Before she twisted stories of doomed relationships into metaphors about high-speed getaway cars or mapped out a decade-old breakup in a 10-minute short film, Taylor Swift walked a fragile line. The country-pop songs on which she carefully excavated past relationships with romantic writing were met with acclaim. But in turn, as she was increasingly characterized as a “nice girl,” that same glittering grace was expected to be shown even in the face of public humiliation and other betrayals. To her credit, Swift was nice — but when Speak Now poured out of her, she had never been so angry. Without a single co-writer on the album’s standard edition, released in 2010, Swift spent the years between 18 and 20 capturing her emotionally intense coming-of-age experience.
The introspection across the record often wondered about what could have been — if only she had seen the red flags for what they were, if only she had known more, if only the people she crossed paths with didn’t leave so much wreckage behind. But as a teenager, she simply hadn’t lived enough to know. “Better Than Revenge,” the album’s most scathing deep cut (challenged only by “Dear John”), is largely overshadowed by its out-of-character slut-shaming; but at the time, it hadn’t been a second thought. Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), the third in Swift’s series of re-recorded albums out July 7, gives her a chance to right her wrongs with what she knows now — to take a “Fuck the Patriarchy” approach to clean up that compromising moment she immortalized as a teenager. But time has shown that she’s lived and she’s learned.
Laying these tracks down once more is Swift’s way of preserving history rather than rewriting it — always adding more rather than taking away, at least not lyrically. Her voice has noticeably changed on the re-recordings fans have already heard, but she hasn’t yet tampered with the memories themselves. And if the goal is to recapture the emotional minefield the originals were created within, it’s unlikely that she would start now. In 2023, “Better Than Revenge (Taylor’s Version)” won’t align with Taylor Swift: Global Superstar, but at a point in time, “Better Than Revenge” did align with Taylor Swift: Pissed Off Teenager Who Hasn’t Fully Developed an Understanding of Feminism.
As far as nasty words wielded by teenagers go, “Better Than Revenge” was … tame. “She’s not a saint, and she’s not what you think; she’s an actress,” Swift sings on the record. “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” But Hayley Williams easily had her beat when she wrote the venomous 2007 hit “Misery Business” at 17, declaring: “Once a whore, you’re nothing more.” And when Halsey was 18, years before she made her official musical debut, she penned a parody of “I Knew You Were Trouble,” warning One Direction fans that Swift would soon discard Harry Styles in her “ex-boy pile.”
Few people’s coming-of-age experiences, especially in the digital age, is without embarrassing blemishes from poorly-aged decisions based on what felt, at the time, like valid emotions. Nothing on “Better Than Revenge” was anything that hadn’t been heard before and wouldn’t be heard again 10 times over — but it was an outlier and unexpected left turn for Swift. Nice girl, remember?
“As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities,” Swift told The Guardian in 2014. “What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men.” And while some thought that writing her exes into her music meant that she did, “Better Than Revenge,” in all its slut-shaming splendor, was a rare instance in which another woman was the subject of her writing. She might not have truly hated any of these people, but she was at least allowed to hate what they did to her or how they made her feel, even if those emotions later subsided.
“The songs that came from this time in my life were marked by their brutal honesty, unfiltered diaristic confessions and wild wistfulness,” Swift shared earlier this month after announcing the record. “I love this album because it tells a tale of growing up, flailing, flying and crashing… and living to speak about it.”
Until now, Swift has largely left “Better Than Revenge” in her rearview. She hasn’t performed it live since wrapping the Speak Now tour over a decade ago, and hell will probably freeze over before it appears as a surprise song on the Eras tour setlist. Beyond a slightly cryptic tweet fired off in 2016 by the song’s supposed subject Camilla Belle, who was linked to Joe Jonas following his infamous 2008 split from Swift, everyone involved has moved on. So while one could argue to leave the past in the past and ditch the song altogether, resurfacing the record is actually a necessary evil. Her narrative is incomplete without it.
