6 minutes

Justice for the Teenage Taylor Swift

Before she released Speak Now, her third album, Taylor Swift was best-known for writing lyrical fairy tales such as “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” in which she pined for romantic love and happy endings. But “Better Than Revenge,” from that 2010 record, was something different–an angry song, filled with lines that sounded like they were torn from the pages of a Mean Girls-esque burn book. Over crunchy electric guitars and a pop-punk beat, Swift taunted the new girlfriend of an ex. She ripped apart her subject’s fashion sense, her career choice, and, most controversial at the time, her sex life: “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” Swift snarled, in the song’s big sing-along chorus.

It was a nasty number, filled with the type of inelegant insults one spews when truly hurt, and it posed a dilemma for Swift’s ongoing project to rerecord her work. If she scrapped the song entirely for its sexism, she would have failed to fully rerecord her third album. If she did what Paramore did with their hit “Misery Business”–admit that the song has troubling lyrics but keep it as is–she’d potentially receive more backlash than she did in 2010. In the end, the singer gave “Better Than Revenge” a mini-makeover on Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), the album released last week. Instead of sneering at her target’s experience in the bedroom, Swift delivers a misogyny-free metaphor about how her ex’s new relationship came to be: “He was a moth to the flame / She was holding the matches,” go the new lyrics. The sentiment is tamer, and the imagery more poetic, continuing Swift’s overuse of fiery language and willingness to edit her published songwriting. (Swift has previously changed lyrics to “Picture to Burn,” off of her debut album, and “Me!,” off of Lover–tracks that contained offensive, or in the latter’s case, plain bad writing.)

But the new “Better Than Revenge” doesn’t only soften the blow of Swift’s original attitude; sung in her richer, more mature voice, the song loses the pained, angry, and sanctimonious sound of her teenage self. As hostile as the lyrics may have been, their unfiltered quality made the original song powerful. In its adjustment, the track reveals the curse of Swift’s rerecording endeavor as a whole: Try as Swift might, she can never capture the same potency these albums had when they were released. In Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), Swift struggles more than she has on any other “Taylor’s Version” variant so far to close the gap between her present and her past. This time, she sounds like she’s performing as–rather than engaging with–the person she used to be.

Up until now, the singer has successfully time-traveled by building on her work, or adopting a new outlook in her vocal performances. On Fearless (Taylor’s Version), she sang as if she were reminiscing about her younger self, lending tracks such as “Love Story” and “Fifteen” a welcome, knowing warmth with her subtly altered inflections. On Red (Taylor’s Version), she transformed “Girl at Home,” a finger-wagging ditty about cheating, into a cheekier, lighter dance track by overhauling its production, and she expanded “All Too Well” into a 10-minute showstopper.

Speak Now, though, isn’t like the other albums Swift has rerecorded. It was written entirely by Swift alone–on every other album, she’s used co-writers–and it contains the artist at her pettiest, with each song directly addressing “a specific person in mind, telling them what I meant to tell them in person,” as she explains in her liner notes. She tears a music critic apart on “Mean,” predicting that his future will find him “washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things.” She fantasizes about crashing a wedding on “Speak Now” to save the groom from a bridezilla who has “a snotty little family all dressed in pastel.” She looks back on the Kanye West incident with the thoroughly smug “Innocent,” a ballad in which she reminds him to appreciate his “firefly-catching days.”

At the same time, Speak Now also wraps up with a hat trick of epic anthems: “Haunted,” “Last Kiss,” and “Long Live” express wildly different emotions, but they soar with sentimentality. All of this made for a brazen and unabashed portrait of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, assured in her maturity but still obviously far from being grown. As a result, the uncomfortable reality of rerecording it more than a decade later highlight how time and perspective have inevitably whittled away the sharp edges of those turbulent years. On “Better Than Revenge,” Swift can’t possibly re-create the bite she once had. Besides, she’s also acknowledged how the song came from a very specific place: “I was 18 when I wrote that,” she told The Guardian in 2014. “That’s the age you are when you think someone can actually take your boyfriend. Then you grow up and realize no one can take someone from you if they don’t want to leave.”

In that sense, then, the defanged lyric and mellower vocals in “Better Than Revenge (Taylor’s Version)” do at least reflect the awkwardness of engaging with a younger self. In her inability to regenerate the poison of the original track, Swift conjures the disquiet that comes from revisiting the period memorialized by the music of Speak Now. It evokes that feeling of opening an old diary full of entries written at a tricky age and immediately wanting to look away. Still, maybe Swift shouldn’t avert her gaze. When I listened to Speak Now for the first time as a teenager, I was shocked by how it contained the kind of scathing thoughts I sometimes wished I could voice. I couldn’t believe that Swift was able to convey, in the same album, devastating despair at a failed romance (“Dear John”), all-encompassing awe at the blossoming of a crush (“Enchanted”), and tender yearning for the simplicity of her childhood (“Never Grow Up”). And, yes, the “mattress” line in “Better Than Revenge” made me gasp.

As I listened to Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), I longed for that boldness. What if Swift didn’t rewrite one lyric in the chorus of “Better Than Revenge” but wrote a new song altogether? What if she changed the target of “Mean,” now that she’s exceeded the expectations she’d outlined for herself in its lyrics? What if she expanded “Last Kiss” like she did “All Too Well”? “I know now that one of the bravest things a person can do is create something with unblinking sincerity, to put it all on the line,” Swift says in the liner notes for the new album, about her experience writing Speak Now. If only she’d found the courage to indulge the person who taught her that lesson in the first place.

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