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Five Burning Questions: Taylor Swift Makes Billboard 200 History With 'Fearless (Taylor's Version)'

Taylor Swift
Beth Garrabrant

Taylor Swift

For the third time in the past 12 months, Taylor Swift has a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart. For the first time in her career, it's with an album that she's (mostly) recorded before.

Fearless (Taylor's Version), Swift's re-do of her 2008 sophomore set -- accompanied by six newly recorded songs that were written during sessions for the original album -- bows atop the 200 with a stunning 291,000 equivalent album units moved, the best first week for any album thusfar in 2021. In addition, the set charts eight of its 26 tracks on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, led by the new "Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor's Version) (From the Vault)" at No. 30.

What have we learned from this re-recorded Fearless? And would other artists be able to replicate its success? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. Taylor Swift is now at a level where she's putting up blockbuster first-week numbers with her combination re-recordings/deluxe reissues. How do you even begin to put this fairly unprecedented achievement in proper context?

Lyndsey Havens: It's the "three largest weeks for an album in the last eight months" for me. That record requires some breaking down, because you first must acknowledge that for Swift to have claimed the three biggest weeks among albums in units earned, she had to release three albums in eight months. And though the first-week units have declined from Folklore (846,000) to Evermore (329,000) to Fearless (Taylor's Version) (291,000), all that does is prove just how massive Folklore was to begin with.

Jason Lipshutz: Let’s set the first-week numbers aside for a second, as gaudy as they are, and focus on the fact that Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is the first No. 1 album that’s also a re-recorded version of another album. How many artists could launch a project that is ostensibly a note-for-note re-creation of an existing, widely available album straight to the top of the chart? This achievement speaks not only to the stadium-packing popularity of Swift, which is now squarely in its second decade, but to the dedication of a fan base that understands her battle for creative ownership and is ready to support her every step of the way.

Mia Nazareno: At 31, Taylor Swift has earned nine No. 1 albums, and ties with veteran superstar/cultural icon Madonna for having the second most No. 1 albums among women artists. Swift is closely trailing behind Barbra Streisand’s record of having 11 No. 1 albums, and at the rate she's going it’s not crazy to think that she can surpass Streisand within the year. In the last eight months, Swift put out three albums – the Grammy-winning FolkoreEvermore, and Fearless (Taylor’s Version) -- which all debuted at the top spot on the Billboard 200. The numbers are staggering, but what I’m most pleased about is Swift dethroning Morgan Wallen -- in the middle of one of the year's biggest musical controversies -- at No. 1 and halting his streak on the top spot on Top Country Albums. She dethroned him with songs people have already heard, so that’s a win in my book!

Andrew Unterberger: How about the fact that while Fearless (Taylor's Version) was putting up 2021-best numbers, the original Fearless was actively sagging, dropping 19% in overall metrics? You might expect it to get a curiosity bump if anything, but the Swifties are both well-trained and impossibly devoted -- so now that Taylor's Version of Fearless is here, you won't need to tell them twice to delete the original from their streaming and iTunes libraries.

Denise Warner: You can't. It's not possible. But let's try in context of No. 1 albums: Ostensibly, she has five more re-recordings to go. If all five hit No. 1, that will give her 14 Billboard 200 topping works, the most among women and tying her with Jay-Z for the most among solo artists. At 31, it's easy to assume Taylor has a lot of songs and albums left in her. And she isn't going to break up with herself, leaving many years to catch The Beatles, who reign with 19 albums that hit No. 1 on the chart.

2. Did listening to her re-recording of Fearless add to or change your perspective on Swift's sophomore album at all? If so, in what way? 

Lyndsey Havens: It more so changed my perspective on Folkore and Evermore -- two albums I already loved dearly and now have an even deeper appreciation for. I say that because when juxtaposed with the early lyricism heard on Fearless (Taylor's Version), from both original album tracks and ones from the vault written at the same time, it's even more impressive and compelling to realize how advanced -- and playfully fictional -- Swift's storytelling has become.

