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How Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’ became a fall classic

in retrospect

“Red” finds Taylor Swift caught in the crossroads of Nashville and New York.
“Red” finds Taylor Swift caught in the crossroads of Nashville and New York.

As fall sets in across the United States, a peculiar tradition begins among one of the nation’s most rabid fanbases. With the sight of falling leaves and the arrival of crisp autumn air, Swifties will pull Taylor Swift’s fourth studio album “Red” down off of shelves and Spotify catalogues and back into their lives. With an album so thoroughly entrenched in themes of closures and conclusions, no time of year better matches the pop-country-rock fusion that is “Red” than autumn. So why not now for an exploration of the album that brought us the Taylor of today?

“Red” finds Swift caught in the crossroads of Nashville and New York. The album, which combines elements of both her prior three country works with those of future mega-successes “1989,” “Reputation” and “Lover,” neatly divides her discography into two halves. This leaves “Red” awkwardly stranded in the middle. The album presents a musical crisis in and of itself, leaving the question that, as Taylor mockingly puts it in the anthem seemingly destined for 22nd-birthday Instagram captions, “22”: “Who is Taylor Swift anyway? Ew.”

No song captures this confused relationship between genre and Swift better than the crowning jewel of “Red,” if not her entire discography, “All Too Well.” This track-five wonder of a song begins as an unassuming country-pop ballad vividly depicting a point in Taylor Swift’s life with “Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place” before eventually ascending into the realm of arena rock. In the climax of the song, she unleashes her most devastating lines ever:

“You call me up again / just to break me like a promise.

So casually cruel / in the name of being honest.” 

Throughout “All Too Well,” Swift shows off her ability to weave genres together, combining her country storytelling prowess with an ambitious taste for pop.  That ambition would pull her into surprising new avenues for growth. “I Knew You Were Trouble” acted as a Dubstep 101 class for the general population just as EDM was becoming mainstream while also gifting the world with an infamous viral goat-bleating parody. She experiments with a forceful and driving beat in “Holy Ground,” a track loved among Swifties for its playful lyricism and memorable hook. In her collaboration with Ed Sheeran on guitar-strumming love duet “Everything Has Changed, ” she all but cemented his place among pop’s royalty. Despite these diverging musical paths, she is still able to fall back on her country sound for a few songs, blending colors and emotions in the Maserati-and-dead-end-road-juxtaposing title track “Red” and striking mellow gold with the album closer “Begin Again.”

Throughout the album, Taylor Swift finds that perfect balance of specificity and relatability that other artists often dream of. In the crescendo of “Treacherous,” she adds that touch of detail to something as common as wanting somebody who just isn’t right for you. “Two headlights shine through the sleepless night,” she sings with her trademark flair for lyricism, “and I will get you, and get you alone.”

Taylor Swift’s ability as a songwriter is why, for many of her fans, the songs of “Red” evoke a special nostalgia. For me, there’s the first time I heard chart-topping “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” staring wide-eyed at the music video and bouncing along in my chair. As her first number-one hit, it attracted both new fans and haters through its effusively catchy tune, earning a well-deserved reputation as Swift’s top breakup song. Later, I gifted the album as a Christmas present to my cousin for her as much as myself. We’d have dance parties in the car, jamming out together in the dark to the kitschy yet endearing “Stay Stay Stay” or the emotive and pictorial “The Lucky One.” 

However, while I certainly enjoyed the album in that fateful fall of 2012, I would not come to fully appreciate the masterpiece that is “Red” until I was older. Nowadays, it is the striking maturity of the songs that keeps me coming back time and time again to the album. When I first fell in love, it was to the beat of soft-rock album opener “State of Grace.” When we broke up, I cried on the floor as the frightfully haunting “Sad Beautiful Tragic” played, floating there in the background like a ghost in the air. 

In a seemingly effortless manner, “Red” carried Taylor Swift to new heights of superstardom. Despite its genre-defying complexity and range, the album feels cohesive and holds up even after seven years of Swift furthering her pop sound. As a classic of the early 2010s, it has that timeless spirit to it. Being so memorable and relatable, the album will certainly continue to prop up in the fall playlists of Swifties countrywide year after year. I imagine that “Red,” propelled by Taylor’s songwriting and its devastating nostalgia, will float into my hands time and time again just as the leaves fall from the trees.

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