‘Red’ grew up with me in ‘Taylor’s Version’

Revisiting the scarf at twenty-one

Swift reclaiming her story nearly a decade later is a victory for women everywhere.

This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424. The Centre's online chat feature can be reached here. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

When the original version of Red was released, I was in middle school.

I poured over Taylor Swift’s words that whole year, imagining I’d lived through the love, heartbreak, and redemption her album portrayed.

Red, like most of Swift’s discography up until that point, was an escape for me. While it was Swift’s whiteness and class that gave her the ability to carve out her sweet and delicate image, I—a thick-browed brown girl from Scarborough—lived in it.

I held on tightly to her innocence.

Even at twelve, I knew I was using it as a crutch against what was already starting to form: the male gaze against a body that was beginning to feel foreign and a desire to be loved without being weighed down by cultural expectations.

Nearly ten years later, hearing Red (Taylor’s Version) in The Journal offices at midnight—now with real heartbreak under my belt—I have a new understanding of Swift’s words.

She was running from something, too.

As a pre-teen, the experiences Red conveyed were simple. Swift’s former record label, Big Machine, was deliberately promoting lighthearted tracks like “22” and “Begin Again” over “The Last Time” and “The Lucky One.”

Revisiting my childhood favourites in Swift’s re-recording has forced me to look at the pain behind the seemingly sweet album. It’s clear in 2012 that Swift was being censored, and her pain wasn’t marketable.

Beyond her voice maturing, Swift gets to approach her re-recordings without the strains put on her in her teenage years by her old label.

Big Machine sold us a version of Swift that never crossed any lines. She never got political, never acknowledged the ways men hold power in the relationship, and she certainly never cussed.

Now, entering her thirties and having been deprived of the chance to own the rights to her original music, Swift is taking back her voice—a furious voice I can relate to much better now as someone entering my twenties.

It’s a voice that’s done running away and is ready to speak up for herself without the pressure to maintain any country girl image.

Fans get sweet pop numbers like “Message in a Bottle” and “The Very First Night,” which would’ve certainly topped the 2012 charts alongside “Call Me Maybe.”

We also get “Nothing New,” a duet with Phoebe Bridgers that delves into the burden of aging on young women. We look forward all our lives to the freedom and light that can only come with growing older, only to fear losing our innocence after seeing what the world has to offer women when they stop being girls.

The ten-minute version of the track “All Too Well” hits the hardest.

Back in 2012, the infamous scarf from “All Too Well” was merely a memento of an autumn love affair. Having poured over the new—or maybe the original—version of the song for the past week, the scarf brings up bright red anger.

The new version of “All Too Well” includes devastating lyrics about men taking young lovers and robbing them of their innocence. The scarf, to me, is a symbol of that innocence. It’s something men can take as a prize, and women can never get back.

And it’s not just about age gaps.

I never dated a thirty-year-old at twenty-one. I don’t think I ever will. But, while watching the “All Too Well” short film, I, along with many other women, are reminded of the men in our lives who have gaslit and manipulated us and how we held on tightly to rare, sweet moments that made their control feel like love.

In my middle school bedroom, watching Swift perform “All too Well” at the 2014 Grammys, I never understood why she cried. Her old label had diluted the song to the point that her pain felt sudden and out of place against the innocent lyrics.

When I watched that performance, Red meant everything to me. All I wanted was to leave behind a trail of exciting lovers and to have the right one cling to my forgotten scarf.

Now, being someone that was betrayed in the worst possible way and branded a “survivor” because of it, I’m furious at the person who hurt Swift. More importantly, I’m furious because of the reasons so many women are relating to Red (Taylor’s Version) in the same way.

All I want is for us to find happiness within, or at least to be sure we deserve it.

Women are taught love looks like sacrifice and vulnerability. We’re selfless caregivers, and this ideal leaves many of us feeling trapped by people who take advantage of our kindness in subtle and sometimes sinister ways. 

With “All Too Well”, Swift tells manipulative men that we remember what they did, that we know they remember, too, and that we’ll grow beyond them.

I’d like to think we can all grow up with her. 

There’s not much we can do to take away the hurt men may have caused us as women—survivors or otherwise—but we can heal and take back the power that was stolen. Swift says just as much in the mere action of re-recording her masters as she does in her lyrics.

This past weekend in 2021, it made my whole body warm seeing Swift smile after performing the ten-minute version of “All too Well” on Saturday Night Live.

I’m so glad that, with Taylor’s Version,she takes Red back into her hands—from her old label, from the not-so-mystery man who stole her scarf, and from the swarms of media vultures that branded her younger self as man-hating, while abusive men got a free pass.

I’m also glad that instead of letting the industry break her, and as flawed as she may be, that Swift is still producing music. I truly couldn’t imagine a better soundtrack to my twenty-second year than a blast from the past coated in a new layer of compassion and understanding.

There’s no need for any of us to be a “never-needy, ever-lovely jewel.” It’s time to love with our whole hearts without having to make it into a performance for men.

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