Kalina Mladenova

Last Thursday night, we gathered around the corner of our kitchen table at 11:50, counting down the minutes until midnight. We were our 6-year-old selves, waiting for our mothers to drive us to Target to pick up the CD. More literally, we are two 19-year-olds, stuck between our high school and college selves, in the middle of a pandemic, in our Airbnb-ed, late-winter beach house. We obsessively refreshed Spotify. Then, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” dropped.

Last spring, when quarantine hit, we found ourselves grasping at desperate theories about Taylor Swift releasing content. We counted cinnamon rolls and floor tiles in her Instagram posts and used those totals to calculate dates when she might drop music — always dates like May 8, where the digits added to 13, Taylor’s lucky number. In a senior spring with no excitement, we clung to what seemed like the most reasonable hope — new music from Taylor.

While our state of desperation had us convinced that Taylor was releasing a collab with Katy Perry, Taylor’s set off on her own quarantine journey in the form of “folklore,” her mystical, stripped down, alternative masterpiece of an eighth studio album. Five months later, she did it again with “evermore.” We learned of each album 16 hours before its release, joyfully crying on the phone two blocks away from each other in the same childhood bedrooms where we’d waited for her to drop “Lover,” “reputation” and the albums before. 

This time, though, we’d been and would remain trapped in those bedrooms. When “folklore” dropped, those bedrooms were where we’d learned our senior year was canceled, sat through countless halfhearted Zoom classes and watched a portion of our high school graduation. When “evermore” dropped, we’d returned to those bedrooms after our fall adventures — for one of us, an abbreviated first semester at Yale, for the other, an unsuccessful Senate campaign on a gap year. For both releases, we felt stagnant — suspended in time without a clear picture of what our next steps would be. 

While the sister albums didn’t give us our next steps, they allowed us to feel more content in our current states. The albums’ escapism did for us what it did for her: We all got to run from the anxieties of 2020 and into the magical worlds Taylor had created. 

“Folklore” and “evermore” were unplanned projects, born out of the isolation and wanderlust of the pandemic. What Taylor had been planning instead was the hyperintentional trek of reclaiming her work by meticulously recreating each track from each album.

When Taylor’s old country label Big Machine Records refused to give her any simple means of owning her own work, she signed to Republic Records in 2018, where she was guaranteed complete ownership of future albums. But her first six albums lay in the hands of the sleazy industry mogul Scooter Braun, to whom Big Machine had been sold after Taylor left the label. One workaround remained: Her contract with Big Machine stated that after each record turned five years old, Taylor could re-record the album under her new label and would own the new versions. 

In August 2019, she announced she would do just that. In 2020, during the pandemic, she began revisiting and reinventing the versions of herself she had been when she first recorded each album. We aren’t global pop phenomena, but we also found ourselves rethinking our identities and returning to our roots in quarantine. Our reinventions are both less purposeful and less influential than Taylor’s but give us away as members of a generation that’s collectively grappling to find our place in society. 

In the absence of the interactions that once constituted daily life, we’ve spent more time with ourselves on a more intimate level than ever before. We’ve been able to branch out into new versions of ourselves and to revisit past versions of ourselves in a way that would not have been possible before we were forced out of normal routines. We’ve found new meaning in childhood books and new hobbies in instruments we hadn’t dared to pick up since elementary school. 

We’ve had to find purpose and definition in completely new spaces without a school year to rely on, or we’ve had to rethink academic identity in the context of a school like Yale. Alongside much of our generation, we healed from first heartbreaks, switched from Apple Music to Spotify and sat with 2020-induced existential crises. Taylor’s reinventions and revisitations — “folklore,” “evermore” and “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” — served as the soundtrack to our own.

We traded our traditional workout beats for “exile,” Taylor and Bon Iver’s melodramatic piano divorce ballad. For the two to four places we could go in our 6,000-person village in Western Massachusetts, we measured distance by song lengths — the four-minute drive to the Clark Art Institute meant exactly one listen of “cardigan,” and the walk to and from Tunnel City Coffee got us through half of “folklore.” Now, we can listen to “Fifteen (Taylor’s Version)” exactly twice on our daily escapes to Cold Storage Beach. 

Of course, having two to four places to go and feeling locked in your bedroom is not a tragedy, nor is having Scooter Braun profit off of your catalogue when you’re already a millionaire. For that matter, neither is being dumped by Joe Jonas in a 27-second phone call. Part of the power of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is the legitimacy that it grants to self-ownership and trivial teenage pain. 

In the final minutes of her 2019 documentary “Miss Americana,” Taylor told us that she wants “to still have a sharp pen, and a thin skin, and an open heart.” Over the course of her career she’s shown us how to do that. She’s shown us the art in being vulnerable enough to feel everything, from massive heartbreak to menial everyday interactions, regardless of their perceived importance. In “Enchanted,” she declares that she’ll “spend forever wondering if you knew I was enchanted to meet you” after meeting someone once, whereas in the album “Lover,” she expresses the same level of endearment toward her boyfriend of three years. In “Last Kiss,” she sings to a past lover, “So I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep, and I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe.” In “Never Grow Up,” she tells us, “I just realized everything I had is someday gonna be gone.”

Taylor is at the point in her life where meeting someone for a night is no longer cause for a new anthem, but the seriousness with which she’s re-recording her albums tells us that she does not discount the “burning red” feelings of her — and our — youth. Now that we feel her music in a way we didn’t when we were 9, knowing that she’s doubling down on the drama and whimsy of being 19 is enchanting.

Sitting at the kitchen table as we write this, we realize that we aren’t even remotely living the life of 18-year-old Taylor Swift. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be dramatic. This is Fearless (Owen and Madeline’s Version).

Owen Tucker-Smith and Madeline Art | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu and madeline.art@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith was managing editor of the Board of 2023. Before that, he covered the mayor as a City Hall reporter.