Taylor Swift's Red (Taylor's Version) is the victory lap her experimental album deserves

Commentary: If you're reading Taylor Swift's rerecording of her fourth studio album, Red, as anything other than a celebration, you're reading it wrong.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
5 min read

Red (Taylor's Version) is a celebration of everything Swift has acheived.

Taylor Swift

Back in 2012, when I was still a grumpy, pop-averse indie kid, Taylor Swift's Red burst into my life seemingly from nowhere, verbalizing thoughts and feelings that had felt specific to me and the relationships I was in during my late teens and early twenties. Written with wit and tenderness, her music had a healing effect on me. It made me feel less alone. 

But what I was reading as the female deconstruction of toxic relationships, narcissism, trauma, gaslighting, breadcrumbing and other problematic behaviors we barely had names for back then was being more widely read as petulance, obsession, bitterness and playing the victim. Swift took this to heart, and so did her fans. The denigration of the artist and her work, led by the media, didn't happen in isolation. It was part of a wider trend of mocking and dismissing the experiences of young women to silence and invalidate them.

Last week, Swift rereleased Red, her fourth studio album, as part of her project to reclaim ownership of her masters, and the reception has been rapturous across the board. Red was a hit the first time around by chart standards and was even nominated for album of the year at the Grammys, but it elicited eye rolls or indifference from music snobs. (Music publication Pitchfork didn't deign to review it for seven years.)

But the album, once seen primarily as fodder for gossip sites, is now being appreciated first and foremost for its artistry. Newer fans who weren't well-versed in Swift's pre-mainstream pop or pre-Folklore career are enjoying the revelatory experience of being freshly exposed to this sprawling record that contains many of her best-ever lyrics and deep cuts.

This wholehearted embrace of Red makes it apparent just how different the entertainment industry is in 2021 compared with 2012. With the advent of the #MeToo movement, it feels like there's been collective growth in the way we're able to identify and call out sexism when we see it.

Many of Swift's newer fans are also now humbly holding up their hands after grappling with the uncomfortable truth that their misogyny -- internalized or otherwise -- previously got in their way. The media messaging that made Swift into the butt of every joke for daring to be vulnerable, that saw her being slut-shamed on her journey to finding a happy, healthy relationship, made them write her off before even listening to her. Looks like they know that now.

But this isn't a universal mea culpa moment. Unfortunately, not all of the sexist criticism of Swift has disappeared. On Twitter and elsewhere online, Swift has been called "unhealthy" and "bitter," and accused of tearing people down. These accusations largely come from people spouting inaccurate information about her holding a grudge over an old relationship (as if she didn't write Red, in its entirety, years ago) and painting a false narrative around an entire album (while only really talking about one song). 

As a fan who had to watch this cycle of misogynistic criticism play out once already, it's uncomfortable and frustrating to see the same tired arguments being used to try to undermine Swift's artistry and success as though the past nine years didn't happen.

I'm not letting it ruin my fun, though. It's important not to let the bad-faith arguments overshadow what this moment is really about -- a celebration of Swift owning this vitally important work. Red foreshadows all the music Swift has made since and allowed those looking closely enough to get a glimpse of the multifaceted artist she knew she could become.

When it failed to take home the Grammy, Swift put Red's failure down to a lack of "sonic cohesion" (which explains why she followed it up with the very cohesive 1989). But this was an era of experimentation that hinted at the way Swift would come to transcend genre to successfully collaborate with musicians across the spectrum. Red is loosely classed as a country-pop crossover album, but its influences range from dub-step to indie, and would be better understood as a sonic stretching of wings (especially as the rerecording includes the addition of 10 new "from the vault" tracks that were written for the album but ultimately didn't make the original).

It hinted too at the way she would take the sorrow and joy of others and make something beautiful out of them (Ronan and Starlight). It showed us how she would poignantly muse over the passage of time and the meaning of legacy (Nothing New, The Lucky One) with the acuity of someone three times her age. There's an agelessness to the writing on Red that would make Swift's exact age hard to pinpoint had she not anchored it in her 22nd year with the song 22.

There was heartbreak, yes, but there was also the blossoming of new love (Begin Again, Everything Has Changed, Holy Ground), the pain specific to long-distance relationships (Come Back, Be Here…) and the rewards to be found in letting your guard down (Stay, Stay, Stay). Looking at the volume of songs alone, it showed us how prolific she could and would be under pressure. (See also Folklore and Evermore.)

Almost a decade on, Swift has fulfilled everything she promised on this album and so much more. Listening to the rerecording of Red in 2021 is like reading a list in her dream journal of everything she hoped to become and accomplish and finding every item ticked off. It's made all the better by her palpable glee -- at taking ownership of her work, at reconnecting with her fanbase, at finding happiness, contentment and creative fulfillment in her own life.

And so to the question of who is playing the victim here. Who is really holding an outdated grudge? Who is really bitter? It's certainly not Swift, who is quite the epitome of living one's best life right now. I've come across a few people in my travels around the internet who might fit these descriptions, but history is already reflecting badly on them and their lack of generosity. The same will not be said of Taylor Swift, who at only 31, already boasts an enviable legacy worthy of 13 lifetimes and more.