Jason Lipshutz: I mean, this isn’t a personal or general revelation, but those singles sure are timeless, huh? Listening to the re-recorded versions of “You Belong With Me,” “Fifteen” and “Love Story” -- trying to pick up tweaked production details and vocal approaches -- also served as a welcome reminder that the songs that helped make Swift a superstar did so for a reason, with impassioned hooks and bursts of a personality ready to be delivered to the masses. It’s easy to take these songs for granted after they’ve been in our lives for more than a decade, but the new versions helped me remember why I loved the old ones so damn much.

Mia NazarenoBefore I answer this question, I just wanna flex that I'm part of the very special 1993 club, which means Fifteen came out when I was.... fifteeeeeenGiven that I'm already a massive fan of Fearless, the re-release reaffirmed how much that album means to me. The re-recording didn’t change my perspective on the album, but it did make me think about how much I’ve changed – and I think that’s a sentiment that’s shared among her longtime fans.  For those who were in high school when Fearless came out, the joy of being a Taylor Swift fan comes from the feeling of growing up with Taylor with each release cementing a snapshot of a moment in our livesI think the only changes we think about when listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Versionare the ones that come with growing up and feeling a bit sentimental about it all. 

Andrew Unterberger: Honestly, I just think it's cool to have an excuse to have everyone revisiting a classic pop album like Fearless again. Despite being inarguably one of the most successful albums of the 21st century -- 11 weeks at No. 1, Diamond certification, Grammy for album of the year -- it actually gets a little forgotten in the Taylor Swift discussion these days, because so many fans and critics still dismissed her as just a teen country sensation at the time, and because more recent works are obviously more sophisticated and grown-sounding. But Fearless has a number of my all-time favorite Swift jams -- "Hey Stephen," "Forever & Always," of course "You Belong With Me" -- and it's nearly as much fun for us to revisit them with new recordings and new ears 13 years later as it probably was for Taylor herself.

Denise Warner: I'll be honest, I had never listened to the original as a complete work. I knew the songs -- "Fearless," "Fifteen," "Hey Stephen," "White Horse" and of course "Love Story" and "You Belong With Me." But I hadn't appreciated Fearless as a fully realized album before. (My bad!)

3. Of the six new songs recorded for the set, "Mr. Perfectly Fine" has been by far the best-performing so far. Why do you think it's caught on the most -- and is it your own pick for the most interesting/revelatory of the new cuts?

Lyndsey Havens: I mean, when the rumored subject is Joe Jonas how could it not catch fire. That said, I personally still find "You All Over Me" featuring Maren Morris to be the standout vault track. The story and the way it's told by the pair is beautiful and affecting, and there's something special about the fact that had this song come out 10+ years ago, it couldn't have included Maren. There's something cosmic about that, as if this song was always meant to exist now.

Jason Lipshutz: Joe Jonas speculation aside, “Mr. Perfectly Fine” contains the hallmarks of a early-period Swift kiss-off, with slick turns of phrase, some spiky country-pop guitars and Swift delivering a message to her ex with a winning sneer planted on her face. It’s not the best “From the Vault” song -- that would be “Don’t You,” the gorgeously hazy story of a chance encounter with an ex that rumbles awake into an anthem -- but “Mr. Perfectly Fine” most effectively evokes the sound of Fearless-era Swift, so it’s not surprising that longtime fans would love it.

Mia NazarenoThe short answer is Joe Jonas. While Swiftie sleuths think that the track was inspired by Taylor's brief romance with the JoBro -- which definitely adds to its allure -- I think the song caught on because she dropped it relatively early, before it was diluted with the other 25 tracks on Fearless (Taylor's Version). It's also catchy and relatable, which are two things the pop star does brilliantly. Personally, the track grew on me when I saw a TikTok clip of a club playing the single with twenty-somethings dressed in denim minis dancing and mouthing the words to the camera. It looked like pure bliss, and now I'm on the bandwagon. Besides that, "That's When" featuring Keith Urban has been on heavy rotation -- and yes, it was revelatory to hear a Keith Urban song for the first time and like it. 

