Taylor Swifts ‘All Too Well’ and the Weaponization of Memory

“A record company did not choose this song as a single,” Taylor Swift told an enthusiastic audience Friday afternoon in Manhattan, where a few hundred fans gathered for the debut of her latest self-directed music video: a detailed clip for the new one. 10-minute version of “All Too Well”, a bitter reminder of a previous relationship that originally appeared on her 2012 album, “Red”.

“It was my favorite,” Swift continued. “It was about something very personal to me. It was very difficult to perform it live. For me, honestly, this song is 100 percent about us and for you. “

Several people were already crying – after breaking out in HIV, the Beatlemania-style sob as soon as Swift appeared in a royal purple trouser suit – but at this admission they cried audibly louder. “My real mother!” a young woman gasped. Another, sitting directly and perhaps insecurely behind me, mumbled repeatedly, “I want to throw up.”

Few A-list musicians of this millennium have maintained a bond with their fans as intensely as Swift with her “Swifties”. In her honor, she feeds them well. She drops Easter eggs like a benevolent hen mother, arranges elaborate meet-and-greetings, and once invited some fans home to her house to listen to her new album while gnawing cookies she had baked for them.

At the Friday event (for a video featuring actors Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink), each audience member received an autographed movie poster and – the song is a famous weepie – a custom package of “All Too Well” napkins.

But with all the fanfare surrounding the release of the expanded track, some common intimacy was also being lost. “All Too Well” has been more of a common secret than a hit, the favorite track for true Swift connoisseurs and often music critics (this one included). Now the song – which appears on “Red (Taylor’s Version)”, the latest album she re-recorded so she can control its masters – was accompanied by a music video so long and extensive that Swift was in the process of premiere it and called it a “short film.”

Part of what fans feel about “All Too Well” is nostalgia for an earlier part of Swift’s career and, by extension, their own lives. “Red” is perhaps the most transitional of her nine albums, a bridge that marked the beginning of Swift’s pop crossover, but also the moment before her songwriting became as sleek and streamlined as it would do on her next album, the blockbuster release from 2014 “1989.”

And then the eclectic “Red” compares the Max Martin-assisted pop from “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with the coffee shop’s popularity from “Treacherous”, “I Almost Do” and “Begin”. Again. “A painfully rendered portrait of a bride,” All Too Well “represents the artistic climax of the more singer-songwriter-oriented sound and the conclusion of a chapter in Swift’s development: It is, at least to date, the last song , she wrote with one of her most trusted early collaborators, country songwriter Liz Rose.

“All Too Well” got its start during a rehearsal soundcheck when Swift began playing the same four chords and ad-libbing lines about a relationship that had recently ended. “The song kept building in intensity,” she later recalled. Her sound engineer wisely captured the impromptu jam session, and Swift later brought this recording to Rose.

Part of the reason Swift wrote her 2010 album, “Speak Now,” entirely on her own, was to quell the skeptics who believed Rose had a heavier hand in her music than Swift had admitted. But in a 2014 interview, Rose said she behaved “more like an editor.” “Taylor is good because she has lyrics that fit her age,” Rose said. “I’m just helping her get hold of those who are amazing.”

The 10-minute “Too Good” illuminates this process: It is more angry, far less filtered, and more explicit in every sense of the word. The five-and-a-half-minute clip of “All Too Well,” which appeared on “Red,” was a performance of tight, streamlined storytelling and vivid spotlighted details. The new version knows no such restraint. It’s wonderfully unruly and viciously sizzling. With its release, the millennial “You’re So Vain” has suddenly become the millennial “Idiot Wind”.

In both its incarnations, “All Too Well” is a song about the weapon creation of memory. The devil is in the details, the more specific, the more they seem to claim, to an emotionless and perhaps manipulatively unbelieving ex, that this experience really happened: a lost scarf, such as an open refrigerator illuminated a dark kitchen.

But despite all its hyperpersonalization – and due to the public’s somewhat exaggerated fixation on the famous actress who is rumored to have inspired it – “Too Good” is also, quite poignantly, about a young woman’s attempt to find retroactive balance in a relationship. it was based on a balance of power that she was initially incapable of perceiving.

The most striking lyric in the new version refers to the age difference between an older man and a younger woman: “You said that if we had been closer in age, it might have been fine / And it made me want to die.” While the subject of the song is never accused of doing anything much worse than some mild gas light and hypocritical keychain ownership, “All Too Well” parallels the emotional work that many women have done privately in the wake of the #MeToo movement: Seeing back at previous meetings or relationships that left them with a seemingly great sense of discomfort; wonders what exactly constitutes exploitation or emotional abuse; wish they could go back and spread some compassion or wisdom to their vulnerable younger selves.

For the elegant simplicity of its structure, the shorter version of “All Too Well” is by far the better song. But the power of the new version comes from its unapologetic mess, the way it allows a woman’s subjective emotional experience to occupy a defiantly excessive amount of time and space. That was most evident when Swift played the entire song this weekend on “Saturday Night Live.” During an overwhelming performance, she moved through a cycle of emotions as elemental as the seasons: the springy flutter of new romance, the summer heat of passion, the autumn operatic of grief, and finally – as the snow fell around her in the last moments of the song – the cooling relief of long delayed acceptance.

Swift has not written a breakup song near as fiery in the decade since “All Too Well,” and for the past many years she has kept her seemingly less melodramatic relationship with her boyfriend Joe Alwyn as far from the public as she can. On her more recent albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” she has revisited the acoustic sound that characterized the quieter side of “Red,” while writing more character-driven songs than the candid autobiographical work she was once known for and unfairly criticized for. But by revisiting the old injuries from “Too Good” on such a public stage, it seems that she is once again building a bridge between two phases of her career and rebuilding her 21-year-old self, as if she were a complex, intuitively understood fictional character.

Occasionally, during her “SNL” appearance, Swift looked directly into the camera, delivering a few glances that might have cut the diamond through. Some might have thought she was looking at her ex, who may or may not still be in possession of the fabled scarf. But the truth was, the song is not just about him anymore. It’s also about the fans, the depths they had heard in it before anyone else, and what and who they still wish they could forget.

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