Taylor Swift Confronts Her First Draft
3:42 PM EST on November 12, 2021
Like many people who have listened to Taylor Swift’s music for decades, grown up with her really, I waited for Red (Taylor’s Version) with an equal mix of anticipation and fear. I had stayed up until midnight 10 years before, that time of the night more familiar to me then, to buy it on iTunes. Ever since then I have loved it—played it on road trips, blasted it in my ears while I rode my bike, sung it at karaoke, defended it to people with less mainstream taste—through many phases of my life. The person I am now is almost unrecognizable from the person I was then, two years younger than Swift was in one of the album's singles: "22."
I knew the songs on the re-release would be technically superior. As a vocalist, Swift has vastly improved in the last decade. She sounds more certain, more in control, more aware of when and how to push the limits of her voice. And I knew, from the re-release of Fearless earlier this year, that she wouldn’t stray too much from her originals. Swift (in case you have put on horse-blinders to the media frenzy around these re-releases) is re-recording all of her albums because her former label and Scooter Braun will not sell her the masters for her own songs, and she doesn’t want people who don’t care about her to profit off her work. She wants the versions of songs that go viral on TikTok and get optioned for commercials and get played on the radio to be ones that she alone controls. It’s an understandable inclination. How can you trust that the thing you made will be kept safe if it is under someone else’s control? How can you continue to create with the knowledge that the art you poured yourself into years ago is making money for someone you hate?
The conversation around this album has mostly centered on “All Too Well,” maybe the album’s most popular, most beloved song. There will be a cast and directed short film made for it. She’s planning to play it on Saturday Night Live this week. If there’s a spoke at the center of this album promotion cycle, it’s this one 10-minute bonus song.
“All Too Well” is a favorite among music writers and fans alike. The song is widely believed to be about actor Jake Gyllenhaal, whom Swift dated when he was 30 and she was 21. It was the longest song on the album when it came out in 2012 at 5:28. But from the moment it was released, the lore about its original length began to grow. It had been 10, 12, 15, 20 minutes long on the first draft, various people said. The 10-minute version grew into a myth among Swift's fans. It existed. It was a longer version of everyone’s favorite song. It was forbidden fruit. And so she promised it. A bonus track on Red (Taylor’s Version). All 10 minutes of anguish and heartbreak.
This was what made me nervous about the album. I wasn’t sure I wanted the 10-minute version. Editing, after all, is writing. Deciding what to cut is almost as important as figuring out what to include. She didn’t, we know, cut it down herself. She called her longtime collaborator, Liz Rose, to help her trim it. Here’s what Rose told Rolling Stone in 2014: “People used to tell me, ‘You’re more like an editor with Taylor,’ and it used to frustrate me, because I can write lyrics, too. But those people were right. Taylor is good because she has lyrics that work for her age. I just help her grab the ones that are great.”
And it was great. The 5:28 original is a long song with no fat on its bones. Nothing to cut. So what would the 10-minute version hold? What secrets did it keep from us? What possible treats could it promise?
When I finally listened to the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” (I dutifully listened to the album in order), I felt 22 again. I felt the kind of vulnerability that comes from thinking you know who you might become, but not being sure how you’ll get there.
Lyrically, it’s far more brutal than the song she ended up with the first time. “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” is far less subtle than the original. It’s vindictive. It makes perfect sense to me why she cut every line that she cut. Here’s a verse that was cut in its entirety from the original version:
They say all's well that ends well, but I'm in a new Hell
Every time you double-cross my mind
You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine
And that made me want to die
The idea you had of me, who was she?
A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you
Not weeping in a party bathroom
Some actress asking me what happened, you
That's what happened, you
You who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes
Sipping coffee like you're on a late-night show
But then he watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come
And he said, "It's supposed to be fun turning twenty-one"
This feels like a fresh wound. The build-up of this storytelling, of being told about your age all the time by men who are older than you and think they know what’s best for you, is familiar to anyone who was young once. Because to be that kind of young—old enough to fend for yourself, but fresh-faced and uncrushed and optimistic—is to be constantly told by other people who you are when you yourself aren’t sure. The next lines in both versions of the song are:
Time won't fly, it's like I'm paralyzed by it
I'd like to be my old self again, but I'm still trying to find it
With the previously cut lyrics added back in, it feels as though the line “Time will fly by” is being said not just by the man who broke her heart, but by everyone around her. It’s her feelings, big and overwhelming and awful, dismissed as youth, treated as nothing. Doesn’t it hurt, to remember that tone that said you were wrong to feel this way? Or that one day, you won’t?
When I listened to this song again and again, trying to really hear it, all I could hear in these lyrics was an immense amount of pain. I can imagine how differently this song might have been received had it sounded like this 10 years ago. How it might have been taken as vindictive, as petty, as making too much of a short relationship. I understand why she cut it.
I have been writing for the public for a decade now, at nowhere near the level of visibility Taylor Swift has, and this is a lesson I learned the hard way: You cannot give all of yourself to everyone. There’s a temptation to slice your chest open, to pull your heart out and slap it on the table for everyone to see. When I was young, I thought maybe there would be some catharsis in this. Maybe it would free me. But once your work is out and away from you and existing on its own, it is open to criticism. It should be criticized. That’s how art reception works. But at first, I didn’t realize that. When I would write too soon after a trauma, in the midst of something really bad, about something I was still processing, I found it harder and harder to feel free from it. I had let this part of myself, which wasn’t resolved, out into the world too early. And once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.
There’s a version of every story that can be given to the public. It’s pared down, it’s stripped of something, it’s bent in such a way to protect the writer from the thing that really hurts to poke. But you know it’s not entirely true. I think often about the full stories of the ones I have told versions of for years, but never as a whole truth. I know what the hurts of those stories are and I conceal them, protect them, cradle them in between my ribs safe and sound while I present something else. A first draft is as powerful as it is terrifying because before the words are shaped, you can’t help but say what you really mean.
As a writer, I love Swift's decision to give the draft a little more polish and release a fuller version of the story 10 years later. This, I assume, is still not the first draft, but one now distant enough to feel like it won’t hurt so much if it flies free. Of course, Taylor Swift can release this song because she is hugely famous and rich and has a fanbase devoted enough to want a 10-minute song. But what she actually has is a decade gone.
There’s a Lucy Dacus song I love called “Night Shift.” In it, she sings, “In five years, I hope these songs sound like covers/dedicated to new lovers.” Recently, at her show in D.C., she said that the song did feel like a cover. Did she know it would? No. She had hoped. But of course she’d been right. I imagine the same is true for every writer. Already, when I read aloud from my novel, I can feel the person who wrote it slipping away from me, the words only two years old, published just five months ago. But already I am different, already they feel separate from me
Nostalgia sells. Remembering being young is worth a pretty penny. And I did mainly enjoy this album out of nostalgia. But the 10-minute song is different. My nostalgia is for its slimmer, trimmed-down sister. I don’t know that this version will ever enter my heavy rotation, but that doesn’t really matter, because what it did do was remind me that one day the things that feel so terrible and bad and raw right now do scab. Time does fly. We can’t ever truly be paralyzed by it.