Taylor Swift’s “Red” and the Tradition of Songwriting

Corban Mills

Staff Writer

On November 12, 2021, Taylor Swift released a re-recorded version of her album titled “Red,” and this new release is titled “Red (Taylor’s Version).” The original album, ever since it came out in 2012, has gained much critical and commercial success in its songwriting. The album was also a turning point for Swift in her creative journey, as her next album would be the pop-heavy Grammy-winning work “1989.” “Red” saw Swift transition from a country music talent to more of a pop music icon, keeping a balance between the two. On the album, she not only plays around with different sounds but also with more complex lyrics. “Red” has been considered the greatest break-up album of all time, one of the greatest albums of all time, and one of Swift’s best works. But what is it that makes this album so appealing?

Swift is not the first person ever, clearly, to pair poetry with song. This has been a tradition since the dawn of language and music. However, Swift brings it a step forward from the songwriting traditions of the 20th century. 

At the turn of the 19th century, many Irish immigrants and others from the British Isles came over to America searching for a new life, bringing with them a number of their traditions. One of these traditions is songwriting and playing, namely, folk songs. Folk music would go on to be the basis of the singer-songwriter genre, especially when Bob Dylan came to the world stage in 1963. But before him, country and folk musicians began experimenting with these two genres, which would lead to the breakthrough of music in the 1960s. 

One must first acknowledge Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams in order to understand the evolution of the singer-songwriter. Rodgers was one of the first of this kind of musician, playing with his harmonica and guitar, very simple music, but his lyrics and voice touched the hearts of millions across the United States. His music was also inspired by blues music, which would go on to be one of the precursors to modern rock. Williams, however, developed a songwriting style that went beyond just simple ideas. The song “I Saw The Light” is a beautiful poem that Williams wrote after he woke up, passed out in a car from drinking too much and saw lights outside the car. Other songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” have become a country standard, and its lyrics about loneliness still resonate today. Might I point out that the guitar was a mixture of Irish and African invention, making folk and country music a truly diverse genre of music, making its impact one that would stretch far and wide. 

Taylor Swift began as a country singer, with her first album, being self-titled in 2006, entirely country music. Then as she progressed, she began to mix country music with pop music and rock music, producing such albums as “Fearless” and “Speak Now.” However, “Red” takes country and turns it on its head, mixing it with not only pop music styles but also with lyrics that go beyond that of the standard country song. Songs like “All Too Well” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” are not country songs, but are soft pop songs. The songs on this album are based not only in country but also in the music that came before it, like that of folk music. 

Folk music, especially in the 50s and 60s, began to speak out about problems in society and about personal life. Woody Guthrie was one of these folk singers who would go on to write many songs that became standards, namely “This Land is Your Land,” speaking out about how the US should be seen as something that belongs to everyone that lives within it. Bob Dylan took everything a step further when he released songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which are considered protest songs. He also wrote one of the first “diss-songs” which would go on to inspire modern hip-hop songs called “Positively 4th Street.” However, in 1975, Dylan went on to write the landmark album “Blood on the Tracks,” which, similar to “Red,” would flip a genre of music on its head, the genre here being folk. Although Dylan had already changed folk music with albums such as “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blood on the Tracks” made folk both about society and personal life, doing so effectively and directly. Now, this does not speak for all genres of music, just the singer-songwriter style of music. 

Taylor Swift’s “Red” acts similarly to Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” with its messages of anger, love, turmoil, and frustration with personal life. In re-recording her album, Swift shows us that powerful lyrics in music can stand the tests of time. Let me give an example of some very powerful songwriting:

“While you’re still free, and can roam on a loose rein 

Pick one to whom you could say: ‘You alone please me.’ 

She won’t come falling for you out of thin air: 

The right girl has to be searched for: use your eyes”

This is not a song, actually, but instead poetry by Ovid from his book “The Art of Love.” Ovid was an ancient Roman poet, and as you can see from this excerpt and from the title of the book, he was talking about love, specifically with a woman. As one can see, this tradition of talking about the problems of love goes back to antiquity and possibly before. The tradition that Swift continues is a long one, as does Dylan, but both of these musicians take it one step further and adapt these ideas to be more closely related to today’s audience. 

If you have never listened to Swift’s “Red” albums, now would be the time to do it. Whether you can relate to it or not, the songs take modern pop music and give it depth, which was a groundbreaking idea for the time in which it was originally released. Not only this, but the album has a cohesive narrative that drives home the emotions of love with each passing lyric. 



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