As a fitting capstone to a year of almost ludicrous cultural ubiquity -- in which she also self-released a box office-topping theatrical film, and staged a tour of such monstrous commercial proportions that multiple elected officials publicly begged her to play more shows for the sake of the local economy -- Taylor Swift finally released the re-recorded version of 1989, the 2014 album that most loudly announced her as the defining pop star of her generation. Below, Q staff share some personal reflections on the album and Swift's cultural importance, consulting with a few actual experts along the way.
As the father of two teenagers (Eithne, 16, and Albert, 14) I’m in the relatively rare position of not only having children with excellent taste in music, but also of enjoying many of the same bands and artists as them. Eithne is obsessed with Mitski, Lana Del Rey and Kate Bush (and she is at pains to point out that she was into Kate WAY before the whole Stranger Things malarkey); Albert lives for the Smiths, the Cure, Arctic Monkeys and Cigarettes After Sex.
It makes for a great two-way exchange of musical discoveries – just as I was able to introduce Albert to the Stone Roses or Eithne to Mazzy Star, so they have turned me on to music I might never have otherwise discovered. Occasionally, magic happens, such as the memorable evening Eithne insisted I listen to a band she’d “discovered” that she was sure I would love. “What are they called?” I asked. My Bloody Valentine, she answered. And as I showed her my original vinyl copy of Loveless, I felt my work as a parent was all but done.
Occasionally, however, our tastes diverge. Most notably when it comes to my (frankly, bizarre even to me) largely inexplicable affection for banging '90s Dutch techno – but also on the issue of the genius of Taylor Swift.
Don’t get me wrong, they like Taylor. As far as they’re concerned, she’s someone who’s always been there, a constant musical presence, producing a regular, reliable background level of good songs and interesting gossip. Ask them about Taylor and they’ll answer, yeah, she’s great. “Love Story” is a banger. So is “Shake It Off.” It would have been nice to have seen the Eras shows, but hey, the money could equally have been spent on, I dunno, a holiday, or a new car, or tickets to a couple of dozen other gigs – and then a new car.
Me? I consider Taylor Swift to be the greatest female singer-songwriter since Carole King. Possibly better. I would have happily spent the money we don’t have for a new car on tickets to see her live. “Love Story” is not only a banger, it’s among the most astonishing songs written by a teenager ever (and, so the tale goes, penned in about an hour in petulant response to her parents’ disapproval of a boyfriend). It also has one of the undisputed greatest key changes of all time. “Shake it Off” is comparable only to the very best of Wham! for pure arms-in-the-air pop joy. Her 2020 lockdown albums Folklore and Evermore are incredible for the sparse beauty of their songs, but also for the sheer audacity with which they casually eschew all that we thought we knew about her to create a whole new, more reflective, more sophisticated, musical identity. As she has shown over 17 years and each of her country / pop / folk incarnations, music is music for Taylor, regardless of genres, or labels, or subjective concepts of cool.
The numbers don’t lie, of course – the albums sold, the awards bagged, the records broken, the money made – but, strange as it sounds, for me, they’re not really the point. Her incredible achievements are all rooted in one, basic, inescapable constant: a girl (now woman) with a notepad and pen and acoustic guitar, sitting in a room somewhere, writing songs. It sounds laughably simple, but to do it so consistently, so brilliantly, so diversely, and from such a young age, is anything but.
My kids don’t really get the fierceness of my love for Taylor – and I’m not sure I understand it myself… except to say that, where she has been a chart topper for all their lives, I have watched her grow from precocious talent (signed to RCA Records at 14, nominated for a Grammy at 17, million-seller before she was 20), into that rarest of things: a global phenomenon who continues to push the boundaries of her talent. It’s a paternal instinct, perhaps. I feel like a proud parent, watching this brilliant child develop into one of the greatest female musicians of all time.
Also, as Eithne pointed out, she’s really into cats. And anyone who’s really into cats is always going to be alright.
Given the number of units that Taylor Swift has shifted over the course of the past few years, it should come as no surprise that her demographic extends well beyond the prepubescent and teenage girls who first fell for her music. Why is it, then, that it always seems to be deemed shocking when an adult acknowledges that they’ve been swayed into becoming a Swiftie?
For my part, I’ve been a music fan since my teens, spent my late teens and early twenties working for a record store, and then began my journalism career by writing record reviews of dubious merit and interviewing bands in the pre-internet era when I had little to go on but their album and the accompanying press release. It definitely wasn’t the hardest of all possible sells to get me to appreciate the merits of Taylor Swift’s music. That said, however, her popularity was so profound by the time I really started paying attention to her that I kind of felt like maybe it was too late for me to be anything other than just a casual fan.
That’s when my daughter Allyson stepped in.
Now an 18-year-old college freshman, I contacted Ally at school and quizzed her on her evolution as a fan of the artist I love to hear referred to as “T-Swizzle,” how took her a little while to reach maximum fandom, and why my full indoctrination into the Taylor Swift catalog was as much a matter of monetary concern as anything.
The first time I really remember you listening to Taylor Swift was when you did the whole dance number to "Shake It Off" with [your friend] Gillian for Girl Scouts. Am I right?
No, actually, you're wrong.
Of course I am.
The first time that I remember listening to Taylor Swift was listening to "We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together" in second grade. I remember everyone was singing it in gym. I remember we were in my friend's class, and on the way there, there was a set of bathrooms right by the gym, before you got to the old music room, and you'd walk through it, and I remember people singing, "You go talk to your friends / Talk to my friends / Talk to me..." Of course, no one is breaking up with anyone then. [Laughs.] But that's my first memory of Taylor Swift.
And then, of course, you did the routine for Girl Scouts to "Shake It Off."
Yes. And that was when I got 1989.
Now, my recollection is that the reason I played you the Ryan Adams version of the album was not so much because I cared anything about Taylor Swift yet at that point, but just because I cared about cover songs and thought it was cool that he'd re-recorded the entire album.
Yeah, and also that was during the time when she wasn't on Spotify. 1989 didn't drop to streaming services when it was first released, You had to buy it. So we bought a copy. But then Ryan Adams' version of 1989 was streaming, so we used to listen to that a lot.
So when did you become a hardcore Taylor fan?
I don't know about hardcore. I wasn't a big fan of Reputation. And then Lover came out, and again I was, like, "Okay, this is okay. It's good, but...I'm not really a big, big fan." And then Fearless (Taylor's Version) came out in the spring of 2021, and her whole thing of bringing back the re-records and reclaiming her identity was what really got me back into her music. So spring of 2021 I was going back to the albums that I hadn't been listening to. Also, I was really getting into acoustic covers at that time, and she released her Spotify singles and acoustic versions of her songs. So, yeah, I'd say it was early 2021 when I was first getting back into her.
And then, of course, I'll be giving you full credit for effectively forcing her down our throats.
Yeah, so we went to see Beach Bunny at the Broadberry in Richmond on the Friday that Red (Taylor's Version) came out, and I drove us, so I made you listen to that the whole way there. [Laughs.] And I really liked the re-recordings, so I made you listen to it a lot.
Which brings us to the Eras tour, which we attended as a family, and how you effectively said, "If you're spending the money for three seats higher up rather than one really good ticket on the floor, then you're going to appreciate this on the same level that I do, or you're at least going to come close."
Yes, that is exactly what I did. [Laughs.] Basically, I said that so many people tried so hard to get tickets, and you ended up getting them, so if you were going to spend that much money to be there, then you should enjoy it.
Which, I would argue, we did.
Yes, we did.
And now I am fully aware of her music, and she's very much now an artist who, whenever she releases something new, I absolutely have to check it out.
And you also see her versatility, where there are some songs that you can't even tell are her. Like "Look What You Made Me Do," which you said, "That does not sound like a Taylor song." Which is completely valid. The entirety of Reputation doesn't sound like Taylor.
