2008 • COUNTRY • BIG MACHINE
In order to celebrate her first re-release, today at The Soundx we will take a deep, critical, and detailed look at the original version of Fearless, the album responsible not only for putting Swift on the map but also for showing her the way to the future of her career.
Fearless’s creating process started long before its worldwide commercial and critical success took place. This occurred when Swift, at age 11, with her family, went on a failed trip to Nashville to try to get a record deal. At the time, Swift was not approved by any of the major, probably because she was too young and inexperienced compared to the rest of the country artists, but that didn’t stop her artistic side from flowing. She would write approximately 250 songs for the next four years, the vast majority in her bedroom but also some of them alongside Liz Rose e Robert Ellis Orrall, until she got her first contract at the age of 15 and it was time to use those songs.
Her first deal was with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which was responsible for promoting some of her first compositions, such as “I’d Lie,” “Dark Blue Tennessee,” and “We Were Happy,” tracks that would never come out of the head of her older and loyal fans. However, a year later, Swift moved to Big Machine Records, where she would release her 2006’s self-titled debut album. For this one, she separated some songs from the vault but still kept others saved, already having in mind being able to use them as material for her next albums. “I’m so happy that I did because now we have a second album full of songs and a third album full of songs, and I don’t have to lift a finger,” she said in an interview for CMT in 2006.
In 2007, while opening concerts for artists like George Strait and Brad Paisley, Swift started writing new songs. She was like an insatiable writer that even with more songs in her drawer than many careers, she couldn’t stop. Being influenced by Sheryl Crow and Paisley now, Taylor would write some of Fearless‘s songs in any quiet room she could find. At that time, Swift had written 75 more songs for her second record, some of them with the help of Rose and others with John Rich and country singer Colbie Caillat. The recording process, led by the production of Nathan Chapman, extended since 2007, with Taylor still graduating from high school, until 2008, after she finished performing her opening concerts for other country singers. Some of these new songs that she wrote on the road, alongside those written by her when she was 11 years old, formed Fearless, her biggest album to this day.
For Swift, the word “Fearless” does not mean the absence of fear, but perseverance despite it. In the album’s liner notes, she explains, “Fearless is falling madly in love again, even though you’ve been hurt before. Fearless is walking into your freshman year of high school at fifteen. Fearless is getting back up and fighting for what you want over and over again… even though every time you’ve tried before, you’ve lost. It’s Fearless to have faith that someday things will change.” All of this can be seen in Fearless, where Swift takes all the courage to face her fears, much of which is the result of the existential crises that teenagers of the age that Taylor had usually have. Fearless is where she builds her own fairy tale where castles are actually a house in the suburbs, princes are captains of the football team, witches are cheerleaders and a starry night is… well, a starry night. But regardless of how normal and close to everyone’s reality Swift’s fairy tale is, it’s still magical.
It is interesting to analyze the performance and impact of the album within its context. Fearless, like Katy Perry‘s Teenage Dream and its others colleagues, carries the feeling of the late 2000s and early 2010s. It is vivid the image where people still use flips when “You Belong With Me” or “Love Story” play on the radio. However, it is even more interesting when we analyze the power of the album. While Lady Gaga, Perry, Beyoncé, and others bet on a pop that enabled them to explore their sensuality and sexuality, Swift was a country singer who still aimed to wear a white dress at her wedding. But, Swift’s “children’s” songs that took place in fairy dreams were able to overthrow these other singers. Even within the country, with older singers with powerful voices, like the veteran Shania Twain or the freshmen Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, Swift excels with her high school crises.
