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Arts & Culture

Still 'Fearless': Re-Recording The Past On Taylor's Version

Taylor Swift through the years.

On Nov. 11, 2008, then-18-year-old Taylor Swift released her sophomore album, Fearless. The record would become Swift's first No.1, spending 11 weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 and becoming 2009's best-selling album (to jog your memory, the year's other best-sellers included Micheal Jackson's Number Ones, Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream and Lady Gaga's The Fame). Fearless would go on to win the 2010 Grammy Award for album of the year — Swift's first win in said category, making her the youngest AOTY winner until Billie Eilish's 2020 win — as well as best country album.

It's been 13 years — a very Swiftian coincidence, as her purported lucky number occupies an outsized role in Taylor lore — since the release of Fearless, and in the intervening years, plenty's changed. From the coming-of-age country pop of Red, to the harsh heel turn of reputation, to her pandemic-era collaboration with Aaron Dessner, Swift's switched up her sound and stayed centerstage in an ever-evolving industry. But on her latest release, Fearless (Taylor's Version), released April 9 via Republic Records, Swift returns to the past, revisiting a breakthrough moment as an act of reclamation. The result of a high-profile ownership dispute, it's the first of what promises to be a series of re-recordings of her early material in order to regain artistic and financial control of her masters.

Mining the past and making use of a time when touring is off the table may prove to be a savvy business venture, but the long-term impact of Fearless (Taylor's Version) — and the full re-record project — remains to be seen. For fans, whether you were 15, 19 or 22 when Fearless debuted, Taylor's Version feels shrouded in an air of whimsical nostalgia. Swift herself even indulged in a little sentimentalism in the re-release announcement, calling it "an album full of magic and curiosity, the bliss and devastation of youth." In hindsight, it's easy for Swift to sum up the record's warmth; for our assessment of Taylor's Version, we chose to consider the perspective of the fans that have grown up — and evolved — alongside Swift. We invited writers and musicians to revisit their first experiences with the 2008 record as they come to the 2021 re-release. This is Fearless, NPR Music's version, track by track (almost) in its entirety. — Lyndsey McKenna and LaTesha Harris


"Fearless"

When I first heard "Fearless," I had a horrifyingly big crush I didn't want to tell anybody about, which I probably sublimated into Swiftie fandom. Since I've always responded to having a crush (even the phrase sounds physically painful) the way a geographic region might prepare for a natural disaster, this song sounded like somebody gleefully hanging out on the front porch during a hurricane to me. I do not think I am the product of unusual trauma or circumstances, just nervous. Wanting someone else, and wanting them to want me too, strikes panic in my heart. I will do everything in my power to make it stop or escape. Cupid and his little archery thing? Sounds like a potential terrorist. At the time, songs about the pleasures of love usually sounded as twisted as describing the Saw franchise as a serialized rom-com.

So realizing that I actually liked this song about wanting to drive around aimlessly with somebody "'til we run out of road," unconcerned with the possibility of being kidnapped by Jigsaw, was disorienting. Total fantasyland! But there were days I listened to it over and over again, I later realized, because though I was skeptical I wanted to believe that being in love could make you feel good, maybe even brave.

What I love about "Fearless" is its celebration of feeling itself, not as a means to an end. There is no reference to a plan for the future, nor any mention of a past explaining how it happened. There is only the present moment, in which, "You pull me in and I'm a little more brave," Swift sings, "it's a first kiss, it's flawless, really something." Love is common and it feels extraordinary. In a culture often selling the power of individualism and standing out, the fearlessness of wanting and feeling wanted is what makes us brave enough to trade in the safety of solitude for the strength of connection. — Katie Alice Greer, artist, songwriter, producer


"Fifteen"

I first heard "Fifteen" on VH1 before heading on the bus to school. The imagery, the confessionality and the direct address drew me in immediately. I was a year shy of 15 and longed to have the wisdom Swift had on love and heartache.

As a teenager, the song carried me through an ending of a friendship that left me motionless. As someone who was repressing my gayness as much as I could when I was that age, I had yet to understand why the friendship ending hit me so hard. As an adult, it's obvious now that my overwhelming sadness was really heartbroken grief over a girl I loved.

"Wish you could go back / And tell yourself what you know now."

