Photo via Instagram

How Taylor Swift’s Red became Gen Z’s first big breakup album

The 2012 record soundtracked first loves and heartbreaks for a generation coming-of-age.

by Tom George
|
11 November 2021, 6:31pm

Photo via Instagram

You are lying on your bed, feeling broken. It’s a non-specific year in the early 2010s, and you’re removing the name of your boyfriend of four weeks (written in cursive, and the heart-shaped emoji next to it) from your BBM status. The breakup went down in the school canteen, and it was devastating. Life-threatening, even. Taylor Swift’s Red fills your (wired) headphones: she reminisces about her own lost relationship — crucially, for the sake of Swiftie providence, with Jake Gyllenhaal — and the scarf she left at his sister’s house that he keeps in a drawer, even now. You hold on tightly to the words of this country-pop superstar, seemingly the only person who truly understands your emotions in this moment. Nevermind that five minutes later, you, a teenager, are dancing around your room and singing about feeling 22.

It’s no wonder that the re-release of Taylor Swift’s fourth album this week has been met with such great anticipation. Red (Taylor's Version) will be the second of her album re-recordings following the fallout that ensued when her former label sold her music masters. Despite her famous media reputation as ever-lovelorn, Red is the only album in Taylor’s discography that she considers to be a bonafide breakup record. “Red has songs for every stage of your life whether you’re starting a new relationship or just broken up with someone you thought was special,” says Elizabeth, the 22-year-old stan behind @YeeHawSwiftie.

Across its 16 tracks, Taylor moves from electropop on “I Knew You Were Trouble” to the compulsively beltable “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, pivots to gutting emotional storytelling on “All Too Well” and “I Almost Do”, only to bring up the mood again with feel-good anthem “Starlight”. For a generation of teenagers going through their first heartbreaks, jumps between intense emotions were a familiar experience. “I remember listening to ‘The Moment I Knew’ when I was going through a bad time.” Elizabeth tells us, the song being one of three additional tracks on the deluxe edition. “It really expresses the feeling of longing for someone that you love who isn’t really there for you and I felt connected to the lyrics. They helped me understand my own feelings and know I’m not the only one experiencing them.”

That Red signalled the start of Taylor’s rebellious, experimental era is another reason it resonated so well with teens at the time. Although continuing with the country-pop style she’d perfected over the romantic fantasies of Fearless and the incredibly personal, entirely self-written Speak Now; a new songwriting process meant that for Red, Taylor focused on the lyrics first, finding their overarching emotion before letting a new team of Britney and Kanye producers play with each song's individual sound. While the album was overall critically praised, its production was criticised for being inconsistent and unfocused. But these criticisms ignore the artist’s intentionality — it reflected the volatile nature of young romances. “Musically and lyrically, Red resembled a heartbroken person. It was all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together,” Taylor wrote in an Instagram post announcing the re-release.

Besides, it worked. The multi-genre sound she created would build the bridge for her move from country to fully-fledged pop star. While the album would reach the number one spot in charts across the world and birth four US top-ten singles, the ensuing Red Tour was, and to this day is still, the most successful country music tour ever.

Since, critics have noted Red’s impact on music across the board, with The New York Times suggesting the indie music of today is much closer aesthetically to Red than it is to its underground rock roots, which feels rather iconic for an album whose megahit lead single berates their ex for preferring “indie records that are much cooler than mine.” Then, of course, there are the unmistakable influences songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble” had on later popstars’ middle finger belters such as “Good 4 U” by Olivia Rodrigo, a proud Swiftie who would have only been nine at the time Red was released.

But even if they were too young to accurately relate to the subject matter, Red’s tongue-in-cheek, karaoke-classic singles still held a special place in the hearts of preteen Swifties. “At the time I didn't understand the pure magnitude and depth of the album. How do you describe heartbreak to a ten year old?” asks the now 19-year-old stan behind @swiftie_stephanie. But just last year, when the guy in the situationship she was in began to ghost her, Red helped Stephanie through the pain. Specifically, she played “I Almost Do”, a song about wanting to go back to a person you know is toxic. “I found comfort in knowing that Taylor also went through the same gut-wrenching pain I went through. The lyrics she writes are just so personal, and I feel as if she almost looked into my life and wrote them specifically for me.” she shares.

As Taylor revisits the album, now in her thirties, — adding an additional 11 songs that didn’t make the original cut, new duets with Phoebe Bridgers, Ed Sheeran and Chris Stapleton and a 10-minute long version of fan favourite “All Too Well” — she comes to it with a more mature sound and new perspective. “I’m not sure if it was pouring my thoughts into this album, hearing thousands of your voices sing the lyrics back to me in passionate solidarity, or if it was simply time, but something healed along the way,” Taylor reminisced in her statement.

“The album was comfort and solace in musical form,” Stephanie continues. “When you're going through heartbreak, you feel deeply alone with no one to turn to but you always have that one album you can depend on to help get you through it.” For many, we’re lucky enough to have that album be Red.

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