Andrew Unterberger: Obviously a who's it about? hubbub never hurts a song's commercial prospects -- just ask one of Swift's most devout current acolytes -- but I think "Mr. Perfectly Fine" just sounds the most like a potential Fearless-era Taylor single, the kind of catchy, smart (and smarting) post-breakup song that made her the stuff of country and pop legend at an absurdly early age. Personally, I gravitate towards another From the Vault Taylor archetype with "We Were Happy" -- the kind of sighingly melancholy remembrance that mixes the sublime with the devastating like no one else.

Denise Warner: Hindsight is 20/20 but if "Mr. Perfectly Fine" had been released in 2008 when Taylor was 18, it would have been subject to the unfair and misogynist criticism gleefully lobbed at the younger Swift. Opening the vault for "Fine" follows Taylor's reclamation of that played-out narrative to continued success. More than that, though, "Mr. Perfectly Fine" is a perfect throwback to Taylor's "vintage" style with its country-twinged pop sound, great hook and delicious lyrics -- even if she would later borrow some for "All Too Well."  Plus, it gave us a back and forth between Taylor and Sophie Turner, whose husband Joe Jonas is allegedly the eponymous title character. At 31, Taylor is saying she can give your baby presents one day, then put you in your place the next. And now, she will be celebrated for it.

4. Now that the industry has seen how successful these re-recordings can be, do you think we'll see a number of star artists try to reclaim their old work in a similar fashion? Who do you think might benefit the most from doing so -- or is Taylor Swift the only artist with the right combination of factors to really pull this off? 

Lyndsey Havens: I think Taylor is one of the very few artists who can pull this off to this extreme level of success. While there are other artists who have the hits, and others who have the reasoning, I can't think of many who have as potent a combination as she. Someone like Kesha comes to mind... and then Bieber of course recently told Billboard he is in the process of negotiating a deal that would allow him to own his masters and license them to UMG. So as conversations over ownership in this industry continue to evolve and hold center stage, I think stars reclaiming old work could take on various forms. But no matter what, very few instances could replicate this kind of cultural moment -- and no one else could ever again be first to do it.

Jason Lipshutz: Certain A-listers may have the type of dedicated fan base to make a re-recording endeavor worthwhile, but outside of them, I’d guess the widespread availability of almost all catalogs on streaming services makes it difficult for most artists to convince fans to care about a new take on an old project. What some artists interested in re-recording their projects may take away from Swift’s Fearless (Taylor’s Version) win is the inclusion of some “from the vault” songs that could generate fan interest in a re-imagined album -- sort of like a reissue with new goodies for diehard listeners, but with a slant in favor of greater artistic control.

Mia NazarenoIn this moment, I think Taylor is the only artist who can pull this off. Swift's saga of reclaiming her music has been played out in the public and has been brewing for a couple years now. From her documentary Miss Americana in 2020 to her Billboard Woman of the Year speech in 2019, she hasn't been shy about standing up for musicians' rights to their own music. The feud was most famously portrayed during the lead up to her performance at the 2019 American Music Awards, wherein it was reported that Swift’s old label Big Machine Records was preventing her from playing her old hits on stage In the end, Swift was able to play medley of her songs from different eras and was a sensation – boosting streams and earning nearly 59 million views on YouTubeNow that we’re seeing the success of her re-recordings as the conclusion to the conflict, I think Swift is the only contemporary artist with the platform and the catalog that fans value this much.  

Andrew Unterberger: I think it's something we'll see more of eventually, though not on this scale -- which is something arguably no 21st century artist besides Swift has the catalogue, the resources, the fanbase and the drive to pull off so successfully. But when the motivation and narrative is legitimately there -- like with Kesha, who might want to reclaim her early work to a certain extent, and whose fans would want to do whatever they could to help her -- certainly there's a path to success that Swift has laid out here. It's going to be something a lot of artists start to think about, anyway.

