Without releasing a single new album of all-original material this year, Taylor Swift can now claim two of the biggest LP debuts of 2021. Fearless (Taylor’s Version), her re-recording and reissue (with new “From the Vault” bonus tracks) of her diamond-certified sophomore album, had an impressive enough bow with its 291,000 first-week equivalent album units back in February. But now, it’s clear that was mostly a warm up for the release of Red’s (Taylor’s Version) earlier this month.
This week, Swift’s new Red recording and repackaging moves a staggering 605,000 units — more than double the amount of her new Fearless‘ first week, and short of only Drake’s Certified Lover Boy and its 613,000-unit debut for the biggest single-week performance of the entire calendar year. What’s more, the set also launches 26 of its tracks onto the Billboard Hot 100 this week — led, of course, by her much-anticipated extended re-recording of signature Red deep cut “All Too Well,” which enters the chart at No. 1.
Why was this Taylor’s Version able to lap the performance of her prior TV release? And what lessons might other artists take from its success? Billboard answers these questions and more below.
1. Red (Taylor’s Version) isn’t the first Taylor Swift deluxe re-recording to debut at No. 1 with a big first week this year — but it does so with a first-week number over twice as big as Fearless (Taylor’s Version), moving 605,000 equivalent album units where F(TV) moved “just” 291,000 units. What’s the primary reason for this set’s performance marking such a significant improvement?
Katie Atkinson: The boring answer is that the Red (Taylor’s Version) vinyl was made available on release week this time around, whereas the Fearless vinyl wasn’t delivered until a half-year later, vaulting the first re-recording back to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in October with an additional 150,000-plus units. But that math still doesn’t add up to the blockbuster Red numbers, so the much juicier answer is about how much more buzz swirled around this release vs. Fearless back in April. Taylor had the Internet writing thesis papers on a three-month relationship that happened more than a decade ago because she offered up so many new intimate details to pore over.
Stephen Daw: While there is likely a laundry list of reasons why Red (Taylor’s Version) managed to dramatically outperform her re-release of Fearless — marketing, other releases, anticipation, etc. — I think it’s fair to point out that Red has long stood as the fan-favorite Taylor album. It was the storied start to her pop crossover, it contains massive hit songs along with B-sides that gained cultish followings, and it’s long been heralded by fans as the superstar’s best work. So, when it came time for them to finally hear an updated version of the album, along with a whopping nine new songs, they jumped at the opportunity much faster than with Fearless.
Josh Glicksman: Don’t ever underestimate how badly people want to be a part of the conversation. If you’ve been plugged in online at all in the lead-up to or in the immediate aftermath following the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), you’ve surely seen plenty of dialogue about “All Too Well” and its backstory. The short film set to the new version of the song already has more than 45 million views despite it hardly being a week and a half old! Combine that with the scores of other gargantuan hits on the project — including the re-recorded version of her first-ever Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” — and you have a recipe for an eye-popping sales week.
Jason Lipshutz: The enormous debut resulted from a combination of setup and circumstance. Even though Fearless includes breakthrough hits like “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” Swift’s fans were always going to be more interested in returning to Red, both a towering and more personal fan favorite with several hits (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22”) of its own. Yet the way Swift orchestrated this release added fuel to the fire: aside from “From The Vault” collaborations with Ed Sheeran, Chris Stapleton and Phoebe Bridgers, the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” was a must-hear that was given an accompanying short film and show-stopping SNL performance. Red (Taylor’s Version) was treated like an Event in pop culture, and both diehard and casual fans responded in kind.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s funny to think of Fearless — a legitimately diamond-certified blockbuster — as a relative non-crowd-pleaser in Taylor Swift’s catalog. But it feels a long time ago, and in particular a lifetime removed for Swift herself, whereas Red feels a little more grounded in her current identity. It also helps that the bonus From the Vault cuts are just kinda better this time around; more revealing, more considered. The “new” songs don’t feel like add-ons, they feel like essential extensions and expansions of the album and its accompanying era — and having a 10-minute version of a signature track to key the whole thing around is particularly inspired.
2. The most-anticipated and warmest-received new recording on the set is of Swift’s near-mythical 10 minute version of her album track “All Too Well,” which becomes the longest track to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 with its No. 1 debut this week. Does the song’s expanded length mark a true improvement or expansion on the beloved deep cut, or it is more a historical curiosity for long-time fans?
Katie Atkinson: I’m stunned to say it’s a true improvement. As an editor, hearing about a 10-minute version of a pop song makes me wonder what could have been left on the cutting-room floor. But somehow Swift managed to take the devastating original and add even more visceral details, along with creative new melody choices, that hold your interest for the full 10 minutes-plus. Nowhere was that clearer than in Swift’s absolutely captivating SNL performance of the supersize song that never felt too long.