"Fifteen"'s importance relies on its hindsight — a stroke of genius or synchronicity as I'm left here re-contextualizing its message 13 years later. It's a cautionary tale, but in order for its message to burn bright, Swift allows us to fall in love alongside her protagonist, Abigail. There's the lights of new love; the first kiss leaves us dizzy; and there's an irrationality that's exciting and liberating. But Swift takes us back into reality, the fantasy fades and we are left crying to our best friend about the flippancy of romance.

"Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind / And we both cried."

As I listen back now, I stand tall and bask in Swift's hindsight. Thirteen years later, I still feel the harsh letdowns of the girl who broke my heart, but I at least understand why it hurt so much. There are artists that allow us to wallow and others that let us heal. Swift has been able to maneuver both roles with one song, a healing arc that I am endlessly thankful for. — Stevie Knipe, Adult Mom vocalist


"Love Story"

From the first few plucks of that iconic banjo roll over top the syncopated cymbal hits, to arguably the catchiest pre chorus-beat drop Taylor's ever recorded, "Love Story" occupies a place that never loses any of its power. It's not only one of her initial meteoric leaps into pop stardom and becoming a beloved American artist, it's a song that literally anyone can like and enjoy, if not relate to and/or vibe with. Like, it feels SO good to sing this as loud as you can in your car and if you say it doesn't you've never done it. I grew up listening to acts like AFI, My Chemical Romance, Dave Matthews Band, Hatebreed and Nirvana, but I became an instant fan when I first heard "Love Story." It has a way of pulling you into this fantasy-like, Disney-esque world that somehow — whether you're 12 or 32 — you can completely buy into her story. That's what I like most about her songs and vibe and to me is the qualifier of her popularity: It's so easy to become spellbound by the narratives and you can't help but to hum the ever loving s*** out of a song like "Love Story." It just feels so good. — Ruston Kelly, singer-songwriter


"Hey Stephen"

It's possible to miss "Hey Stephen," which hits right after the titanic three-track run of opener "Fearless," the dynamic diarism of "Fifteen" and the career-making revisionist Romeo and Juliet track, "Love Story" (with some Scarlet Letter mixed in, for complexity, and because it is the required reading material for so many advanced placement high school students. To them, and me, Taylor's effortless articulation was a divine mirror). But "Hey Stephen" is a sonic shift. Big band percussion leads, the kind that would keep time for a Motown girl group — the most romantic, nostalgic sound in the world and something Swift knew how to utilize long before I'd realize its power in adulthood.

In 2008, I was seriously dating a boy for the first time. His name, coincidentally, was Steven, and my discovery of Taylor's Fearless cut was, embarrassingly, related to that. At the time, I was a diehard third-wave emo kid with a growing affection for '80s college radio and indie rock; Swift and her ascending bridges were not on my radar. (And I'm so glad that changed, or I'd miss the perfectly pop-punk lyrical line: "All those other girls, well, they're beautiful / But would they write a song for you?" All Time Low could never.) When I had my Steven, I was interested in all Stephens, and so I hunted for songs with the name. Then I found Taylor's. On "Hey Stephen," Taylor wrote about her crush with the confidence and clarity that completely evaded me in adolescence. Privately, I held onto her song like it was my own. When she hummed in the intro and the outro, I clocked her whimsy as a great gesture towards something beyond the limits of language, as if her love of Stephen/Steven was too prodigious to sing. She had to ease the listener in. With some distance and some wisdom, I realize that I was projecting; she was nothing if not vulnerable on record. Her humming is a songwriting device, not some coded insecurity. If it was, she wouldn't give a hearty laugh somewhere in the middle. I also loved that — she sounded so candid on tape.

Now, I view "Hey Stephen" as less about our Stevens, and more about the charm of finding someone you really like for the very first time. You know, even if you break up and decide you're never, ever, ever getting back together. Like ever. — Maria Sherman, NPR Music contributor and author of LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS


"You Belong With Me"

"You Belong With Me" entered the world when I was eight years old, so I have come to know this song like the sky is blue. It seemed as though Taylor had laid out a prophecy for me to fulfill in the form of a feeling. The feeling that I have something to say, but they just don't know it yet. If I just try long enough I can have everything I want. And all I wanted was to be like Taylor.

