Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’: How the ‘Red’ Fan Favorite Became One of Her Biggest & Most Important Songs

Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’: How the ‘Red’ Fan Favorite Became One of Her Biggest & Most Important Songs

The lyrics mimic the song’s own journey — a deep cut that was never promoted by her label, but went on to become one of Swift’s most massive cult favorites, and is often considered her best work by critics and fans alike. (On Rolling Stone’s recent industry-voted list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time, it was her top finisher, placing at No. 69.) This Friday (Nov. 12), Swift gets to give the song a proper spotlight as the most-anticipated new track from her Red (Taylor’s Version) re-recording of the 2012 set, via its long-awaited ten-minute version. 

Since its release nearly a decade ago, Swift herself has dropped hints that the song had a much longer, drawn-out life, even before it was picked to be the fifth track on her fourth studio album. Much of the song’s cathartic bridge about the breakup’s final straw (“You call me up again just to break me like a promise/ So casually cruel in the name of being honest”) was written while Swift was soundchecking on the Speak Now World tour in 2011, when she began improvising the lyrics and her band jumped in. Though the subject of the song was never officially confirmed, fans theorized that the autumnal backdrop of the song alluded to her much-publicized relationship with Jake Gyllenhall in the fall of 2010. 

The song was rumored to have originally been over 10 minutes long, a theory that was picked up and popularized among her dedicated fandom, then later confirmed by co-writer Liz Rose. After Swift was asked by a fan on Instagram where the 10-minute version was, Swift joked that it was “somewhere in a drawer.” The song had its own “folklore” of rumors and theories about if the full version would ever be released after nearly a decade since its inception, with new fans diving into the theories as they began discovering her catalog. 

“The reason why I think that song caught on with fans and critics is that it’s the best song on the album,” says Bruce Warren, assistant general manager for programming for Philadelphia public radio station WXPN, whose listeners ranked “All Too Well” as one of the greatest songs of all time in 2020. “The craft of the song [is] mature beyond its young age. Great power ballads are great power ballads. Immediately, they sort of grab you…It’s the song structure, it’s the way the song builds. I think about the great soft rock power ballads, and I would consider this one of them.”

But despite its power-ballad appeal, the radio push for the Red album cycle was primarily given to “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” — two singles which helped cement in the public perception the scheming, maneater pop star persona that Swift was often criticized for around this time. Instead of a vulnerable, brutally honest singer-songwriter ballad such as “All Too Well,” Red was promoted with songs that might have helped the narrative that Swift would later actively try to distance herself from.

“Somebody at a label makes a decision — they decide that these are the songs that are gonna be the singles, for any number of reasons,” says Warren. “And somebody decided ‘All Too Well’ was not gonna be a single. But if the internet has proven anything, if the streaming economy has proven anything, the fans are in control [of what gets popular], and not the record label.” 

As the fans gain that control, they are able to bring back years-old tracks and to give them a second life on platforms like Twitter and TikTok. Swift herself has taken advantage of this — after “Wildest Dreams” went newly viral earlier this year, she released “Wildest Dreams (Taylor’s Version)” to capitalize on the song’s momentum and help keep her re-recordings on everyone’s radar. But “All Too Well” didn’t need a specifically viral moment — instead, its popularity rose gradually over time through Swift’s fans.

The song initially peaked at No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100, following the album’s release in fall 2012 — far from a resounding bow by Swift’s standards, considering she has seven No. 1 hits on the chart. The artist herself seemed surprised by the continued support of the song. “‘All Too Well’ was never a single, and it always blows my mind that it is consistently one of the loudest songs the crowd sings when I play it,” Swift tweeted before the release of the Reputation Stadium Tour movie on Netflix.

But perhaps more than any other song in her catalog, “All Too Well” was the one that proved to skeptics who might’ve thoughtlessly dismissed Swift as a frivolous pop star — in an era when such artists still weren’t given nearly as much credit or attention by critics and older music fans as they are now — that she was in fact a truly formidable singer-songwriter. (The song’s cred was also furthered by a rare spotlight moment at the 2014 Grammys, when Swift performed a dramatic piano version of it, complete with headbanging, causing many to take notice of it for the first time.) 

