Taylor Swift and the question of changing lyrics

Taylor Swift’s lyrics are some of the most famous in the world – so when the pop star made a change to one of her most popular songs, her fans were bound to notice. 

The 32-year-old singer-songwriter re-released her third album, “Speak Now”, earlier this week as part of her effort to “reclaim her musical legacy” after music manager Scooter Braun sold the master recordings of her first six albums for a reported $300 million in 2020, said Metro

Re-recorded some 13 years after “Speak Now” was first released, “Taylor’s Version” of the album (as each of the re-recorded albums is known) has fans divided over its biggest change: new lyrics to the album’s tenth track, “Better Than Revenge”.

‘We expect artists to grow’

Whether Swift would change the lyrics to the song has been a point of speculation among her fans for some time. The re-release of “Speak Now” confirmed what many had suspected; Swift had indeed altered the words to the song in which she sings about a girl who has stolen her love interest, accusing her of being an “actress” who is “better known for the things that she does/On the mattress.” Now she sings: “He was a moth to the flame/She was holding the matches”.

The rewrite is reminiscent of the furore over Paramore’s song “Misery Business” in which lead singer Hayley Williams sings “Once a whore, you’re nothing more,” said Distractify. The lyric is more “biting and overtly misogynistic” than Swift’s, and Williams once retired the song from her band’s set list. But “nostalgic sentiment” from her fans encouraged her to bring it back, and in the end she decided not to change the song’s lyrics but to stand by them as a “capsule of a different time”.

It is “extremely clear” that Swift’s politics have changed in the years since “Speak Now”’s original 2010 release. She has since become “very vocal about her politics surrounding women’s rights and opened up about the misogyny she faced on her own journey to stardom”, said Women.com. Of course we expect our favourite artists to “grow”. But it is notable that we don’t see the “same level of outcry for all of the misogynistic lyrics that are still being written by male artists, who almost never get asked to change their lyrics”. 

‘Swift has shaken her finger at her 18-year-old self’

Swift should have left the line as it was, said Madeline Ducharme in Slate. The alternative lyric is an “inventive and poetic line that scans with the original rhythm of the song beautifully”, she said, but nevertheless, “I hate it”. By changing it Swift has “slipped back in time” and “shaken her finger at her 18-year-old self”. There is “merit” in letting the “ugly, ungenerous thoughts of a teenager live on, preserved like a disgusting little prehistoric bug in amber”, said Ducharme, not to mention that it remains “a pretty mild statement”.

There has always been a “tension” in Swift’s re-recording project between “staying true to her original work and bringing to it something slightly new”, said culture writer Emily Bootle on the i news site. The project is not only about owning her masters but “also represents some kind of reflection – her voice is older and more mature, she is singing the songs with the power of hindsight”.

For many fans, changes to the lyrics just “add to the thrill” of hearing the album anew. Still, it would be foolish to pretend that swapping the word “mattress” for “matches” makes this song “a feminist anthem”.