Welcome to New Retro Week, a celebration of the biggest artists, hits, and cultural moments that made 2012 a seminal year in pop. MTV News is looking back to see what lies ahead: These essays showcase how today’s blueprint was laid a decade ago. Step into our time machine.
By Carson Mlnarik
It doesn’t take an ex named Sean to feel catharsis from Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” or a friend named Kiki to get in your feelings with Drake. Contemporary pop music is rife with hyper-specific details as the world’s biggest stars transform the minutiae of their lives into relatable chart-topping hits. But this level of candidness wasn’t always the norm. Though musicians have long written from a place of authenticity, pop radio’s stickiest earworms never felt quite so diaristic as when a jilted artist wrote a lover’s scarf into one of her most beloved songs.
That artist, of course, is Taylor Swift, whose sprawling and frenetic 2012 album Red not only introduced Top 40 radio to her storytelling candor but also taught the world a lesson about the bond listeners seek to forge with their music of choice. “We actually do NOT want our pop music to be generic,” Swift wrote in a 2019 essay for Elle. “I think a lot of music lovers want some biographical glimpse into the world of our narrator, a hole in the emotional walls people put up around themselves to survive.” Though last year’s “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” and Red (Taylor’s Version) — re-released as part of her plan to gain control of her masters — is a story of its own, it couldn’t be told if Swift had not made the same bold moves back in 2012.
Arriving alongside the rise of Instagram, mustachioed decor, and The Hunger Games, Swift’s Red era was ushered in by lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a synth-soaked breakup anthem that marked the start of her sonic transition. The Max Martin- and Shellback-assisted track from what she has since called her “true breakup album” became her first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. That’s perhaps how it landed on the radars of a fledgling class of musicians, not only in pop music but also in the indie sphere, who didn’t know how much of an inspiration Swift’s lyricism would be a decade later.
“I was both closeted and a closeted Swiftie,” said singer-songwriter Stevie Knipe, who records under Adult Mom. “I was a freshman in college and I was very much in the realm of ‘I’m too cool for Top 40 music. I’m being indie.’ But I was secretly blasting old Taylor under the radar.” After a “horrid breakup,” they found solace in the shrieking dubstep drops of tracks like “I Knew You Were Trouble,” as well as the record’s softer moments like “Treacherous,” which explored themes of unbridled anticipation and optimism that continue to resonate with them. “I think there’s this element of starting a queer relationship — especially when you’re young — of how the stakes are so high and everything feels so intense,” they said. “I feel like [“Treacherous”] followed me through being closeted to now being out and really kind of identifying it with my own life.”
Minute and melodramatic details color the various hues of red Swift explores on the record — from the chair by the window in “I Almost Do” to the inside joke scribbled on a note in “Holy Ground” — and Knipe counts the “intimate, ephemeral pieces of history” Swift captured in the lyrics as an inspiration for their own music. “With all my writing, I've always been really fixated on the very small details,” they explained. “It's like she's kind of taught me how to do that properly or to take a small moment and make it a story.”
A devotion to microscopic moments and unflinching honesty is flecked throughout their most recent album Driver, released in March 2021, as kick drums and layered guitar underscore lyrics calling out dorm nights spent listening to Hole and revelatory conversations with a friend named Adam. Their indie spin on Red’s infectious and underrated closer “Starlight” for 2019’s ReRed, an alternative reimagining of the record, further demonstrates the timeless applicability of Swift’s words. “I just wanted to kind of indie it up but play to how extraordinary she likes to talk about these things and ... honor her in that way,” Knipe said.
Swift approached Red’s crossover appeal with tongue-in-cheek buoyancy — “Hide away and find your peace of mind / With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine” — and although it was categorized as a country record, she sought out collaborators across all genres for its sessions. Tracks with Ed Sheeran, Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, and Dan Wilson of Semisonic pushed out of her comfort zone, but the sonic sheen didn’t matter. The candid storytelling in her lyrics, honed from years in country music, shone through, and no track seemed to better encapsulate her abilities than devastatingly nostalgic fan-favorite “All Too Well.”
According to Swiftian lore, the track was born during rehearsals for Swift’s Speak Now World Tour when she previewed nearly 10 minutes’ worth of lyrics for her bandmates before working with frequent co-writer Liz Rose to parse it down. Even before its second life as a short film and the longest track to top the Hot 100 last year, “All Too Well” was special. Never before had Swift delved so deeply into the painstaking details of heartbreak, from visceral recollections of dancing in the kitchen and riding in the car to the forgotten-and-never-returned scarf that tied the narrative thread together.
While Taylor has said the song “was born out of catharsis and venting,” its meaning to her changed as fans embraced it to heal heartache. “You turned it into a collage of memories of watching you scream the words to this song, or seeing pictures you post to me of you having written the words in your diary,” she told fans at a concert in 2018. Some Swifties have even made their connection with the song’s lyrics permanent by tattooing them on their bodies.
The track was also seminal for pop singer Ellis, who released her debut album Born Again in 2020. “I can't remember before that ever feeling so let into somebody's inner world, in that really tangible and obvious way anyway,” she told MTV News. “There’s something so cool about that, to be like, ‘This isn’t about me, but somehow I feel like it is.’ I think that was the first record that really made me feel that way.” “All Too Well” will always be a favorite for Ellis — “It’s such an emo song and I was also emo in high school,” she explained — and she’s continued to draw inspiration from Swift’s lyricism, releasing her own dreamy cover of “Lover” in 2020, and recounting the particulars of her own life in tracks like “Pringle Creek” and “March 13.” “I can share these really vivid and specific details,” she said. “But then, it's not just about me. It's about everyone and there's something just so cool about that.”
By letting us into the most vulnerable corners of her heart, Swift spoke in a way that allowed us to see ourselves, a skill she’s continued to flex in songs like “Cornelia Street” and “Invisible String.” Her devotion to detail created a unique bond with her loyal Swifties and inspired other artists to utilize the same candidness to connect with fans. “Laura said I should be nicer,” Billie Eilish sings on “I Didn’t Change My Number,” while Olivia Rodrigo evokes the singular experience of “Watching reruns of Glee / Being annoying, singing in harmony” on “Deja Vu.” It’s that level of specific that breaks our hearts when Conan Gray name-drops an enviable bombshell named “Heather,” Kacey Musgraves recalls how “Grandma cried when I pierced my nose” on “Slow Burn," and Troye Sivan uses the distinct tastes of “Strawberries & Cigarettes” to weave a tale of wistful reminiscence. Even Halsey and The Chainsmokers’s “Closer” — which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a consecutive 12 weeks – would hardly pack the same punch without its remembrance of “that mattress that you stole / From your roommate back in Boulder.”
It should come as no surprise that a decade later, Red (Taylor’s Version) has been just as successful as its septuple-platinum predecessor. The intimacy Swift brought to pop music is here to stay as we seek out lyrics that speak to the lucid recollections we hold tightly ourselves. As she told Elle, “It’s this alliance between a song and our memories of the times it helped us heal, or made us cry, dance, or escape that truly stands the test of time.”