Taylor Swift’s re-recorded Red examines a relationship’s power differential, the brutality of fame—and the male gaze behind both.
The day fans have been crying in their showers and threatening to break up with their partners for has arrived: Taylor Swift released Red (Taylor’s Version), or Red TV, last Friday.
The redux on the 2012 fan favorite album is one of the more hotly anticipated installations in Swift’s ongoing project to re-record her albums. Fans crashed Spotify upon Red TV’s arrival, breaking the record for biggest album release on Spotify by a female artist (previously held by Swift’s folklore) with 90.5 million streams globally on its release day.
Red TV is a faithful adaptation. Swift reunited with multiple producers of the original albums, and almost always maintains the instrumentation, lyrics and production of the original tracks. Nonetheless, critics and fans have praised Swift’s evolved vocals—her voice has matured and leaned lightly toward rock since 2012—and advanced instrumentation, which sounds less Disney and more layered (see the beautiful cello addition to “Everything Has Changed”).
Red TV amped up fan fervor with nine “From the Vault” songs, tracks cut from the original but included in the new album. The crown jewel of those Vault tracks is the storied 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” a visceral and hard-hitting heartbreak anthem beloved for the emotional devastation it wreaks and widely acknowledged as Swift’s best song ever.
In this wave of appreciation, we might forget that Swift caught flak throughout her early career for the hyper-emotionality and obsessive romanticism of her writing. Red, a wounded breakup album arriving after a year-long parade of paparazzi shots of Swift with boyfriends, didn’t help. Headlines condemned Swift as a “boy crazy crooner,” listicles consulted her ex-boyfriends on “what it’s like to date her,” and Swift herself repeatedly took aim at accusations that she was “crazy” and “clingy.”
To her largely young and female fans, however, Red was always a treasured chapter of Swift’s discography. It perfected her diaristic, intimate storytelling, meticulously chronicling the gorgeous highs and crushing end of a relationship that clearly did the then-20-year-old Swift permanent damage.
Theorist Akane Kanai recently articulated the “feelings rules” imposed on young women: Be beautiful, carefree and charismatic, but don’t let that burden get to you. Be resilient and confident, too, and prove women aren’t hysterical, so don’t break down, cry or express heartbreak—instead, poke self-aware fun at your feelings. Feelings rules are also racialized, evident in expectations for Black girls to be “strong Black women,” denying them layers like vulnerability and softness that may center them rather than their ability to save the world. These rules, Kanai wrote, commodify women into their labor by sanding girls down into unobstructive workers—girlbosses aren’t crazy.
Pop culture is also confronting the feelings rules, sympathetically revisiting women once condemned for, among many other things, their inability to modulate or conceal their emotions: Monica Lewsinky, Tonya Harding, Britney Spears. In some corners of social media, women post “crying vlogs.” This spring, Swift protégé Olivia Rodrigo’s unabashed, self-consciously “too emotional” debut album SOUR resonated with viewers of all ages.
In September 2021, the announcement of Red TV prompted hundreds of thousands to trend Red-related hashtags months ahead of the release and tearfully accept their own breakups because they’d be better able to relate to Red.
Feelings rules, however, aren’t the only force attempting to flatten the young Swift into a commodity on Red TV.
The minor surveillance state surrounding Swift has long concurred that “All Too Well,” like much of Red, is about Swift’s breakup with actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal “insiders” told the press that Gyllenhaal, a decade Swift’s senior, “could feel the age difference”—a theme Swift omitted from the original “All Too Well.”
In “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)” however, Swift paints a damning portrait of an older man who enchanted a smitten, loyal ingénue only to abruptly break things off when she, and their relationship, became more real than the “never-needy, ever-lovely jewel” he was chasing.
Swift’s dad watches her wait hopelessly for Gyllenhaal to visit on her birthday and tells her, “It’s supposed to be fun, turning 21.” She insists, “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath,” and knowingly juxtaposes the lyrics, “You said if we had been closer in age / Maybe it would have been fine,” with, “I was never good at telling jokes, but the punchline goes / ’I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.’”
Gyllenhaal, now 40, has been dating his model girlfriend since she was 22.
The gut-punching “All Too Well” short film similarly insists upon the age difference. Swift cast Dylan O’Brien, 30, and Sadie Sink, 19, as lookalikes for Gyllenhaal and herself, and the wide-eyed Sink/Swift feeling lost around O’Brien/Gyllenhaal and his friends she cries are “older than me” is excruciating.
Swift was a consenting adult, and the relationship was clearly extremely meaningful to her. What makes Gyllenhaal’s behavior damnable is not that he coerced or abused her, but that he fetishized her youthful beauty and inexperience, while disparaging her 20-year old personality—he “laughed at my dreams, rolled your eyes at my jokes”—to an extent that precluded recognizing Swift’s humanity, much less fostering the kind of genuine connection Swift asserts they had. A fetish necessarily creates a fetish object.
Gyllenhaal is not the exception but the rule: As men age, they continue to favor women in their early 20s. (Women on average find men their own age attractive throughout their lives.)
The older man’s commodity fetishization of his lovers is a product of celebrity culture’s obsession with youthful, submissive beauty and banishment of women as they age into adulthood. The observant Red TV is equally concerned with the flashing cameras’ male gaze as it is Gyllenhaal’s.
In the Vault track “Nothing New,” Swift and Phoebe Bridgers ask, ostensibly of agents, advertisers and the media, but in the language of pleading with a lover, “Lord, what will become of me/Once I’ve lost my novelty?” and “Will you still want me when I’m nothing new?”
And in “The Lucky One,” Swift sings: “And they tell you that you’re lucky/But you’re so confused/’Cause you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used” and considers the idea that her fame isn’t worth her transformation into a disposable product. (As Rodrigo put it, “Who am I if not exploited?”)
So, what is a sensitive, simmeringly emotional young woman to do in the face of a culture and a lover that seek to trap her in amber—frozen in time, silent, beautiful?
The objectification of women into shiny objects relies on ignoring their depth, constraining them with feelings rules, and arresting them in flat, pretty images. Red TV’s madness, inconsolability and insistent sensitivity is overwhelming and demanding, and thus, traditionally unattractive—hence, 13 years of jokes about not wanting to date Swift. This is precisely the point: In Red TV, Swift doesn’t exist to allure, but to feel.
Ten years on, Red TV animates the “lifeless frame” of the beautiful, young Swift into a living, screaming, bleeding woman.