She was probably the first girl I ever saw play guitar in my life, and I felt encouraged to do the same. It might seem like an exaggeration to say that a song about a girl wanting to be heard catalyzed me into a lifelong frenzy of songwriting and performance, but for me, it's an understatement. When I started writing songs around age 10, I taught myself on the Taylor brand guitar as seen in the hands of Taylor herself. Despite who I have been or who I thought I was, I carried her sentiments like gospel through every phase of my adolescence — whether it was joining the marching band with the sole image of Taylor screaming from the bleachers emblazoned into my perception of high school archetypes or performing distorted renditions of "You Belong With Me" at crowded house shows and parties.

Now 20, I still harbor the same unsettled things to be said clawing at the proverbial surface. I realize I am still waiting for everyone to notice me at the prom as I pull out my folded note and declare myself. Who's to say whether the persistence Taylor instilled in me is a blessing or a curse? Regardless, I have truly been here all along waiting for everyone to see. — Hana Vu, musician


"Breathe"

"Breathe" is definitely one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs even though I wasn't totally aware of how great she was when the song was first released. Honestly, it took me a little while to come around but at this point, I'm pretty much all in. She has had so many great tunes over the last decade while being a mega pop star celebrity who has managed to maintain her artistic integrity. When Fearless came out in 2008, I was living in Florida wrapping up college and pretty much only interested in doing film scoring. I moved to New York City soon after I graduated and started working as a staff composer writing music for television promos, commercials and the occasional movie when I was lucky enough. That experience is where I started to sharpen my music production chops which is how I gained a new appreciation for big pop production in mainstream music. I've always loved pop music like Taylor Swift's partly because of the way it sounds: It's exciting to hear super-polished and produced music. That's another reason why I love "Breathe" — it sounds like it could work in several different styles and genres. When a song sounds good stripped down on guitar but also works well with a lot of production value, it seems to be a good sign that the track is timeless. — John Ross, Wild Pink frontman


"Tell Me Why"

Fearless found me at the most pivotal time in my life. I was making the transition from middle school to high school, started growing my hair out in dreads — which would become a staple of my look well into the beginning of my career — and I was finally starting to get a grip on songwriting. I'd started teaching myself guitar in elementary school and by 8th grade, I was proficient enough that everyone wanted me to accompany them at the school's talent show since my middle school didn't have a guitar program (unlike the surrounding schools). I felt kinship with Taylor Swift because she started writing songs really early on in her life and it gave me the confidence to continue to write. Fearless felt like a masterclass on songwriting, but "Tell Me Why" always stood out.

"Tell Me Why" taught me how to write a chord progression. Though it wasn't a single, or even necessarily one of my favorites off the record, it was my absolute favorite to play. Despite its heavy lyrics, the chord progression sounded equally breezy and flowy sonically. The chorus of "Tell Me Why" really stands out. It's wordy and longer than the average chorus, but it never feels clunky.

Additionally, all three choruses in the song vary lyrically, which is something I always love to do. Obviously Taylor wasn't the first to do this, but she was the first I can remember doing it and making it sound as seamless as it was, thus creating yet another T Swift songwriting trick you can track throughout my entire discography — and, I'm sure, for future records to come. — Shamir, musician


"You're Not Sorry"

When I first heard this song, I related to it in my own teenage naivety — it tells the familiar story of a girl who gave all of her love to a guy who didn't deserve it. As a songwriter, I have always been inspired by Taylor's ability to be so utterly vulnerable in front of the entire world and "You're Not Sorry" is a perfect example. It can feel so embarrassing to try so hard (even to the point of begging!) to get someone to care for you the way you care for them and here, with her heart on her sleeve, she tells us she has done just that.

In revisiting this song, I noticed something that I wish I had paid more attention to when I was younger: Taylor isn't asking us for sympathy. Instead, she is exercising her own autonomy and demonstrating the incredible power of setting an emotional boundary. She is recognizing when enough is enough and putting an end to things on her own terms, in her own time. The chorus pours in like thunder, sadness turned to anger, as Taylor's teenage lyrics resonate with grown-up me. They are now an important and necessary reminder to give myself permission to acknowledge my limits, and in turn, to honor myself in the process.

