The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Taylor Swift has been here and gone, playing to over 200,000 fans inside Lincoln Financial Field during her three-night South Philly stand back in May, not to mention the thousands more who stood outside the stadium singing along.
But still the Summer of Swift carries on.
The Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, raised singer — who memorably uttered the words “I’m from Philly” while declaring her Philadelphia Eagles fandom at the Linc — currently has 10 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, and she’s about to go all the way to eleven.
How is that even that possible, with only 10 albums to her name? Easy. It’s because “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version),” her rerecorded take on her 2010 album, came out July 7.
As with her previous rerecorded releases — new versions of 2008′s “Fearless” and 2012′s “Red” — the updated “Speak Now” gives Swift the chance to revisit the music she made in her youth and the opportunity to rewrite her past if she so chooses. And in one instance that has divided fans, it’s a temptation she’s been unable to resist.
But before we get to the complicated case of “Better Than Revenge,” let’s take a minute to appreciate just how much of a commercial force Swift is in 2023.
Recently, 23 of Spotify’s top 50 streaming songs were hers. That includes all 22 from the new “Speak Now,” plus, “Cruel Summer,” from 2019′s “Lover,” which is battling with Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampires” for song of the summer honors.
Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert recently topped the Billboard album chart with the long awaited “The Pink Tape.” But Uzi’s reign will be brief. In four days, “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” — or TV, in Swiftie speak — had combined sales and streams to make it not only the biggest selling album of the week, but the year.
That’s stunning in part because these are song people have heard before. They’re part of Swift’s ongoing project to rerecord her first six albums, which she embarked on after her former label, Big Machine Records, sold her masters to music mogul Scooter Braun.
In general, Swift hasn’t used the project to rework or rearrange her past work. The idea is to replicate it, to create a soundalike version with maybe some minor improvements for fans to opt into as a statement of solidarity with the artist who has been staggeringly effective at creating a close personal bond with her audience.
The TV “Speak Now” does have added value. There are six “From the Vault” songs not included on the original release, with Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy on “Electric Touch” and Hayley Williams of Paramore on “Castles Crumbling.” Nothing as earth-shattering as the 10-minute “All Too Well” from the TV “Red” that was a highlight of the Era dates at the Linc, but must-haves for true fans.
But other than those bonus cuts, the new TV “Speak Now” is remarkably similar to the OG, save for Swift’s voice losing a measure of innocence. And the kerfuffle-causing altered lyric difference.
The backstory: “Speak Now,” whose noteworthy tracks include the breakup song “Dear John” and a clap back at critics called “Mean,” was also highlighted by “Better Than Revenge,” a bristling, satisfyingly vindictive song fired up with teenage rage.
Swift wrote it when she was 18, and it’s clearly targeted at a woman who the singer believes to be guilty of absconding with her boyfriend. “Stealing people’s toys on the playground won’t make you many friends,” she sings, while warning “There is nothing I do better than revenge.” (The song is thought to be about Joe Jonas and Camilla Belle, though Swift has never confirmed.)
Those lyrics are still there, but another one has been changed. The OG version went: “She’s not what you think, she’s an actress/ She’s better known for the things she’s done on the mattress.”
That line has been called out as “slut shaming.” Coupled with “Bad Blood,” from 2017′s “Reputation,” which is reputed to be about Swift’s feud with Katy Perry, it left open to charges of Swift pitting women against each other, rather than focusing on dudes, who are the real problem.
The new “Better” might not be mo’ better, but it still gets its point across, while removing the offending language. The new line isn’t bad, but lacks the sting of the original: “He was a moth to the flame,” Swift now sings. “She was holding the matches.”
It’s understandable why she changed it. Since undergoing the awakening captured in Lana Wilson’s 2020 documentary “Miss Americana” — since the birth of the woke Taylor Swift, if you will — the singer has avoided petty conflicts and put herself forward as a proud feminist and LGBTQ+ ally. And reworking a lyric written in a fit of teenage pique is a way of putting the song in line with her grown-up, evolved way of viewing the world.
As early as 2014, Swift had a fresh perspective on “Better.” She told the Guardian: “I was 18 when I wrote that. That’s the age you are when you think someone can actually take your boyfriend. Then you grow up and realize no one can take someone from you if they don’t want to leave.”
And when she played Minneapolis last month and performed “Speak Now’s” “Dear John,” she told the audience.” I don’t care about anything that happened to me when I was 19, except the songs I wrote and the memories we made together … We have all grown up.”
Swift’s intent to put a little less nastiness in the world is laudable. Still, I wish she hadn’t done it.
What made “Speak Now” pretty great was that it was impassioned, impulsive — and a little uneven. It was the first set of songs that Swift released that she wrote entirely on her own, a challenge she set for herself in response to misogynistic skeptics who suggested a teenage girl couldn’t possibly be the main writer on her first two albums.
When she announced the new “Speak Now,” Swift wrote in a note to her fans: “I first made ‘Speak Now,’ completely self-written, between the ages of 18 and 20. The songs that came from this time in my life were marked by their brutal honesty, unfiltered diaristic confessions and wild wistfulness. I love this album because it tells a tale of growing up, flailing, flying and crashing … and living to speak about it.”
That’s why Swift’s fans loved it too, of course. The unfiltered quality that captures what it’s like to be a thrashing, crashing teen. And that’s the problem with changing “Speak Now” now: She does her art a disservice by giving in to the temptation to go back and make everything nice and inoffensive to suit current sensibilities.
In the streaming era — when relatively few people own unalterable physical products — making those kind of changes is a little too easy.
Digital culture means never having to be completely finished. You can always fix it later. It’s potentially a slippery slope that allows artists to make after-the-fact adjustments to keep their audiences happy, rather than trust their instincts.
That can have salutary effects. Last year, both Beyoncé and Lizzo quickly changed lyrics to new songs in response to outcries that they were ableist. But now Swift has gone back to clean up a 13-year-old song that was an honest expression of how she felt at the time and erased a little of her unfiltered teenage self in the process.