“We were both young when I first saw you” is a fitting beginning to Taylor Swift’s journey of re–recording her old catalog of music, from debut album Taylor Swift to reputation. Last week, in a surprise announcement on Good Morning America, Swift revealed she had finished recording her second studio album, Fearless, and would be releasing it “soon.” Midnight of that day, Swift dropped “Love Story (Taylor’s version),” featuring new album art that fits more appropriately into her folklore and evermore era. Swift also announced that she'd include six never–before–released songs from the 2008 album's sessions.
Swift’s return to a 13–year–old album brings us back to the height of 2008 pop culture with classics like “You Belong With Me” and “The Way I Loved You.” It’s the album that placed Swift on the precipice of becoming one of the most influential stars of our generation, kickstarting a long and illustrious genre–bending career. But why is she re–recording her early discography in the first place?
Swift began her career in 2006 after signing with Scott Borchetta’s independent label Big Machine Records. During her 12 years with Borchetta, her music made up almost 35% of the label’s market share. When she decided to leave Big Machine Records to sign with Universal Music Group in 2018, Big Machine Records held onto the rights for all master recordings up to her sixth studio album, reputation. The legal situation forced Swift to relinquish her life's work into the hands of her old label, perhaps explaining why she made ownership of master recordings a prerequisite with her new contract under UMG. Lover, Swift’s first self–owned album, stands out from all six of its predecessors with the omission of her name on the album cover—there was no need to place a claim on something that was already hers.
Even though Swift held the rights to all future music created after signing to UMG, she still didn’t fully own her earlier albums. To make matters worse, Borchetta sold Big Machine Records to Scooter Braun’s company, Ithaca Holdings, just a year after she left the label. Braun—former manager for Swift’s longtime rival Kanye West—owning her lifetime work was her “worst case scenario.” She released an impassioned statement on Tumblr explaining she had “pleaded for a chance to own [her] work” for years, but Borchetta instead offered a contractual opportunity to sign back to Big Machine Records and “earn one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in.” She then details how she knew that once she signed that proposed contract, Borchetta would sell the label, and, with it, her and all of her future work.
After refusing chance to return to Big Machine Records, Swift faced the disappointment of watching her personal music fall into the hands of someone who had played a part in orchestrating one of the "lowest points" in her career. Borchetta responded to Swift’s Tumblr post with a defensive statement, denying that he and Braun blindsided Swift or worked with malicious intent. He also denied Swift’s claim that they both prevented her from performing her old music in any recorded music events. While he wrote that “Scooter [Braun] was never anything but positive about Taylor,” Braun clearly took a stance against Swift during the Kanye West drama in 2016. Braun, smiling in a FaceTime screenshot with Kanye West and Justin Bieber, appeared on Bieber’s Instagram with a taunting caption “Taylor swift what up” following a recorded phone conversation between West and Swift.
Swift's eighth studio album, folklore, seems to address the complicated legal situation with Braun and Borchetta through mature songs that completely contrast her bubblegum pop sound in Lover. In "my tears ricochet," she references Borchetta's bid to get her to stay with Big Machine Record Label with, "And if I'm dead to you, why are you at the wake? / Cursing my name, wishing I stayed / Look at how my tears ricochet." Swift also crafts a story of a scorned woman in "mad woman" that doubles as an illustration of the frustration that came with battling Braun both in the court of public opinion in 2016 as well as for legal control of her early work years later. "I'm taking my time, taking my time / 'Cause you took everything from me" reads like a promise.
Since Braun’s acquisition of Big Machine Record Label in 2019, Swift’s early music has once again changed hands without her knowledge. Braun sold Swift’s Big Machine–released masters for over $300 million to Shamrock Holdings in 2020, which Swift addressed in a tweet. While she initially considered a partnership with Shamrock, learning that Braun would continue to profit off her work for the foreseeable future under their terms was a “non–starter.”
Then, she announced she had begun re–recording her music in order to produce new master recordings similar to the originals. By creating these recordings, Swift is essentially devaluing the old masters and taking back the legal ability to license her own music to third parties such as TV shows, movies, and commercials. Swift has already flexed her newfound autonomy over her new masters by licensing the use of “Love Story (Taylor’s version)” in Ryan Reynolds’ Match.com commercial.
In recreating her old music, Swift is in the unique position of revisiting her past under a new lens. She's also taking all of her fans back throughout her evolution as an artist, a journey that millions of people have joined her for. Her music has been a part of my life since I first watched the original “Love Story” music video at eight years old, stars in my eyes as she sported that iconic princess dress. She has held my hand and sung to me as I grew up, warned me about boys I hadn't met yet, and gave me music to blast in the car with some of my best friends. Now, over a decade later, I get to watch her return to some of her earliest work, now weathered by legal battles, publicized humiliation and heartbreak, and 13 more years of life experience. It's nostalgic, it's admirable, and it's fearless.