Given Taylor's success at this point, where do you see her going from here?
Ooh, um...I don't know what I think is going to happen, but I really want her to release a rock album. I want that so much. I feel like she might branch out into more media, like acting. She worked in Cats, and she was in The Lorax, but she hasn't done that much, and I feel like she's the kind of person who'd try to get an EGOT for fun.
There are rumors that she's going to be in Deadpool 3.
Ooh! I mean, she is besties with Ryan Reynolds... But beyond that, I feel like she might settle down. I know there have been rumors in the past where she'll stop releasing albums after she gets 13 albums, which I'd honestly be in favor of. She obviously has a sustainable career - she's been going steady for 20 years - but I don't think she'll be able to maintain the number of albums she's releasing currently.
Lastly, did you at any point fear that the only reason I liked Taylor Swift was just because it amused me to call her "T-Swizzle," or did you always think that I had potential as an actual fan?
I'd say at first you definitely thought I was a little crazy. But I don't know. Because the album that you like a lot  is the one where I started getting into her music, and that's the one that sparked my Swift-hood. [Laughs.] I don't think I ever thought that that was the only reason you liked her, though. Because even though you're a music journalist, you're not a stuck-up one. You're not against indulging in top-40 music...although I realize that goes completely against your No Top40 license plate you used to have! But you've grown.
Yeah, so I don't think I ever thought that. I know you thought I was crazy when I was only listening to her, but even that was only for a few months. But once I was having you listen to her more because of the Eras tickets, I saw the turning point.
The first time I heard 1989 was the day before its release. The label had sent over a copy, and I popped it into my car’s CD player when I left the office that evening. (A word about this car: it was on its last legs at the time, and in fact had been on its last legs long for some time before that. It still ran, mostly, though it had progressed to the point where even my mechanic started expressing serious ethical concerns about continuing to take my money for repairs.) I listened to the album on the drive home that night, then a few times after that, and formed some complicated though generally favorable opinions about it. When I went to eject it several days later, the CD wouldn’t budge—stuck stubbornly in the slot. It was the first of several cascading permanent failures to befall this car, followed sometime later by a malfunctioning switch that changed from CD mode to radio. In other words, the only music source in this car was the CD player, and the only CD I could play was Taylor Swift’s 1989. For the next five or six months, as I made my daily two hour commute to and from my office, I could either listen to 1989, or sit in total silence as I inched down the 10 freeway. Usually I picked Taylor. Usually. I have no idea how many times I listened to that album, though eventually I stopped noticing whether it was playing or not. Finally the car ceased running all together, and I had it towed away in exchange for a small tax write-off, the CD still inside.
This happens to be a true story, though I’m not sure I could come up with a much better metaphor for Taylor Swift’s pervasive omnipresence in 2014. If you wanted to participate in pop culture in any manner whatsoever, it was necessary to have an opinion on Taylor Swift, even if that opinion was one of insistent neutrality. (Indeed, not caring about Taylor Swift one way or the other was probably the most heretical opinion one could have.) As for me, I was not neutral on Taylor Swift. It would be particularly ridiculous to go all James Murphy and claim that I liked Taylor before it was cool — especially because I was way behind millions of country radio listeners and just as many millions of besotted teenagers — but I did seem to be the only one within my personal/professional circles who would mount full-throated defenses of Fearless when called upon. It was the song “Fifteen” that did it for me: after suffering through so many hours of media in my lifetime created by adults to appeal to teenagers, there was something startling about hearing a song that could only have been written by an actual teenager—an exceptionally smart teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. There was such a lived-in sincerity to it, with its narrator simultaneously more sophisticated and more relatably naive than anything a Gossip Girl writers room could have cooked up. Before I’d realized it, I was a fan. I liked Speak Now more than most. I thought Red was a masterpiece. I ended up interviewing Swift twice in those early days, mostly because I seemed to be the only writer in the newsroom who was familiar enough with her material.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about 1989, though. Obviously, it was a brilliantly-crafted pop album (the kind that Swift had clearly been gearing up to make for some time), but I couldn’t help but feel that some essential quality of hers had been lost as I listened to the opening bars of “Welcome to New York” for the hundredth time in my wheezing Toyota Camry. She just sounded so…professional. Songs like “How You Get the Girl” landed less like a personal cri de coeur and more like something a hotshot songwriter would delegate to a young protege. "Shake It Off" was always going to be a chart-topping hit, but it could have been a chart-topping hit for anybody. Perhaps that’s the curse of the ridiculously precocious: eventually all that free-floating potential has to coalesce into something tangible, and someone is bound to be disappointed, no matter how successful it is. For years I imagined Swift transforming into some glorious Lucinda Williams-Kate Bush hybrid, and here she was gunning for Madonna's spot instead.
