referring to Borchetta as the “Country Music Antichrist.”
Regardless, Taylor Swift has made a mint re-recording her old Big Machine albums, and good for her. Artists should own their own music. Garth Brooks is the king of selling consumers the same song twice (or three or four or five times), and even he must be sitting back and salivating over how one can pull off a similar scheme to Swift. Other country artists have re-recorded their old songs in the past, and they fade like a fart in the wind. Taylor Swift is setting chart records with them. It’s good work if you can get it.
Regarding the differences between the old versions and the new versions of the Speak Now songs, there is little to no significant change. It’s hard to recreate some of the original guitar tones, or to get the mixing quite right where the match is exact. But if your gray matter has latched onto the original versions and you hear these new ones, it won’t put up much of an objection. Swift’s vocal signal does seem a bit stronger on the newer versions, matched to what is probably now a stronger and more confident singer than 13 years ago. Remember, “Mean” was written in response to criticism Swift received for singing out of tune with Stevie Nicks on the Grammy Awards, including from Saving Country Music.
Some gruff has been given about Swift deciding to change a line in the song “Better Than Revenge” from “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress” to “He was a moth to the flame, she was holding the matches.” To some this is the musical equivalent of making Greedo shoot at Han Solo first in the Mos Eisley space port. Creators can’t help but go back and change things that have always bothered them in newer versions. But in this instance, the line still works, even if Swift is trying to hide some of the immaturity of her writing at the time.
Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) also includes two of the three songs originally released on the deluxe version of the album, including “Ours” that became a #1 country song (“If This Were A Movie” is left off). All of these new versions were produced by Swift with Christopher Rowe, giving them a similar consistency to how Swift originally recorded the songs exclusively with Nathan Chapman.
Then the new Speak Now version also offers six “From The Vault” songs written by Swift herself presumably for the original Speak Now sessions, but that never made it on the original or deluxe edition. Aside from “Ours,” the deluxe edition selections were already a bit of a step down in quality, and when it comes to the “From The Vault” material, it’s arguably a step down even further.
There is a reason these songs were 86’d from the album originally, though you can’t necessarily fault Swift for including them here to give dedicated fans something new in this re-recorded album, and perhaps contractual obligations would have allowed scrapped studio versions of these songs to be released in the future, so Swift might have wanted to beat them to the punch. Still, a song like “Emma Falls in Love” meanders and struggles to make its point, forgoing the often incisive lyricism of Speak Now.
Unlike all the original and deluxe tracks of Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), Swift uses producers Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff on the “From The Vault” tracks, and you can tell because they don’t exactly fit with the rest of the record. Antonoff chooses to use electronic drums and other MIDI/laptop-constructed music to built out Swift’s collaboration with Hayley Williams called “Castles Crumbling.” The original Speak Now sessions were nearly all organic, at times even veering into aggressive rock. Jack Antonoff is the king of taking country acts and turning them even more pop.
Arguably the gem of the “From The Vault” selections is the final track called “Timeless.” This is where you find Taylor Swift’s insightful writing re-emerge, and the track is surprisingly organic in its instrumentation with guitar and ukelele, despite Antonoff being behind the mixing board.
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But beyond the unique contours to these new recordings or reactions to the newish songs, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) offers an awesome opportunity for a retrospective upon how this album helped portend future events that have present and future implications in music. It really was a fulcrum of cultural change in country music and beyond.
It was due to the album’s poor commercial performance that Scott Borchetta decided Taylor Swift’s songs needed more “lift,” and invited pop super producers Max Martin and Shellback into the process, which facilitated Taylor Swift’s shift to pop entirely. Their collaborations made up the lion’s share of her next album Red, leading to her album 1989 where Swift outright declared her allegiance to pop forevermore.
The reverberations of this action are still very much felt in country music today. To traditionalists in 2010, Taylor Swift and her two CMA Entertainer of the Year Awards posed the greatest existential threat to the genre that had ever existed up to that point, or so they thought. When Swift won her first Entertainer of the Year in 2009, some top musical pundits of the time declared country music dead, and placed the blood on Swift’s hands.
Little did we know what major label executives like Scott Borchetta had in store for us in the coming years. Borchetta signed a promising young duo named Florida Georgia Line, ultimately leading to the scourge of Bro-Country so catastrophically infesting the country industry from stem to stern that we prayed for the era when Taylor Swift’s little pop songs were the worst that country music had to offer.
Taylor Swift’s departure also helped facilitate the virtual evisceration of female representation in the mainstream country genre, not just because it ushered in the Bro-Country era, but because Swift took her highly-awarded, super popular, and radio play-assured music to other pastures, leaving a gaping hole we’re not just the most popular woman in all of country music once stood, but where the most popular artist in all of country music once stood.
But a lot of people held a newfound respect for Taylor Swift after she officially declared herself a pop artist. She was finally being honest, confirming what purists and traditionalists had been saying the whole time, and alleviating that conflict by leaving the country genre. To this day, it would be great if other pop artists such as Sam Hunt and Maren Morris would follow her lead. And from Swift being so forthright, country fans could actually enjoy her music and songs without all the drama and concern about them being mislabeled.
It was also through Speak Now that many of Taylor Swift’s staunchest critics found a higher level of respect for her. By writing and producing the album herself, she quashed the criticisms that she was a product and puppet of the industry.
Taylor Swift took her heartbreak from John Mayer who was 32 when she was 19, and turned it into a epic, nearly 7-minute track. She took the criticism for her singing, and turned it into a Grammy-winning country song. She took the loss of her own innocence, and cemented those feelings superbly in “Never Grow Up.” She learned how to be wrong and humble in “Back to December.” And these songs were so good, Taylor Swift can release them a second time and they still resonate—and according to the numbers, they resonate even more than her two previous album re-releases, setting Spotify records.
Speak Now is the real Taylor Swift, and always will be. It’s Taylor Swift after she had matured into her true self, and before the denizens of commercial pop got a hold of her. It’s not perfect, and it’s definitely not country. But it’s sincere human sentiments set to organic music, and something that has clearly withstood the last 13 years, and will likely withstand many, many more.
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Purchase Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)