‘Red (Taylor’s Version)’ Took Us Back to 2012 and I’m Not Sure That’s a Good Thing

Taylor Swift knew her strategy for getting revenge on Scooter Braun—and selling *so many* albums—would work. Was it right, though?


Stacy Lee Kong

Nov 19 2021

13 mins read


Image: Shutterstock

I think Taylor Swift might be an evil genius.

Hear me out: Not only has her public image largely recovered from the fairly intense backlash she experienced in the mid-2010s, when she was heavily criticized for her calculated embrace of feminism, white privilege and ongoing reliance on victimhood, her music is also shooting to the top of the charts and she's winning a PR war against mega-producer Scooter Braun. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of Swift’s, but even I have been on-board with the “Taylor takes down Braun” campaign that she’s been running since 2019. And it's all due to a really effective—but I'd argue morally sketchy—marketing strategy.

In case you need a super-quick reminder, 2019 is when news broke that the producer and his company, Ithaca Holdings, had purchased Big Machine Label Group, which owned the master recordings of her first six albums. As Constance Grady explained in Vox that year, Swift was outraged that Big Machine’s founder, Scott Borchetta, had sold her masters to Braun behind her back without giving her a chance to buy them herself. She also didn’t want Braun, who she characterized as a bully, to control how her music could be licensed. Then, in November 2020, Braun sold Swift’s masters to Shamrock Holdings, an investment fund, for $300 million (USD). She said she had tried to buy them back from him, but he wouldn’t even enter negotiations with her unless she signed an “ironclad NDA” and that her “master recordings were not for sale to [her]."

That was obviously a no-go, she said. But, in the same statement, she also announced she was re-recording her old music. Very quickly, a narrative took shape that, not only was this was a chance to revisit the songs that built her career, it was also a way to stick it to The Man—i.e., the music industry, which has historically exploited artists by locking them into abusive contracts and stealing their intellectual property. (This is not to mention the pervasive sexual abuse and harassment.) And if she made a boatload of money doing so? Well, all the better. 

Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the update of her 2008 breakout album, dropped in April and promptly went to No. 1, but Red (Taylor’s Version), which came out on Nov. 12, has made a significantly larger splash because of a marketing campaign that, while fiendishly effective, repeats her past mistakes. So, yeah—that's why Jake Gyllenhaal was trending—for the second time in 2021, unfortunately—and why Swift has been dominating my feeds all week.

What’s all this about Jake Gyllenhaal and a scarf?

We should pause here to acknowledge that any kind of cultural analysis of Swift’s work or public persona requires constant detours into her private life, current and past. As Elamin Abdelmahmoud writes in Buzzfeed this week, “musical appraisal of Swift often gives way to light biography. To assess her music is to read and reread the text of her life. Swift is, of course, aware of this dynamic and uses it to her advantage. She has filled her social media feeds and liner notes with Easter eggs and constant invitations to decode the lyrics, music, and visuals in order to interpret the context that birthed them.” So, while journalists have been criticized for focusing too much on her personal life, it’s actually impossible to talk about her music without doing so—and in fact, she deliberately encourages exactly this kind of attention.  

Okay, back to Gyllenhaal. Even before Swift rerecorded Red, the actor was all but confirmed as the inspiration for its standout track, “All Too Well”—and that meant any marketing for Red (Taylor’s Version) needed to lean heavily on what he ostensibly did to her. And so it did; the Easter eggs and speculation were “on overdrive during the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), especially in the short film Swift released for the 10-minute ‘All Too Well,’ starring a Gyllenhaalesque Dylan O’Brien and Swiftian Sadie Sink,” Abdelmahmoud explains. “Written and directed by Swift herself, it portrays the collapse of a brief relationship and has already invited lengthy breakdowns of all the secret codes it could contain.”

 And…. more backstory: Supposedly, Gwyneth Paltrow introduced Swift and Gyllenhaal at a dinner party at some point in 2010, when she was 20 and he was 29. That October, they were spotted on a date that included a taping of Saturday Night Live. They spent Thanksgiving together the following month, but when she turned 21 in December, he reportedly missed her party. They broke up in January 2011, and in October 2012, she used Red to “rebuke an older man who broke her heart when she was 21,” per the Guardian, which noted the rampant speculation at the time that Gyllenhaal was that man.

