Sunday, November 14, 2021

The New Old Taylor

The venerable (read: old and stale) video game World of Warcraft has in recent years enjoyed some renewed interest, ironically, by releasing a "classic" version that recreated the state of the game circa 2006, prior to all the additions and streamlining introduced in subsequent expansions. Each expansion can be thought of as an era in the game's life, and the prospect of traveling back in time to the first age has proven appealing both to latecomers wishing to experience some storied legacy content for themselves, and also for nostalgic veterans wanting to return to the game as they remember it from its peak. And it's not just a frozen moment in time. The classic version of WoW is now starting to progress through those subsequent eras, so its players may very well get to relive, at an accelerated pace, the entire history of the game, before it ultimately catches up to and converges again with its modern incarnation.

To be clear, WoW did not pioneer the idea of classic or "progression" versions of games. As it has since its conception, it just copied an existing game and did the same thing with a larger budget to much greater success. And classic versions of WoW specifically were something its players had been requesting for years, and had in fact already created unofficially on their own. But though the concept had been around, it had always perplexed me as, in essence, an exercise in willful regression, whose charm was lost on me. That is, until now that Taylor Swift is essentially doing it in the music industry with her "Taylor's Version" re-recordings of her first six studio albums.

Officially, the impetus for the re-recordings was Swift's desire to produce master versions of her back catalog that she would fully own, as a way to get around having to play ball with whomever has possession of the original recordings. With the goal of supplanting the originals, she has kept the re-recordings indistinguishable from them to all but the most scrutinizing ears, which at first would not seem the most artistically exciting prospect for listeners not invested in her ownership saga.

For the two thus-far-released re-recording albums—Fearless and Red—Swift has seized creative opportunities to dig out of the vault previously unreleased songs from each era. Indeed, even if the re-recorded tracks held no interest, there is enough added material to make each album feel substantial and worthwhile.

The most publicized addition, actually a bit of both a re-recording and a vault track, has been a 10-minute version of Red's "All Too Well." Although the original version of the breakup ballad has come to be regarded by many as Swift's magnum opus, I could barely recall it when "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault)" intriguingly appeared atop my Spotify Release Radar playlist last Friday. I enjoyed Swift's music when Red released in 2012, but not to the extent that I ever purchased any records or listened to an album straight through, so "All Too Well" was easily overlooked as a relative deep cut, compared to high-charting singles "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "I Knew You Were Trouble," and "22."

Ashamedly, I think my initial reaction to seeing the words "10 Minute Version" was to scoff at the notion of doubling the length of a Taylor Swift song to contrive out of it some pop "Free Bird." But this song IS freaking epic! By around the 4-minute mark, it had humbled me as few works of art ever have. By the end of my first listen, it had cemented for me Swift's place as one of the all-time singer-songwriter stars.

But more than any single new discovery, the real treat of these re-recordings is having an occasion to revisit and reexamine these eras in Swift's career. Fearless was the album that elevated her to mainstream chart-topping superstardom back in 2008, so she has been a force in music for over a decade. She followed that with a string of three albums, including Red, against which one would have to be cognitively on another planet to argue for anyone but her as the artist of the 2010's.

Nevertheless, in some circles, it would not be until the surprise mid-pandemic release of the experimental Folklore in 2020 that Swift would produce an indie record cool enough to legitimize her songwriting chops. In the post-Folklore world of enhanced estimation for her as an artist, and apart from any distractions in her public life and persona that might once have motivated a less enlightened generation of critics to want to take her down a peg, now with her back catalog suddenly topping the charts again, the cool kids can finally unironically appreciate the music of those earlier works for what it has always been—be it the impeccable hooks and pop melodies of "You Belong with Me," or the lyrical command and masterful narrative imagery of "All Too Well" that prefigured 2020 Swift.

For many longtime fans, meanwhile, these albums represent peak Taylor Swift. We didn't need the reminder, but we're glad for it anyway. And I think I get now why World of Warcraft players wanted a classic version. Even in cases where past content might still have been accessible (just as Swift's back catalog has remained readily available to listen to at any time), it wouldn't have been the same experiencing it through the modern version, where successive generations of shiny new things have rendered the old trivial and obsolete. No, when people share stories of "back in the day," you want to experience it as it actually was back in the day. Most of all, you want to recapture the thrill of when the old was new and exciting, and everybody was talking about it. That's the feeling I get whenever one of these "new old Taylor" releases takes over Spotify, SNL, and every culture and entertainment blog I follow.

In fact, now I wish Swift and other artists as well would start doing this as a regular feature. World of Warcraft has begun to progress the classic version onward through different eras of the game, but it seems likely this will be a cyclical thing, with new doors to the old world opening up for more tours of the past. There will always be people wanting to go back to the original, after all, either because they missed it the last time around, or because the newer stuff just doesn't compare for them. Similarly, after Swift finishes taking us on this journey through her past eras, I would not object to starting it all over again at some point.