Over the past weekend upon the re-release of Red (Taylor’s Version), I found myself re-listening to Taylor Swift’s extensive song catalog in the order in which I first heard it.
To catch up any readers wondering why Taylor Swift is releasing new versions of her old albums, the long and short of it is that much of her musical catalog is owned by others than herself, and it has been sold more than once, including to parties she doesn't quite like, as well as without her knowledge. The only way for her to own those past records she wrote, she determined, is to re-record them anew and hope fans will support her newer versions.
I was 11 when she released her first, self-titled album, and “Our Song” became the joyful jam that made me think about my crush but also served as a bop for me and my friends in our youthful and hopeful joy. Four years later in 2010, Speak Now came out and served as the background to emotions and anxieties that I still couldn’t fully understand. When I was 23, I blasted Reputation in my car as I emotionally encountered elements where I too experienced damage to reputation. And Evermore and Folklore became soundtracks to my pandemic, and although the sadness was no longer relevant to my present self who was newly married, extremely content and impatiently waiting for my son to be born, it tapped into the sadness I felt about my isolation from those I loved, but also my new-found embrace of a simpler life.
As part of the release, Taylor also debuted a short film as an accompaniment to the long-rumored lengthy version of her song “All Too Well,” a bitter narrative built around memories of an ex-boyfriend and a scarf that was never returned. The ten-minute version is Taylor’s catharsis; it’s the song before it was edited down and made radio-ready (although to be fair, at five minutes and next to earworms like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” it was never destined to be the most popular song from that album). On top of being the expansion to the narrative, it is Taylor unedited: grittier, harder, affected. She is no longer the sweet friend crush we’ve had for years; she’s our longtime pal, through thick and thin, sitting down and telling us the raw version of her story no matter how unpolished the story might appear to be.
The video marks Taylor’s directorial debut and features Sadie Sink of Stranger Things and Dylan O’Brian of The Maze Runner, telling the story of a young woman who falls in love with an older man, and the complex inequality and power imbalance that can be felt in short-term romances. She’s enchanted by him, he’s charming, but the cracks begin to show as he undervalues and ultimately dismisses her feelings when she confronts him with the red flags. The video depicts the reeling that occurs after a complicated breakup and ends with a flashforward to the now older young woman (played by Taylor, herself) at a reading for her book titled, All Too Well—its conclusion echoing Swift’s production of her long song, taking the heartache and turning it into art.
What makes Taylor Swift’s music so well relatable
Like many fans, I grew up alongside Taylor’s music, and although I have wrestled a love/hate relationship with T. Swift’s persona over the years, her music has always intimately related to my experiences as a young woman in our modern world, echoing my personal growth as well.
In the moments when I heard each song for the first time, they helped me verbalize feelings and work through emotions in simplistic storybook terms; fairy tales, heartbreak, the warmth of new love, the desire to be spun around on the kitchen floor, and the fantasy of sauntering into a room dripping with revenge. I remember the mantra of “Enchanted”—“please don’t be in love with someone else” as I wished for unrequited love to be returned and the lyrics of “Mean” becoming my fighting anthem against bullies. Taylor continued to put into song what so many young women like myself experience too vividly, granting us empathy in every release.
When I grew older and revisited the familiar tunes, they brought me back to moments of bittersweet nostalgia, and upon relistening, I could almost feel the wrenching heartache of a 16-year-old me listening to “All Too Well.”
Taylor knows us all too well
As I watched All Too Well: The Short Film, I felt as if both the singer and we the viewers were spectators, catching a birds-eye view of Taylor's experience, and by extension that of our own younger selves. The viewing was painful; on one hand, I could still feel the pain of the girl in the movie as fresh as if it had just happened. But on the other, the time and distance, the mulling of the memories over the years, brought a perspective that wasn’t accessible to our younger selves.
Taylor Swift is a powerful storyteller. She captures the bittersweetness of memory—of our retrospective retellings, true to fact or not—of how something objectively life-altering and uncomfortable can contain good moments muddled in with the bad.
I think Taylor knew what she was doing for herself and for her devoted fans of over a decade when she tapped into the concept of memory as she did in All Too Well: The Short Film. When we revisit a memory, removing its emotional currency, it becomes just a memory. It is no longer imbued with power, nor is it life-altering.
In re-releasing Red with an extended “All Too Well,” Taylor is reinventing the experience from the perspective of a second look at her story. In producing it, she invites listeners relook at their own experiences. As a listener, I can revisit what I related to in her music the first time and re-experience it all again, now with time and distance and the vindication of knowing that I turned out alright. As Taylor retells the whole story, it goes so much deeper than a missing scarf, and its memory doesn't hurt like it once did.
In All Too Well: The Short Film, I saw a younger version of myself, now viewed through an older and wiser lens. I saw myself as Taylor did, feeling wretched, unlovable, but I felt compassion and empathy for my youthful emotions in a way that is now only possible as an older, wiser woman who has experienced heartache, mistakes, regret, grave mistreatment, alongside humanizing moments of raw pain and joy alike. I saw my younger self and wish I could show her my beautiful life now. I wished I could tell her that this too will pass and that the scars wouldn’t hurt to the touch forever and the broken promises wouldn’t break me. In some ways, I wish I could show her that it would all just become a memory, but the paradox is that it was a part of what makes me the woman I am today. After watching All Too Well: The Short Film, I looked at my younger self and gave her grace and compassion that I didn’t have the capacity for at the time, and I am guessing Taylor is showing us she’s done the same for herself.
One could say Taylor’s catharsis has been twofold: she went through it the first time when she was 23 at the release of Red and again now at 31 at its re-release. It would appear the re-release and video of the song are as much a gift for the fans as they are for the songwriter. Like Taylor, many of us have gone through our own evolutions and eras—letting our exterior persona change as our interior grows. For those of us who have been listening to Taylor for the past fifteen years, the te-minute retelling of “All Too Well” parallels a recollected perspective of many of us growing up alongside her—grittier and harder, perhaps, but also deeper.