What Does Taylor’s Version Of The Past Look Like?
11:18 AM EDT on July 10, 2023
Taylor Swift is now one album closer to owning masters of her first six records. Last Friday, she released Speak Now (Taylor’s Version). The original album was released in 2010 and was notably her first, and to date only, album written completely alone.
Aside from Swift’s mature vocals, some slightly stripped-down instrumentation—a collaboration with producers Christopher Rowe, Aaron Dessner, and Jack Antonoff—and a fresh batch of six new vault tracks, the major headline out of this re-record is a changed lyric from the song “Better Than Revenge.” The original, written after her breakup with Joe Jonas, was a spiteful warning directed at the girl she believed had stolen her boyfriend: “She should keep in mind there is nothing I do better than revenge.” It’s the kind of thought, and more broadly the kind of song, that comes from angry scribbles in a teenage diary, and from a mind that hasn’t had its consciousness raised or spent the last decade both deconstructing and enduring the ways misogyny has wound its way deep into our culture. It’s the sort of lyric a more grown-up artist would want to change a decade down the line.
While the tone of the entire song isn’t quite up to contemporary feminist standards, one line in the chorus is particularly damning: “She’s not a saint and she’s not what you think, she’s an actress/But she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” That was slut-shaming and misogynistic, too, if not surprisingly so in the context of where popular feminism was in 2010. In the days leading up to the release, fans speculated about whether and how Swift might address this in the re-record. For what it’s worth, I was hoping she’d shift the point of view in the song so that she’d be singing about herself. Calling herself an actress would reference her 2017 single “Look What You Made Me Do”—“I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams”—and serve as commentary on how her professional work is often overtaken by news of her personal life. Swift did none of these things. Instead, she quietly replaced the line with a new one: “He was a moth to the flame, she was holding the matches.”
This isn’t the first time Swift has changed lyrics in her songs; one of her first singles, “Picture to Burn,” originally contained the lyric: “So go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy/That's fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay” which was changed to “That’s fine, you won’t mind if I say.” That change was made early in her career, and is less historically consequential than changes made as part of the re-recording process, which is itself an effort to create a new record of origin for her first six albums, the masters of which were sold to Scooter Braun in 2019.
That act of re-recording inevitably creates a meta-commentary that forces Swift to confront previous versions of herself and her art in all its brilliance, its cringe, and its outdatedness. The mature vocals on songs like “Mean,” a response to the music critic Bob Lefsetz’s criticism of her singing, sound like a wink from Swift. The chorus—“Someday I’ll be living in a big ol’ city, and all you’re ever gonna be is mean”—when sung in her 2010 voice reads like the wistful dream of a young artist who hasn’t seen quite how mean things are going to get. In the new version, you can almost hear 33-year-old Swift rolling her eyes at that thin-skinned younger self.
Swift’s politics have been debated over the last several years, all the more so because she was long so reluctant to talk about them. The result has ranged from speculation that Swift was a white supremacist, to accusations of her deploying her white womanhood to play the victim in various celebrity spats, before finally culminating in the release of the Netflix documentary Miss Americana, which chronicles her decision to finally start speaking out on electoral politics in one of her home states of Tennessee. It makes sense that she would feel the pressure to do something about the “mattress” line.
Still, the new lyrics were jarring to me. Some of that is inevitable, probably; I was 19 when the original Speak Now came out, and I spent countless hours rage-walking around my college town with the old version blasting from my iPod, high on the counterfeit rage I’d siphoned from the song. I’ve changed since then, which is probably also inevitable and as I hope we all have. I’m glad the song didn’t stay exactly the same, but quietly changing the lyrics to something more politically palatable felt off to me. Maybe it’s because, for Swift fans, once a “Taylor’s Version” is released, the original versions are dead, not to be fucked with, and do not exist. And so changing a problematic line without acknowledging having done so feels a little like rewriting history without placing it into context or taking accountability.
Contrast Swift’s quiet replacement of a new lyric to how Hayley Williams of Paramore prefaced their 2007 hit “Misery Business,” which includes the line “Second chances they don't ever matter, people never change/Once a whore, you're nothing more/I'm sorry, that'll never change.” During a 2022 show in Chicago, Williams copped to the song’s misogyny—“Make no mistake,” she said, “I was being fucking misogynistic—who in their life has not?” She goes on to say, “Rest in peace to all the internalized misogyny, here's to growing up together” before performing the song, with the problematic lines included. If there’s a right way to take accountability for this sort of thing—for a creator to engage with and acknowledge the presence of things that they no longer believe in a piece of art that is still theirs—this feels like it. There are others, too. The only truly wrong one, as far as I can tell, would be to leave things exactly as they are and ignore them completely—to act as if they never happened, or as if everything that came after never did.
The other song on “Speak Now” that was most jarring to hear was “Innocent,” a song Swift wrote about Kanye West after he stormed the stage during her 2009 VMA’s acceptance speech. She sings it from a place of magnanimity: “It's okay, life is a tough crowd/32 and still growin' up now/Who you are is not what you did/You're still an innocent.” If this was perhaps generous to a fault at the time, it seems overwhelmingly so today; given what Kanye became during the intervening 14 years, it’s hard for me to conjure the grace for him the song requires. But the song is a time capsule of that moment, before his trips to Trump Tower and the antisemitism and the total existential collapse into Ye. It’s not lost on me that Swift is herself 33 now, roughly the same age that West was when she was singing to him. Even a song that’s left unaltered changes over time; it has something to do with how many times you hear it, and who you are when you’re listening. The lines feel prescient either way. Some of that might just be time, but maybe Swift also sensed that she would need some of that grace as well.