“Better Than Revenge” is a crucial point in Swift’s complicated journey through coming to an understanding of intersectional feminism, particularly her place in it as a white woman. At 25, she assembled a Girl Squad of models and actresses to appear in the “Bad Blood” music video, a song about her since-resolved feud with Katy Perry. An array of critics, as well as Demi Lovato, deemed the group of mostly white, mostly skinny women to be exclusionary and thus “anti-feminist.” She hadn’t made a bold enough statement there, but when she responded to a series of Nicki Minaj tweets calling out racism in the music industry, Swift overstepped greatly, mistakingly believing she was the target of the rapper’s frustrations. She apologized, and they both moved on.
Being able to acknowledge past missteps in order to make more informed decisions in the future is crucial to Swift overcoming a learning curve of privilege. At 32, when she attempted to defend herself against a poorly-written joke about her dating history in the Netflix series Ginny & Georgia, Swift disappeared before instructing her fans to avoid directing their anger toward the Black actress who was just doing her job. Antonia Gentry, who delivered the line as Ginny, didn’t directly respond, but did publish a post celebrating the chance to play “a character who was just as confused and imperfect” as she was as a teenager.
“2010 called and it wants its lazy, deeply sexist joke back,” Swift wrote on Twitter. To call out the same year that she released “Better Than Revenge,” written when she was also an imperfect teenager, strikes a chord of irony. Out of context, yes, the joke was low-hanging fruit that barely warranted a chuckle. But as it relates to the series, it wasn’t completely out of step for a 16-year-old character trying to get a reaction out of her mother during an argument. Swift knows a thing or two about saying things she didn’t mean and not being able to take them back. Everything she does is captured and archived.
Oftentimes, when Swift misses the mark now, it’s in a tweet or public social exchange that has a much shorter conscious lifespan than her legacy-shaping music. With that, she has far more control. She answers to a generation-spanning audience of millions — and they expect her to know the right things to say. Sometimes it’s better to take the good with the bad and face the facts for what they are. Other artists whose younger emotions have landed in similar situations have found ways to recontextualize their lyrical missteps without ignoring them altogether.
When Paramore revived “Misery Business” in 2022, after announcing its indefinite retirement from their live shows in 2018, Williams promised she wouldn’t make it a whole thing. “I’m not gonna preach about it,” she said. “I’m just gonna say thank you for being nostalgic about this because this is one of the coolest moments of our show, and it’s very nice to feel like there’s a reason to bring it back that’s positive.” Now, they bring fans onstage during it.
Similarly, Sabrina Carpenter never made a big fuss about “Skin,” her poorly-received, gasoline-on-the-fire response to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” which was perceived as a loaded attack on a younger woman. She has only performed it on tour once, joking that it would be funny to play it now that the storm has passed. Still, she closes every show with “Because I Liked a Boy,” a pointed examination of her own regret that reclaims the damning words that were then used by spectators to demonize her in retaliation.
“Now I’m a homewrecker, I’m a slut … I’m a rebound gettin’ ’round stealin’ from the young,” Carpenter sings. “And all of this for what? When everything went down we’d already broken up.” It’s a rare instance in which we see an honest perspective of the villainized “other woman” that balances accountability and emotional validation.
Everyone has a narrative to defend and set straight, a side of the story to tell, though they won’t always have the right words to say in the moment. Sometimes what is perceived as the “wrong” emotions take hold of the pen before the “right” ones do, but there’s always more to write. Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) itself will feature six previously unreleased “From the Vault” songs, all of which are sure to overshadow any comments on “Better Than Revenge (Taylor’s Version)” as long as it remains lyrically intact.
Changing the past now, or using it to make some grand feminist statement, would not only feel dishonest, but it would also compromise her goal of draining all of the value from her original recordings after they were tossed around and sold without her permission. After all, there’s nothing Swift does better than revenge.
From Rolling Stone US