Stephen Daw: I think it’s mostly the latter. Nothing about the extended cut is necessary for the already near-perfect song — nowhere on the new version do I find myself thinking “I cannot believe she cut that part, this makes the song exponentially better.” A lot the 10-minute version does just serve its purpose as almost a collector’s item of sorts for superfans. But, there is something to be said for this much more realistic, detailed explanation of a young woman’s heartbreak that makes the song hit you differently, depending on which version you listen to.
Josh Glicksman: Sure, there’s plenty of historical curiosity, but the expansion is a true improvement through and through. “All Too Well” thrives in all of its painstaking, intricate details, and the 10-minute version provides loads of them. Whether it’s the visual of the “f–k the patriarchy” keychain on the ground or the image of a significant other sharing a handful of jokes at their own expense in front of your parents, Swift paints a vivid picture from one verse to the next and makes the stroll down memory lane that much more achingly beautiful — and difficult — for her listeners.
Jason Lipshutz: After living with it for about a week and a half, I can honestly say that I expect to listen to the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” more often than the standard version in the future. The expansion of the song deepens its emotional impact to me — I get lost in the storytelling far more than I get distracted by the extended run time, as if the details of the breakup at the heart of the song needed more space to breathe with a few more minutes included. Also, some of the new lines just pop: “And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes / ‘I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age’” has been rattling around my head since I heard it!
Andrew Unterberger: I still prefer the original, just because I think the pacing is perfect in the “short” five-and-a-half minute version, and I think the 10 minute cut probably meanders an extra minute or two longer than it needs to. But most of the additional lyrics crackle with the same electricity that made the original so vital; the longer version’s only been out for a week and a half and already there are several lines it seems impossible to imagine the song without (my personal favorite: “You who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes/ Sipping coffee like you were on a late-night show”). The original’s the one I’ll go back to more often, but the new one’s no mere novelty. I’m still holding out for a split-the-difference eight-minute version though.
3. Ten years ago — maybe just ten months ago — it would’ve been close to unimaginable that a prog-rock-length re-recording of a pop star’s non-single would ever be in contention for a No. 1 Hot 100 debut. What does it say to you about Swift — her artistry, influence and/or marketing savvy — that she was ultimately able secure the top spot fairly handily with the new “All Too Well”?
Katie Atkinson: We’re talking about nearly a decade of (sorry) folklore wrapped up in this song. As Nina Braca’s Billboard essay traced, not only has the song grown in length, but it’s grown in popularity, in mystique, in analysis. If Taylor had dropped a 10-minute single out of thin air, it might have been a curiosity, but probably not a chart-topper. This song has had fans creeping toward the edges of their seats for years only to be pushed over the edge with this gigantic gem.
Stephen Daw: People can say and think whatever they want about Taylor Swift, but at the end of the day, none of them can deny her songwriting ability, her unbelievable reach with fans, and her business prowess. She is a master at her craft and is an expert at marketing her work and uniting her fans to a common purpose. To me, this debut really just says that, love her or hate her, Taylor Swift is incredibly good at her job and deserves every bit of recognition she’s getting.
Josh Glicksman: It says that all three are flourishing. Swift is a long-established veteran of the industry, and is using all of the tools that she’s learned along the way at her disposal — both as an artist and as a brand — to prove that she knows how to thrive in an ever-changing music landscape. Between a genre-shifting alternate version, a short film and an all-out marketing campaign on late night television, it feels like this song was a lock for No. 1 even if it ran another 5-10 minutes long. And who’s to say the next version shouldn’t? Throw cuffing season out the window. It’s ballad season, baby!
Jason Lipshutz: Over the past year-and-a-half — essentially, ever since the release of Folklore — Swift has done an excellent job of framing herself as a timeless auteur, in part by underlining her songwriting as the most indispensable part of her artistry. She has transcended the concept of radio hits and has become more interested in emphasizing enduring storytelling, both inside her songs (a la the allegories and personal histories of Folklore and Evermore) and outside of them (with the re-recording project and the spotlight it places on creative ownership). The 10-minute version of “All Too Well”? That’s just another masterstroke from a brilliant writer, a feat of narrative cohesion that also offers treats for the rubber-necking listeners hungry for Gyllenhaal burns. If you think another superstar could as nimbly guide a 10-minute version of a previously released song to the top of the Hot 100, you should think again.
Andrew Unterberger: I think it says that there’s not as much difference between pop stars and cult artists right now as many may have previously thought — and that in their own way, Taylor Swift fans are just invested and curious and generally nerdy when it comes to her music as, say, Grateful Dead or Radiohead fans are when it comes to theirs.