But the fact that Fearless’s songs are mostly teen crises and thoughts doesn’t mean they’re bad. Look at “Fifteen,” a track that walks the line between vivid experiences and a kind of high school freshman survival manual. In this song, which also functions as a kind of Swift yearbook, she begins, “You take a deep breath and you walk through the doors/It’s the mornin’ of your very first day,” and completes it later, “You sit in class next to a redhead named Abigail/And soon enough, you’re best friends.” Ahead of the album, “Hey Stephen,” one of the catchiest, is the classic song about fighting for someone’s love. Swift sings, “Of all the girls tossing rocks at your window/I’ll be the one waiting there even when it’s cold,” and then, “All those other girls, well, they’re beautiful/But would they write a song for you?” But the most interesting track of these is “You Belong With Me,” where Swift builds a teen romantic comedy movie where the nerd ended up dating the school heartthrob. She sings in the chorus, “But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts/She’s Cheer Captain and I’m on the bleachers.” This track was responsible for marking the teenagers at the time for simply transmitting something that no one had ever done before.
On the other hand, while Swift was not making her monotone days more interesting, she was creating magical stories inspired by the great romantic classics of literature. “Love Story,” which has the most special place in Taylor’s heart, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s novel Romeo and Juliet. According to Swift’s mother, the song was written when she and Taylor’s father did not support her relationship with another boy. Less than an hour after being locked in her room, Taylor leaves and delivers the lyrics for “Love Story.” She starts singing, “We were both young when I first saw you.” “Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone/I’ll be waiting, all there’s left to do is run/You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess/It’s a love story, baby, just say ‘Yes’,” she sings in the hook. However, the fairy tale ends in “White Horse,” where Swift sings about a disillusionment, “That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale/This ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town.” Swift, more than anyone else, was aware of her reality and she chose how to deal with it.
Meanwhile, Fearless’s other songs are adrift in this teen pop-country. “Breathe,” with Colbie Caillat, is a beautiful duet, with a focus on Swift reflecting on needing someone but accepting the need to move on without her. Meanwhile, “Tell Me Why” is a BOP country, and the dramatic “You’re Not Sorry,” works around an orchestra and a grand piano. “The Way I Loved You,” in turn, has a detailed instrumental despite having the silliest lyrics on the record. “Forever & Always” was a song that Swift had to beg Scott Borchetta to let her put on the album. The song was written in the process of finalizing the album, about the breakup between Swift with Joe Jonas. Despite the pessimism, Swift seems to accept this and understands that better things will come.
It is in the final stretch of Fearless, however, that Swift begins to diversify her composition. It is also at this moment that Swift begins to leave her lyrical dependencies in adolescence and seems to move towards maturity, even though this, at times, seems precocious and too fragile. “The Best Day,” in its turn, is one of the most personal that Swift has written to date. The track is a tribute to Swift’s mother, with her painting scenes from her childhood and showing the necessary role of her mother. She sings in front of an acoustic guitar, “And don’t know how my friends could be so mean/I come home crying and you hold me tight and grab the keys/And we drive and drive until we found a town far enough away.” In order not to make the rest of the family sad, she adds, “I have an excellent father, his strength is making me stronger/God smiles on my little brother, inside and out.” The last track on the album, “Change,” is kind of an early version of Speak Now’s “Long Live.” In addition to the grand instrumental, the most complete of the entire album, Swift presents the most different lyrics, singing about the aspiration to success. “The battle was long, it’s the fight of our lives/But we’ll stand up champions tonight,” she sings, more hopeful than ever.
In the title track of the album, however, it is where all the energy of the record is found. Not necessarily because it is the point where Taylor highlights the main theme of Fearless, but because it is one of the most important and symbolic moments of her career. On the track, with string solos and percussions, Swift tells the plot of energy and anxiety about falling in love, playing headfirst in love. But, much more than that, when Swift sings that she would head and dance in the rain in her best dress, she was referring to herself. She was young, she didn’t know things, but she did and she knew she was strong enough for whatever came. Years later, in 2016, Swift would face global hatred for something she was not to blame. In “Fifteen,” Taylor sings, “Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now.” I don’t know if Swift would tell her young, from the album cover, with hair blowing, about everything that was going to happen. But we know that regardless of everything, she would go through everything. Headfirst, in the storm, fearless.