Denise Warner: Without knowing the specifics of the contracts that Beyoncé, Rihanna, Adele, Drake or others in that upper echelon signed, I can't say definitively if Taylor is the only one who could pull this off. (If those artists already own their masters, the argument is moot.) I think more important than using Taylor's path to owning her masters for current artists is the effect she'll have not only on the younger generation of talent when signing recording contracts, but the labels that make those deals.

5. Now that Fearless is under her belt a second time, Swift has five other albums under her old Big Machine deal left to re-record: Taylor Swift (2006), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), 1989 (2014) and Reputation (2017). Which do you think she should take on next, and why?

Lyndsey Havens: Well, I know well enough to trust Swifties so I will go with 1989 because it *seems* like that is the album we may be getting next. Which, to be honest, is thrilling because that album largely upped my level of fandom for Swift. More so than any other of the six albums she is now gaining ownership of, 1989 takes me back to a very specific time and place and I'm excited to relive that experience. But, though this is not what the question asked, I will add that I am most intrigued to hear Taylor's version of Reputation, since we're the least removed from that album. And for that, I wonder if it will be the last one we're gifted? Only time (or carefully laid easter eggs) will tell.

Jason Lipshutz: I have thought long and hard about this, and here is my dream order: Fearless, then 1989 (follow up one album of the year winner with another), then Speak Now (my personal favorite Swift album, I need it sooner than later), then Reputation (maybe the most interesting “From the Vault” songs of all), then Taylor Swift (back to where it all began), and finally Red (the towering artistic achievement of her early era). Let’s go.

Mia Nazareno1989 is the only album that makes sense! Hear me out -- "Out of the Woods" will be soundtracking the end of the pandemic and will usher us into another roaring twenties (fingers crossed). We'll all be thinking it: "Are we out of the woods yet? Are we in the clear yet?" And then, when offices begin to open back up in the summer, we'll be tuning into "Welcome to New York" as we leave our parents' homes and repopulate the cities (guilty of this myself). And then, once we're settled into our new leases, single and vaccinated millennials will get back get back out there into the dating world and will undoubtedly revisit "Blank Space." Taylor is a master storyteller, and each track on 1989 will be a chapter in 2021.  

Andrew Unterberger: Honestly, I'd just get the self-titled debut out of the way at this point. I understand why she didn't start with it -- while its singles undoubtedly hold up, the set is undoubtedly her weakest on the whole, and not the kind you'd necessarily want to launch a project like this with -- but now that Taylor's Versions are a proven success, and while she's already in the midst of revisiting her teenage years, may as well just knock this one off too, and build back up to the sets that fans are most excited to revisit. Hell, she can probably turn it around in time for the self-titled's 15th anniversary in October! (Plus, an accompanying re-recording/re-release of a couple of those early Xmas songs -- including the all-timer "Christmases When You Were Mine" -- would make it a must-buy for the holiday season.)

Denise Warner: To be a bit greedy, I want to hear all of them for various reasons. Fearless (Taylor's Version) proved she can re-create her country work in a way that is fresh and exciting without losing its original appeal, leaving me excited to hear what she does with Taylor Swift (Taylor's Version) and Speak Now (Taylor's Version.) All signs point to 1989 (Taylor's Version) being next up, and within the context of Folklore and Evermore, it will be fun to hear what she has in store for what was her first true pop work. And while I loved the original Reputation's sonic shift, it might fare better now that she's broken her other sound barriers. That leaves me with Red, my personal favorite of her albums. It's the bridge between her country and pop personas. And if "Mr. Perfectly Fine" is any indication of what's left in her vault, imagine what she has in store for "Mr. Casually Cruel in the Name of Being Honest."