This feels even more meaningful given the context of Taylor's re-recording. "You're Not Sorry" tells an even bigger story now: the story of a woman taking her power back from a man who didn't have her best interest at heart. I revisit this familiar song with old nostalgia and new inspiration. At the core of each of these stories lies a radical act of self-care. At the end of each of these stories, Taylor comes out on top. — Ellis, singer-songwriter


"The Way I Loved You"

In the early aughts, I became indoctrinated in Swiftlore the same way a million other preteen girls did — through fantasy. My conversion happened almost concurrently with a drastic personality adjustment as I became embedded in pop punk's third wave, hoping to figure out who I was. On the surface, the genres seemed worlds apart, but as a counted against and therefore angry Black kid growing up in suburban Texas, I had found my prophets. The rage of emo came to me naturally. To access Taylor's impassioned vulnerability, I needed assistance.

Help was hours spent on YouTube watching Harry Potter fanvids. Essentially, the most embarrassing thing I could ever admit. And remember, this was a step before today's oversaturated internet, littered with an abundance of expertly made fanvids. Their forefathers, my bread and butter, were grainy with undecipherable fonts, disjointed and clumsily edited scenes and cringy color filters. "The Way I Loved You," a song about the unbridled desire — no matter how outlandish or asinine — of youth was a fanvid cultural staple. And I ate it up.

The song finds Taylor teetering across love's fragile tightrope. Earnestly honest, she struggles with liking her current partner, sensible and father-endorsed, and loving a former flame, wild and crazy. Fraught violin, urgent guitar and delicate piano swell in the track's chorus as Taylor bemoans the loss of her paramour, a dramatic shift from softer verses evaluating the objective goodness of her new option. Taylor's passionate uncertainty is immortalized in a massive yet out-of-sight corner of the web; hundreds of fanvids follow our self-inserted protagonist (usually Hermione Granger) trying to love the sweet boy she's with even though she actually has feelings for the bad boy (always Draco Malfoy).

Navigating the torture of adolescence — made worse by living in a predominantly white town — I never felt like I was in the know. I was an eternal side character, an outsider peering in and pulling back, resigned to living vicariously through a screen. With those fanvids, I experienced tumultuous love, that thunder rolling, end-of-days love: initially through characters I'd cherished for years; soon, it became Taylor's voice itself, her words made all the more bewitching by their apparent universality.

As an overlooked child, I came to "The Way I Loved You" by way of escape. Today, I come to Taylor by way of control. With her re-release, she's the main character in the middle of all this fiction and I finally feel myself growing into the same. — LaTesha Harris, NPR Music editorial assistant


"Forever & Always"

I would have never admitted to enjoying Fearless as a sulky 11-year-old who exclusively listened to pop punk and whose only pair of shoes were red, high-top Chuck Taylors. I was committed to performing a hard outer shell, softened only by the urgent ache of Taylor Swift's "Forever & Always."

Listening to "Forever & Always" as a middle schooler, I wasn't enticed by the romance embedded in the song. Instead, I clutched my pillow, thinking about the friends I was losing to growing up. I saw it most vividly in a friendship I had with one girl, who I would call — and would call me — after school, for hours on end, daily. The calls staggered over the years, until neither of us could remember each other's landline. There were never any questions or excuses as to why it ended. My first instinct was to try and fix it, but I couldn't pinpoint the issue in the first place.

The song was confrontational in a way that I wanted to be, but could not bring myself to: "Was I out of line? / Did I say something way too honest, made you run and hide / Like a scared little boy?" I learned to second-guess myself to the point of anger, but Taylor helped me ask all of my questions. There's a guitar solo midway through the song; at this point in the performance of the song in the concert documentary series Journey to Fearless, Swift picks up the armchairs on stage around her and throws them offstage. She lets the guitars ring in the bridge — "Did you forget everything?" — slowing down the song momentarily to let trepidation creep in, before she belts into the last chorus.

It's a cathartic burst of anger. The melody sounded liberating to me, yet I felt so full of shame. How could I be both?

In retrospect, I'll admit I was wrong in how I positioned Swift in the music library of my mind, which was skewed by inherited perceptions of gender and power. I resented how Swift could balance confrontation and vulnerability; as a girl, it felt like weakness. Rocking out to "Forever & Always" was a path to knowing it wasn't. For that, I'm grateful. — Alex Ramos, NPR Music editorial intern

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