“‘All Too Well’ has been the Taylor song that I have shown to anyone who has had any doubts about her songwriting talent and craft,” says Stevie Knipe, of indie pop band Adult Mom — who cites Swift as one of their biggest musical inspirations, and has covered tracks off Red in the past. Knipe believes the simple-but-relatable narrative of the track is what helped build its dedicated fanbase and achieve that cult status, not only among fans, but fellow artists and critics. 

“It’s a song with a perfect narrative presentation that hooks the listener and slowly builds into anthemic catharsis,” they say. “Its story is specific and detailed while remaining relatable — and its melodies are scream-able, cry-alongable, and extremely quotable, all elements that make for a cult classic of a song.” 

Having an earlier, under-the-radar track that highlights her songwriting prowess become one of her most popular songs might also have served as something of a catalyst for where Swift is now. Seeing just how well-received “All Too Well” was by fans and critics alike just in the past few years may have been what helped pushed Swift to lean into that quieter but more intimate sound that the track does so well with her last two albums — the acclaimed Folklore and Evermore, produced in collaboration with indie paragons like Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner. 

“In 2014 or 2015, you wouldn’t have been able to say, ‘[Taylor Swift] is working with Justin Vernon,’ right?” says Warren. “It foreshadowed the place she’s in now… “All Too Well’ showed the potential of how great a songwriter she would be, and how she would evolve as a songwriter. And [Folklore and Evermore] took her to another level.” 

Ruston Kelly, a fellow country singer and massive Swift fan, thinks the simplicity and vulnerability of the track is what helped fellow musicians gain respect for Taylor as a songwriter, beyond her pop stardom. “Obviously you can’t really go anywhere in this world without encountering something having to do with Taylor Swift,” says Kelly, who recorded his own emotionally-charged rendition of “All Too Well” in 2019, which Swift approved via social media. “I really appreciated her music, but it wasn’t until that song came out and I was going through a breakup myself, that it really hit home. All the pieces kinda fell into place. It was like, ‘OK, I get it.’

“I’ve become friends with [co-writer] Liz Rose over the years,” Kelly continues. “I got to ask her once about ‘All Too Well’… she was like, ‘I’m just gonna be honest with you, It’s all Taylor. She brought it in, I just helped her piece it together.’ It will be interesting to hear if she brought in all those verses on the 10 minute version.” 

Some fans believe the song goes beyond a breakup song, and symbolizes more — a bond with her fans, and the connection with the audience when she performed it live. That bond is very present on Twitter, where Swift has a massive (and highly protective) fanbase. Zainub Amir, who runs one of the largest Taylor Swift update accounts on Twitter, says the song’s meaning has changed over time, due to fan response, becoming less about the heartbreak and more about the evolution of her fanbase’s support.

“The amount of times I have seen Taylor perform this song, it used to be a really sad time,” Amir recalls. She believes the switch happened post-Reputation, when Swift performed the track in 2017 for the first time in years: “You could see it on her face… she actually smiled and had a visually fun time hearing the fans sing back the words with so much energy. It shows she is in a completely different place and that growth is so powerful — so now it’s really fun to hear that song, because we remember a time when it wasn’t fun.”

As fans count down to Red (Taylor’s Version), the extended version of “All Too Well” is the most highly-anticipated track — and with a much-hyped arrival, and now a 10-minute video to come with a star-studded cast, it’s likely to outpace its prior No. 80 peak on the Hot 100 in the weeks to come. No matter the commercial success of the track, though, Swift is well aware that it has all to do with the fans who took the breakup song and made it into something more. 

“You turned this song into a collage of memories of watching you scream the words to this song, or seeing pictures that you post to me of you haven written words to this song in your diary, or you showing me your wrist, and you have a tattoo of the lyrics to this song underneath your skin,” Swift explained to the crowd that opening night on the Reputation Stadium Tour. “And that is how you have changed the song ‘All Too Well’ for me.”

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