4. Outside of the new “All Too Well”s, which of the Red (Taylor’s Version) new recordings is the most revelatory to you?
Katie Atkinson: Allow me to admit my Taylor Swift ignorance with this answer, but the most revelatory for me was “Girl at Home,” which was a bonus track on the deluxe edition of Red back in 2012. I owned Red in the pre-streaming days but not the deluxe edition (and clearly missed the song as a promotional single too, sigh), so I was pleasantly surprised by just how much “Girl at Home” drew a straight line to her next album, 1989. Obviously, the big pop hits on Red (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble”) were clear, even as she remained a country star, but that cool indie-pop sound she perfected on 1989 was obviously already well on its way during the Red days, as evidenced by this bonus track.
Stephen Daw: Listen, I’m a simple queer man — if I see Phoebe Bridgers’ name, I click. And “Nothing New”absoolutely blew me away with how effective it was having these two Sad Girls™ on the same song together. The songwriting was top-tier, the harmonies and musicality were pristinely simple, and the overall vibe of the song hit me exactly in the “autumn is almost over time to be sad” bone.
Josh Glicksman: Sign me up for “Nothing New.” It feels like a perfect example of what makes the Taylor’s Version projects so exciting. “Nothing New” is a song that really only makes sense on Red, both due to its overall message and timestamped lyrics (“How can a person know everything at 18, but nothing at 22?” — Swift was 22 at the time of the song’s release.). If she were to release a song like that on an entirely new project today, it’d remain powerful, but not to the extent that it is here. Plus, Phoebe Bridgers delivers a gem of a feature.
Jason Lipshutz: Definitely the Phoebe Bridgers collaboration “Nothing New,” which Swift wrote on her own but caters perfectly to Bridgers’ lyrical and vocal instincts. As someone who loved Folklore, Evemore and Punisher last year, hearing Swift and Bridgers blend their approaches on an affecting duet is the non-ATW “From the Vault” highlight for me.
Andrew Unterberger: I love “I Bet You Think About Me,” a rollicking ballad of pure breakup spite that invites Chris Stapleton along for harmonies and moral support. It’s just a just an undeniable blast of gleefully negative energy.
5. A deluxe re-recording / reissue package having a first week this massive — nearly as massive as any entirely original album has had in 2021 — will almost certainly have wide-ranging industry impact. What lesson, if any, do you think other major pop artists or their record labels may take from the success of Red (Taylor’s Version)?
Katie Atkinson: Even though Swift’s undertaking is unprecedented, the closest comparison might be a greatest-hits package back in the day that included one new single – but instead, there are like nine new songs. And given the fact that greatest-hits sets make much less sense these days, with the popularity of streaming, Swift figured out how to make a repackaging much more attractive by super-serving fans with new material, in addition to giving them the now-Taylor-approved hits. I’d say the biggest lesson would be for other artists at or close to her level to realize the power of nostalgia and revisit their older material in a much more valuable way than just slapping together a hits package. New/old songs. New videos. New short films. New performances. She’s treating each TV release like a brand-new album cycle, and it’s working.
Stephen Daw: I definitely think there are going to be quite a few artists wondering whether or not a Triple Ultra Super Diamond Deluxe Version of their most successful albums could be massive money-makers — but to most of them, I would simply say, “I’m sorry, but you’re not Taylor Swift.” There are a mere handful of artists who I see this method of re-releasing actively working for, and without the sort of cultural domination that Taylor demands, I just don’t see this working for other, smaller artists.
Josh Glicksman: I’d expect major pop artists to make releasing expanded anniversary editions of fan-favorite projects increasingly common. It’s a great way to revitalize some of the most beloved parts of an artist’s catalog, as well as to throw in a few new tracks from that period in time that may have gotten lost along the way. And for record labels, it’s an opportunity to release a “new” album from an artist when an entirely fresh project may not be ready just yet.
Jason Lipshutz: Although some of the fanfare around Red (Taylor’s Version) has to do with Swift being, you know, a mega-star, the lesson for other artists should be: get creative with reissues! Don’t just slap some half-recorded demos on a new version of a classic album — pore over them, try some outside-the-box ideas, and understand why so many listeners love the original product in the first place. Perhaps these re-recordings will compel other artists to expand upon previously released projects in more meaningful ways.
Andrew Unterberger: As is often with the case, Swift separates herself with sheer level of commitment. Of course, she has resources many don’t — a likely massive recording and promotional budget, a Rolodex full of fellow star artists, a fanbase willing to follow her into just about any battle — but what makes Red (TV) an essential 2021 release is the amount of attention, thought and feeling she puts into every step of the recording and the rollout, ensuring that the set feels less like a deluxe reissue and more like a near-sequel to the original. Other artists with massive followings and towering catalogs could certainly follow her lead with their classic sets — some will likely try — but are they willing to go as far down the path as she does? We’ll see.