It’s hard to remember a time when Taylor Swift wasn’t one of the biggest artists in the world. For my entire generation, she has been a global superstar for the majority of our adult lives. For the generation below millennials, they don’t know a time without Taylor Swift dominating the charts and dominating the radio.
Starting with her eponymous debut album when she was a 16-year-old country powerhouse, there was a sense that Taylor Swift was destined to be something more. Even as a teenager, Swift had an impressive amount of talent; having written three songs from her debut album all on her own: “The Outside,” “Should’ve Said No,” and “Our Song.” The last two became impressive radio singles, and “Our Song” made Swift the youngest person in history to single-handedly write and perform a number one single on the Hot Country Songs chart. Behind those two, “Tim McGraw,” and “Picture to Burn,” her debut release has gone on to be certified 7x platinum by the RIAA.
For her next release, 2008’s Fearless, Swift continued to build upon her brand of country-pop – taking over full songwriting credit for seven of the album’s thirteen tracks. Propelled by massive singles “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story,” the world (rightfully so) couldn’t get enough of Swift. Fearless produced five singles, all of which landed in the top 40, an impressive feat no matter your opinion on radio. Her songwriting ability received critical praise, and musically she continued to incorporate more and more pop elements into her music. Her tours continued to get bigger, and the success kept coming. There wasn’t much left that she could accomplish for those on the outside looking in, but still there was something Swift needed to prove.
Her next album, 2010’s Speak Now, might not be her best-selling album, and it doesn’t have her biggest radio singles. But it does have one distinction that no other Taylor Swift album has, and that is that it’s the only Taylor Swift album that was written entirely by herself. Still just 20 years old at the time of release, it was an almost unprecedented move that signaled Swift was far more talented than many of her critics thought. There’s no doubt that it was a risky move at the time, but coming off the heels of “Love Story” – which Swift had written all on her own – Swift earned the right to, quite frankly, do whatever she wanted. Swift deserved that, and with hindsight, we not only see that the gamble paid off, but that it provided us with the best version of Taylor Swift.
Coming off of the RIAA-Diamond certified Fearless, Swift had all the momentum in the world. While her musical career started off country, by the time she was working on her third studio album, she could have made a rock record and it might not have made a difference. But, she didn’t. Instead, she took things into her own hands and decided to write a record that was so explicitly her that it was undeniable.
When announcing the album, Swift said that Speak Now was a loose concept album and that “each song is a different confession to a person.” Knowing that this album was entirely written by Swift herself, that quote opened her up to all kinds of speculation. Critics and fans alike dissected every song, specifically that “Dear John” is about John Mayer, or “Back to December” being aimed at Taylor Lautner, or “Better Than Revenge” being directed at Camilla Belle. While none of it has ever been confirmed by Swift, it never stopped everyone from speculating all the same.
Swift showcased her songwriting chops on Speak Now, and perhaps there was no bigger illustration of this than the masterful single that is “Mean.” It wasn’t her highest charting single from the album, but it may be the most memorable and album-defying. The song, for Swift, is about her critics who were – and still are – overly critical of her. But for many of her fans, the song became the perfect anti-bullying message. “Mean” defined a group of young fans who were tired of getting shoved down, and then kicked while they were down. “Mean” became the rallying cry that many were waiting for, and many needed to hear. Knowing that Swift wrote it herself only made it more sincere and more real for her fans – one of the biggest pop stars in the world felt what they felt. Delivered with a sense of wit on top of the sincerity, it allowed people to know their pain was valid, while empowering them to take it on with a sense of humor – knowing that one day you will overcome this, and they will still be that same bully deep down.
Some things, lyrically, didn’t change on Speak Now – and that’s not a bad thing. “Sparks Fly” was written all the way back when Swift was 16 and went through a handful of changes before it got a proper studio release. From the time Swift debuted the song live in 2007 all the way to the studio version on 2010, the song was one of her most triumphant love songs. Although it’s about falling for someone you shouldn’t be falling for, the chorus makes it undeniably clear that it’s perfect chemistry that draws you in. While love songs are not new, the hook behind “Sparks Fly” proved that Swift was – and still is – one of the best songwriters of modern pop music. I’m sure that sentence won’t sit right with some people, but when you take into account the ability to write a hook, chorus, and deliver it (even with her newer material), there’s not many better. While she was a mega-star still by the time Speak Now came out, Swift honestly and truly came into her own as a songwriter when putting these songs together.
Speak Now is a noticeable album for continuing to build upon her already refined country pop sound, while bringing in even more “rock” influence. This is no more notable than on “The Story of Us” and “Better Than Revenge.” The former is an upbeat track about running into an ex-boyfriend at the 2010 CMT Music Awards, and the latter is the track allegedly about Camilla Belle. Both have been previously described as “pop-punk” songs, similar in vein to Avril Lavigne or Paramore. Swift really hasn’t explored this territory since these two tracks came out, but that’s part of the beauty of Speak Now. Each album from Swift has brought on a little bit of change, and this of course has continued with every release since – Speak Now just set it in motion.
Widely regarded as her last country sounding album, Swift hasn’t necessarily touched a lot of these sounds since the album came out 10 years ago – but Speak Now proved that Swift could take control of her songs and crank out whatever she wanted to. This album was all Swift, and she made sure to take advantage of that. Speak Now is advantageous and spans so-called confessions that all come from a personal place for Swift. This made it an immediate hit with fans who wanted to be closer than ever to their favorite star and Speak Nowdelivered. Through it all – feuds with Kanye West, previous label Big Machine Records, and critics alike – Taylor Swift has always been herself, or at least who shew as in that time. There’s no denying that she has changed in 10 years (who hasn’t?), and we may never get another country record from her again. But that’s okay, Swift doesn’t owe us that anyway. As long as she continues down the path that Speak Now laid the foundation for – one that is wholly her and no one else – then we all win anyway.
As mentioned earlier, Speak Now isn’t her most critically or commercially successful album, but it is her magnum opus. The album empowered Swift to do things her way and proved that she knew what she was doing. Without Speak Now, it’s unclear where her career would have gone, but luckily, we will never have to find out.