This was not a weird thing to speculate, for the record; by then, evisceration-via-pop-song had become her signature move. Plus, to fans, the references were pretty clear. The original, five-minute version of “All Too Well” starts with the lyrics, “I walked through the door with you/The air was cold/But something about it felt like home somehow/And I, left my scarf there at your sister's house/And you've still got it in your drawer even now.” (This might be a literal accessory that she supposedly misplaced at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s house or… her virginity, according to a small but convincing segment of TikTok.) It also includes the lines, “But then he watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come/And he said, ‘It's supposed to be fun turning twenty-one,’” which further reinforces the Gyllenhaal interpretation.

Anyway, after that time passes, a bunch of things happen—and a decade later, Swift revives all of that speculation to sell the shit out of Red (Taylor’s Version), which achieves the second-largest week for any album in the U.S. this year, surpassing 500,000 units sold in its first five days on sale. A reminder, this is an album made up mostly of songs that people have already heard before, in one way or another.

That’s what I mean by genius.

Swift’s marketing strategy for Red (Taylor’s Version) relies on her fans’ bad behaviour

But here’s the evil part. (Okay, maybe not evil, but definitely not great.)

Swift has always relied on the perception of innocence to market her music and build her brand, but this was especially true when she was promoting 2012's Red. As Abdelmahmoud points out in his piece, the album had to serve the dual purpose of establishing her as a viable pop property without jeopardizing the affection of the country fans who made her a star in the first place. “In order to keep the fans she had earned, Swift had to carefully lead listeners away from country morality without shocking them,” he writes. “She leaned on her innocence as the device to tell this story, both its preservation (see: ‘Begin Again’) and its loss (see: ‘All Too Well’).” It was a classic both-things-are-true situation: she had been taken advantage of, but this also wasn’t the first or last time that she would use innocence strategically.

I actually don’t think she did this so much in songs as she got older—her romance with Harry Styles was famously immortalized on 1989, especially in “Out of the Woods” and “Style,” but neither song really blames him for whatever went wrong in their relationship. When it comes to her many and varied feuds, however? Oof. As Nola Ojomu argued in a 2019 Complex article, Swift “has a habit of omitting details during… public disputes, in an attempt to frame a narrative of herself as a victim, even when she doesn't need to.” Ojumo cited Swift’s biggest feuds, from Katy Perry to ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris to Nicki Minaj, whose (valid) expressions of frustration when “Anaconda” wasn’t nominated for video of the year at the 2015 VMAs were misinterpreted as an attack on Swift. And of course, there’s the singer’s long-running beef with Kanye West, which I’m sorry, she absolutely used as a career boost for years after his “Imma let you finish…” interruption during her 2016 Grammys speech.

It’s a clear pattern of behaviour: Swift consistently positions herself as an innocent party who deserves retribution for other people's wrongdoing, ideally through the support of her fans. You can see this dynamic at play on a macro level, through the way she’s spoken publicly about the reasons she decided to rerecord her music, and on a micro level in the marketing strategy she has chosen, especially for Red (Taylor’s Version). There’s no way she didn’t know that releasing a long-rumoured 10-minute version of the song wouldn’t revive that frenzy of speculation about its subject. In fact, she helped it along by making sure the heartbreaker in the accompanying short film, played by Dylan O'Brien, had a vaguely Gyllenhaal vibe. And, as a Friday Things reader pointed out this week via email, “casting Sadie Sink to play her in ‘All too Well’ [was super smart]. That video is embarrassingly bad… BUT 10 points to Slytherin for casting an actor who, though she is actually 19, is thought of as 13/14 in the popular consciousness to play young Taylor. Really insisting on the ‘I was so young and innocent’ card.”

