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Taylor Swift’s “All Too Good” and the Arming of Memory


“A label didn’t choose this song as a single,” Taylor Swift told a delighted audience Friday afternoon in Manhattan, where a few hundred fans gathered for the debut of her latest self-directed music video: a clip developed for the new 10-minute version of “All Too Well”, a bitter memory of a past relationship that originally appeared on her 2012 album, “Red”.

“It was my favorite,” Swift continued. “It was a very personal thing for me. It was very difficult to interpret it live. Now for me, honestly, this song is 100% about us and you.

Several people were already in tears – having erupted into Beatlemania-style sobs as soon as Swift appeared in a royal mauve pantsuit – but by this admission they cried audibly louder. “My real mother! A young woman gasped. Another, sitting directly and perhaps precariously behind me, repeatedly whispered, “I’m going to throw up. “

Few of the leading musicians of this millennium have maintained a bond with their fans as intensely as Swift with his “Swifties”. To her credit, she feeds them well. She drops Easter eggs like a caring mother hen, arranges elaborate get-togethers, and once invited fans to her home to listen to her new album while munching on cookies she made 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 crybaby – a personalized package of tissues “All Too Well”.

But with all the fanfare surrounding the release of the extended track, some shared intimacy was also about to be lost. “All Too Well” has been more of a common secret than a hit, the favorite track of true Swift connoisseurs and often music critics (this one included). Now the song – which appears on “Red (Taylor’s Version)”, the last album she re-recorded so she could control her masters – was accompanied by a clip so long and elaborate that Swift was hosting a premiere and called it a “short film.”

Part of what fans feel for “All Too Well” is longing for an early part of Swift’s career and, by extension, their own life. “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 on her next album, the 2014 blockbuster “1989.”

Thus, the eclectic “Red” juxtaposes the pop assisted by Max Martin of “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Get Back Together” with the folk side of the cafes of “Treacherous”, “I Almost Do” and “Begin Again.” A painfully rendered portrait of a breakup, “All Too Well” represents the artistic climax of the more singer-songwriter-oriented sound and the closing of a chapter in Swift’s evolution: it’s, at least to this day, the last song she’s written with one of her most trusted early collaborators, country songwriter Liz Rose.

“All Too Well” began during a rehearsal soundcheck, when Swift began playing the same four improvised chords and lines on a relationship that had recently ended. “The song just kept on gaining in intensity,” she later recalled. Wisely, her sound engineer captured the impromptu jam session, and Swift then brought this recording to Rose.

Part of the reason Swift wrote her 2010 album, “Speak Now,” all on her own, was to silence skeptics who thought Rose had a heavier hand in her music than Swift admitted. But in a 2014 interview, Rose said she was acting “more like an editor.” “Taylor is good because she has lyrics that suit her age,” Rose said. “I’m just helping him catch the good ones.”

The 10-minute “All Too Well” sheds light on this process: it is more angry, much less filtered and more explicit in every sense of the word. The five-and-a-half-minute cut of “All Too Well” that appeared on “Red” was an achievement of tense, streamlined storytelling and perfectly lit details. The new version does not know such restraint. He is gloriously unruly and viciously bubbling. With its release, the millennium “You’re So Vain” suddenly became the millennium “Idiot Wind”.

In its two incarnations, “All Too Well” is a song about the militarization of memory. The devil is in the details, the more precise they are, the more they seem to assert, in the face of an unresponsive ex and perhaps disbelieving in the manipulation, that this experience really happened: a lost scarf, like an open refrigerator illuminated a dark kitchen.

But despite all its hyper-personalization – and for the public’s somewhat excessive fixation on the famous actor who would have inspired it – “All Too Well” also speaks, quite poignantly, of a young woman’s attempt to find a retroactive balance in a relationship that was based on an imbalance of power that she was not able to perceive at first.

The most striking lyrics in the new version refer to the age gap between an older man and a younger woman: “You said if we had been closer in age, maybe it would have been good. / And it made me want to die. While the subject of the song is never accused of doing anything much worse than a slight gas ignition and a hypocritical keychain, “All Too Well” parallels the emotional labor that many women have. undertaken in private as a result of the #MeToo movement: looking back on past encounters or relationships that have left them with a seemingly inordinate sense of unease; ask what exactly constitutes exploitation or psychological abuse; wishing they could go back and extend a little compassion or wisdom to their vulnerable young 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 shameless mess, the way it allows a woman’s subjective emotional experience to take up an excessive amount of time and space. This was most evident when Swift performed the entire song this weekend on “Saturday Night Live”. In a gripping performance, she went through a cycle of feelings as elementary as the seasons: the springtime flutter of new romance, the summer heat of passion, the fall operas of sorrow, and finally – as snow fell around her in the last moments of the song – the chilling relief of a long delayed acceptance.

Swift hasn’t written such a steamy breakup song in the decade since “All Too Well,” and over the past few years, she has kept her seemingly less melodramatic relationship with boyfriend Joe Alwyn as far from the eyes of the audience as possible. On her most recent albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore”, she has revisited the acoustic sound that characterized the calmer side of “Red” while writing more character-oriented songs than the downright autobiographical work she was for. once known and unfairly criticized. But revisiting the old wounds of “All Too Well” on such a public stage, she once again seems to fill two phases of her career, re-inhabiting her 21-year-old self as if she were a complex and intuitively understood fictional character. .

Occasionally, during her “SNL” performance, Swift looked directly into the camera and delivered a few stares that could have sliced ​​diamond. Some would have thought she was looking at her ex, who may or may not still be in possession of this legendary scarf. But the truth was, the song wasn’t just about him anymore. It’s also about the fans, the depths they had heard before everyone else, and everything they still wished they could forget.