Feminism (Taylor’s Version)

Through her re-recorded albums, Taylor Swift isn’t updating her songs as much as she’s updating her own mythology—and stepping into a feminist identity along the way.

Taylor Swift performs in Nashville in September. The musician is taking a break from releasing her re-recorded tracks to drop Midnights, her 10th studio album. (Catherine Powell / via Taylor Swift on Instagram)

While accepting the award for Video of the Year at the VMAs in August, Taylor Swift announced her 10th studio album on the way. Now that album, Midnights, is imminent. In her social media announcement for the album, out Oct. 21, Taylor dedicates the new music to people “who have tossed and turned and decided to keep the lanterns lit and go searching—hoping that just maybe, when the clock strikes twelve … we’ll meet ourselves.”

It seems Midnights is set to be the latest in a long-running theme of Swift reflecting on and writing about her own identity. The language of her announcement is reminiscent of 2021’s “Happiness,” where Swift croons she “hasn’t met the new me yet.” It’s linked to her 2017 declaration: “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now … because she’s dead.” Perhaps most iconically among Swifties, Swift reflects on her identity in the song “All Too Well,” where she laments “I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it.”

But who is that “old self”? That question, perhaps more than any other, animates Swift’s recent re-recordings of her first six studio albums. The re-recordings are her response to a contract dispute with her former record label, who would not let her buy the masters to her own songs. So she’s re-recording the masters so that she can have ownership over her own work. The “new” records, then, sound exactly like the old. But the Taylor producing them is not.

In returning to her “old self,” Swift isn’t so much resurrecting the dead, but recovering what was lost and reframing the public’s understanding of her, both then and now. Swift isn’t updating her songs as much as she’s updating her own mythology—and stepping into a feminist identity along the way.

Swift occupied an uncomfortable position for much of her early career. She had to keep dating to keep being “relatable,” but the more she dated, the more she left herself open to accusations of not being “chaste” or “pure” enough. Taylor’s dating life became a national punchline. Everyone from Tina Fey to Nick Lachey and even Ellen DeGeneres advanced the narrative that Taylor “dates too much” and “only writes about breakups.” “My theory about Taylor Swift is that she’s a virgin,” quipped Chelsea Handler.

Swift finds herself in the tension of deserving an apology, while also needing to apologize for the ways her work propped up sexist ideas—which brings us to Swift’s feminism. In 2012, when The Daily Beast asked Swift if she considered herself a feminist, she said, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls.” But two years later, she told The Guardian,“I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. … I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.”

In 2017, Swift became part of the #MeToo movement as she appeared in court to testify against a radio DJ who sexually assaulted her. Then, in 2018, Swift began explicitly discussing her political beliefs. An Instagram post led to 65,000 people registering to vote—many for the first time.

When returning to Fearless and Red in 2021, Swift clearly recognized she is not the same woman who released those original albums in 2008 and 2012. She’s using the re-recordings to update her own mythology.

Taylor’s Versions include “vault songs” that she wrote for the original releases but her record label had her remove. One such song is a longer version of an original Red track, “All Too Well.” This newer 10-minute version includes cut lines like, “You were tossing me the car keys: ‘Fuck the Patriarchy’ keychain on the ground,” and “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.”

By releasing this now, Swift implies that this “new” version of her was in there all along, and now, freed from the record label and the men that run it, those ideas—and Swift herself—can finally be revealed.

The distribution and promotional work for Taylor’s Versions similarly update Swift’s identity. Fans have pointed out that her outfit on the Fearless (Taylor’s Version) cover reflects that outfit worn by the Romeo character in her 2008 “Love Story” music video. Swift no longer needs Romeo to “save her”; she can rescue herself. The cover for Taylor’s Version pictures Swift in the driver’s seat of a car–literally in the place of control. And she did direct the short film that acts as a music video for “All Too Well: 10 Minute Version.”

Taylor was interviewed about the short film at Tribeca Film Festival, shifting “All Too Well” from “yet another whiny breakup song,” to serious art. The subject matter didn’t change—in fact, in many ways, the themes of heartbreak literally expanded. But the new distribution shifts the conversation.

In some ways, this re-recording era has provided Swift an opportunity to reconcile her privilege and class status with her experiences being marginalized and silenced. She admits the old Taylor had an incomplete picture—skewed by outside, notably male, forces. Freed from this portion of patriarchal control, we see a fuller version of Swift.

Rather than disowning or distancing herself from her “old self,” Swift takes care to recreate the important pieces of herself from her past and trace her current values back to those versions of herself. Swift has grown more confident; she’s reclaimed (literally and symbolically) ownership of her name, works and ideas. She’s engaged more in feminist work. These parts of her were there all along, she says; she just needed more life experience and freedom from oppressive patriarchal systems to fully realize them.

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Juliette Holder is a Ph.D. student studying rhetoric at Texas Woman's University whose research interests focus on feminist rhetorics, popular culture, feminist pedagogies and the formation of feminist identities in online spaces.