Listening to the album for the first time in many years, it's striking how much clearer its appeal has become. 1989 is the first “(Taylor’s Version)” that I actually prefer to the original recordings; however much work Swift has clearly put into mimicking the sounds, tones, and vocal inflections of her O.G. albums, the others haven’t sounded quite right to me. Swift singing “Fifteen” as a thirtysomething global megastar simply doesn’t hit the same emotional notes as it does when it’s sung by a teenager with a few country hits to her name. With 1989, however, we’re hearing a Swift who has been singing straight-ahead pop music for a solid decade now, and the songs are all the stronger for it. “Bad Blood,” always my least favorite track from the original release, somehow sits so much more solidly with the steely edges of maturity coloring her voice. “Wildest Dreams” remains one of her most transporting compositions, and on the new version you can hear how easily those melodies could have been featured on a 1970s folk ballad, or a 1990s rave anthem. With hindsight, “Out of the Woods” comes across less as a curious studio experiment than a breakthrough test run through the Swift-Antonoff formula which would form the bedrock of so much top-shelf pop music in the years to come. It’s a transitional work that only makes sense post-transition, at which point everything about it suddenly seems inevitable. And if I ever find myself missing the uneasy in-betweenness of that original version, I’m sure the CD is still in my car in a junkyard somewhere.
When it comes to Taylor Swift, there are many opinions, few facts. To clear the air, I have consulted my 17-year-old son, who explains his journey into Swift fandom.
What makes this version of 1989 so special? Why do you like it?
Well, 1989 has some of my favorite songs on it. I didn't actually listen to all of 1989 until a few months ago. I wasn't really a super Swifty until Folklore. And I feel like that’s actually the case for a lot of people ‘cause that album was really popular.
But with 1989, I’ve listened to it like 10 million times! You’ve got “Style.” You’ve got “Clean.” I love “Clean.” “New Romantics.” When she did that as a surprise song, everyone was devastated that they missed it.
Can you explain what that means by surprise song?
When she played two surprise songs at each of the concerts on the Eras Tour, there were a bunch of ongoing ‘elimination’ chats: “We’ve lost a soldier, guys!” [Laughs] “If she plays ‘New Romantics’ tonight, I’m gonna shave my head!” Stuff like that.
Was that the album where you noticed more people getting into Taylor?
Yeah, she just exploded. With every single release she got bigger and bigger. But the first time that I was conscious of Taylor Swift was with 1989. How old was I?
Eight years old.
I was in the car listening to “Blank Space” and hearing “I get a blank space, baby” and I’m singing “I’ll write your name!" That’s what finally did it.
How did you feel when you first got a chance to see Taylor do the songs live on the Reputation Tour?
It was awesome! She was my second concert ever. We had floor seats. The energy she brings, and also the Reputation Tour for her was iconic. You know, she had this thing she said where female artists have to reinvent themselves over and over. Ed Sheeran can just go onstage in a t-shirt and his guitar and do the entire show like that. But she goes all out with her visuals.
I remember this girl was next to us. She didn’t even speak English and had a very thick accent. But when Taylor sang “Getaway Car,” the two of us were screaming the lyrics at each other!