Taylor Swift redefines notion that re-recordings don't work

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Adam Graham, The Detroit News
·5 min read
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Apr. 9—There's a version of P.M. Dawn's "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" on Spotify that is not the version of "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" that hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in November 1991.

The original version was hippie hip-hop heaven, a smoothed out, spiritual dance jam built on a sample of Spandau Ballet's "True." It found P.M. Dawn frontman Prince Be summoning the cosmos, dropping an early example of what would later come to be known as "hashtag rap" ("she's probably alone/ solitaire," he raps, as a 3-year-old Big Sean took note) and shooting his shot with Christina Applegate. Maybe it's not an all-time classic, but it was memorable enough that our 1993 yearbooks at Rochester Adams High School were emblazoned with the title phrase.

The version that is now on Spotify is, well, not that. It's a re-recorded version, done in 2014, featuring Prince Be's paternal cousin, Doc G, on vocals. The lyrics are all the same, the original sample and the instrumental is there, but the vibe and the spirit of the original are long gone. It's a poor facsimile at best, an atrocity at worst.

Even when original artists are in tact, re-records are extremely difficult to pull off. Finch's "What It is to Burn," an emo-rock neutron bomb when it was released in 2002, is represented on streaming services by "What It is to Burn — New Version." The tweaks are minor enough that a casual listener might not notice, but listen closely, and a little bit of the raw energy of the original is gone. That's because magic can't be recreated, and most of the time the version you experience the first time — even in its imperfections, or because of those very imperfections — is the version with which you fall in love.

It's within these parameters and with the knowledge that re-recordings never live up to their originals that Taylor Swift set about on the unprecedented task of re-recording her first six albums, the albums that laid the groundwork for her becoming what she is today: music's biggest star. Initially, it sounded like a bluff — there's no way she'll really do it — or something that, if she did it, would be a losing gamble. But now that the first of those recordings has arrived, Swift is not only doing the unthinkable, but she's pulling it off.

Artists often want to go back and tinker with their earlier works. Look at Francis Ford Coppola, who is still meddling with the "Godfather" movies and has released numerous different cuts of "Apocalypse Now." Ridley Scott has put out multiple versions of "Alien" and "Blade Runner," and George Lucas reconfigures "Star Wars" every time there's a new format to release it on.

None of these versions have ever replaced the beloved originals, perhaps because they were beloved to begin with, and were more or less perfect — flaws and all — in the eyes of their admirers. But then there's "Zack Snyder's Justice League," the fan-demanded new four-hour cut of the DC superhero meet-up "Justice League." Even its most ardent defenders had to admit that 2017's original "Justice League" was a mess, but fans (and many critics, although not this one) found redemption in the newly released version, which rounded out stories that were left on the cutting room floor the first time around and gave more depth to the characters on screen. It was a rare case of a new version topping its predecessor.

In music, many artists have threatened to re-record their back catalogs over various label disputes and rights issues, with Jojo and Def Leppard among those that have followed through.

And now comes the Swift project, the most high profile re-recording gambit in modern pop history, which was heralded with Friday's arrival of "Fearless — Taylor's Version."

It's the first of the newly recorded albums from her back catalog, which came after the rights to her albums were sold out from underneath her and were snatched up by her rival, Scooter Braun. For Swift, it's about artist rights and ownership, but clearly she's also enjoying the artistic challenge, revisiting her songs from a time when she was 18, young, hungry and ambitious now that she's an experienced 31-year-old but still a hungry and ambitious artist. The innocence of those early recordings, part of their charm, has been replaced with maturity and wisdom. The fact that she's starting off with her second album is also notable, as she's playing with the timeline of her past. It's her path as she sees fit to define it.

And so far it's a success. The first release from the album, "Love Story — Taylor's Version," has received 58 million plays its two months of release. Its changes are slight but endearing, clearly the work of someone not trying to recreate the past but to reclaim it. A re-record will never be flawless: voices deepen and change, studio tics are difficult to replicate, and so on. But she has stacked the new album with bonus cuts from the original "Fearless" sessions, another incentive for fans to cross over to the new recording rather than holding on to the old ones, and a reason for fans to treat "Fearless — Taylor's Version" as a whole new album.

Will those fans give up the old version? That remains to be seen, and it will be telling to watch the numbers to see how the new and old versions of the album trend going forward. Regardless, the project is a triumph for Swift, who is at the peak of her commercial and artistic powers, having just come off her record-setting third Album of the Year win at the Grammys. She's succeeding where others couldn't, and she's showing that the past doesn't have to stay locked in the past. Set adrift on memory bliss indeed.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama