A lot has changed for Taylor Swift in ten years, as she’s evolved from a Nashville opening act to pop music royalty, from one of celebrity’s most overexposed stars to one of its most private, from a teen sensation into a 28-year-old with a hard-earned maturity.
And while Swift’s path to stardom began well over a decade ago, it was her second album “Fearless,” released on Nov. 11, 2008 and celebrating its 10-year anniversary this week, that transformed her from Taylor Swift the artist into Taylor Swift the phenomenon.
You don’t have to look further than the numbers associated with “Fearless” for proof of its domination. The most-awarded album in country music history and her first real pop crossover effort, it debuted at No. 1 and became the best-selling album of 2009, making Swift, who was 18 when “Fearless” was released, the youngest artist in history to have that distinction. At 20, she also became the youngest-ever artist to win a Grammy for album of the year, when “Fearless” won the night’s top prize, along with three other trophies, at the 2010 Grammy Awards. Of its five singles, two became crossover hits, “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” which sold millions of copies each and firmly established her in the pop world. Before “Fearless,” she had never headlined a tour — just months after its release, she was selling out arenas.
“Fearless” wasn’t just an album for Swift, it was an era, one that much of America likely still associates with the star to some extent. “Fearless” established Taylor Swift persona of the wide-eyed, guitar-toting girl with her ball gowns and flowing blonde hair, who wrote her own songs about fairytales and Shakespearean heroines and the occasional famous ex. In retrospect, it’s more than a little reductive.
And while Swift certainly participated in the princess-ing of her character during these years, revisiting the reviews of “Fearless” reveal just how many of the critical takes used her status as a teenager almost as a genre signifier, that she was making teen music for teen listeners, with more than one article containing some version of the line about her being broadly appealing, “though she’s a teenage girl.”
Ten years and over 10 million copies later, it’s not even worth saying that “Fearless” is not just an album for teenage girls, nor is it limited to being about the experiences of one. Swift has audibly matured in many ways in the decade since with her earnestly-sung vocals with their hint of a twang growing more refined over time as she’s become a more experienced pop vocalist, as the settings of her songs have shifted from the school cafeterias and parents’ houses of “Fearless” to the dive bars and apartment-building bedrooms of her most recent release, 2017’s “Reputation.”
Yet, don’t be fooled by its more juvenile-seeming settings — “Fearless” is not, by any means, a juvenile work. Upon relistening to “Fearless,” it’s clear that Swift’s skills for writing earworm melodies and spinning vivid imagery out of plainspoken storytelling are almost as strong on that album as they are today, a remarkable reminder of her talents as an artist.
And revisiting “Fearless” reveals the funny truth that, for all the lives Swift has lived in her ten years of pop stardom since its release, her most recent music release shares its predominant emotions with the music she was making when she was 18. Even though she’s long since traded guitars and fiddles for Max Martin beats, “Reputation” sees Swift in the kind of love that she hasn’t articulated in song since her fairytale-telling “Fearless” days. Her world is smaller now, too, in a way it hasn’t been since “Fearless” — except while “Fearless” was written by someone with minimal life experiences, “Reputation” comes from the perspective of a star whose life expanded too rapidly, who now sees the value in a more contained, private existence.
That’s evidence of the special role “Fearless” will always play in Swift’s story, the album that made her a star, that captured her at the point at which she most believed in magic. And the joy of “Fearless” is how its spirit will live on — in her greatest-hits repertoire and her live shows, certainly, but also in her recordings to come, whenever she needs to channel the joys and pains of youth.
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