I actually thought Taylor Swift had changed, so this is disappointing

This pulled-from-real life promotional strategy was pretty harmless in 2012, but it’s harder to make that argument in 2021. Apologies to the Swifties that don’t dox and harass people on the internet, but right now, some of you are still flooding Gyllenhaal’s IG with comments, including on posts that mark 9/11 and express support for Black Lives Matter. Fans have also been sending John Mayer a bevy of death threats. (He’s an asshole, yes, but that's really too much.) They even harassed Jamie Lee Curtis for the cardinal sin of... posting a nice Instagram about the Gyllenhaal siblings? Worse, none of this should be a surprise to Swift after 15 years of seeing her fanbase interpret support as both buying the albums and spreading the word and running amok through people’s comments sections and DMs. And yet, earlier this week, she appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers, where she said she “hasn’t thought about” how the subjects of her songs might react to the rereleases. I get what she's trying to say—she's not interested in centring the feelings of her annoying exes, which is fair—but to admit that she didn't give a single thought to how her decisions might impact others strikes me as immature and selfish. There's a difference between prioritizing a man's feelings over your own and siccing your famously toxic fanbase on people, some of them entirely unconnected to your relationship.

Also, it's frustrating to see her fall back on old approaches because I thought she'd changed. I loved that Folklore and Evermore, the ‘sister’ albums she released last year, didn't just tell autobiographical stories. (As the New York Times pointed out in its review of Evermore, “On ‘Folklore,’ Swift decided she could set aside autobiography to tell stories that weren’t necessarily her own. ‘Evermore’ features more character studies and role playing, as she sings about infidelity, con jobs, even murder... [Meanwhile, her] latest breakup songs, her longtime specialty, seek maturity by stepping back... Bon Iver, returning after his appearance on ‘Folklore,’ arrives midway through to recall more turbulent times, but Swift is determined to put pain behind her.”) Similarly, she seemed to have personally matured. Not to diminish her feelings or downplay romantic relationships, but I found the idea of Swift advocating for herself—and seemingly other artists—in a professional context much more interesting.

I actually wonder if that's the reason so many people, some of them casual Swift fans at most, have been doing the 2021 equivalent of yaaas queen-ing her for wanting vengeance. But there's nuance here, too, because not all artists are going to benefit from Swift’s actions. Sure, some musicians may be inspired to rerecord their music so they can also own their masters, but record companies are already responding by making their contracts even more restrictive. Universal is “effectively doubling the amount of time that contracts restrict an artist from rerecording their work,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which will likely prompt other labels to take the same approach. That’s not in any way Swift’s fault—but we shouldn't be praising her for fighting the good fight without acknowledging that the person who most benefits from Taylor Swift rereleasing her music is Taylor Swift.

Can I blame Swift for using the tools at her disposal, which have historically always worked, to achieve her goal of crushing Scooter Braun’s spirit? I cannot. Do I wish that the discourse around her, and particularly Red (Taylor’s Version), was a bit more nuanced? Kind of, yes. But most of all, I would really like it if we could all admit that she doesn't actually want to be excluded from any narrative. After all, it's good for business.

RSVP Now: This Magazines’ Panel on How Pop Culture is Political

I’m going to a panelist (alongside Sadaf Ahsan, Amanda Scriver and Sydney Urbanek) at the next event in This Magazine’s talk series, We Need to Talk About This, on Nov. 23 at 7pm EST. We’ll be discussing how pop culture is political which is, as you know, the thesis of everything I write, lol. If you’d like to attend, RSVP (for free!) here.

And Did You Hear About…

Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, who has not been seen in public since she accused the former vice-premier of China of sexual assault. (This is a great thread about how Chinese state media is covering this case.)

Amanda Mull’s investigation into why all our hair is falling out—and, by extension, what’s wrong with the hair loss industry.

Female Dating Strategy, the women-focused version of the Red Pill subreddit that spawned incels. (It’s… terrible.)

This NYT profile of Britney’s boyfriend, Sam Asghari, which he did not like at all. (For the record, I thought it really illuminated the fact that she’s still not surrounded by a media-savvy team of professionals.)

The trailer for Pam & Tommy, which is both a feat of hair, makeup and wardrobe and a bit too flip for my taste, considering how we now think about stolen sex tapes.

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Taylor Swift
Jake Gyllenhaal