A (Definitively Biased) Review of Taylor Swift's folklore: Why the Pop Princess’s New Album is Her Best Yet
Taylor Swift has been my favorite artist since I was ten years old. I am sometimes referred to as “the girl that likes Taylor Swift” - and am never mad about it. I am known for asking to have aux, with the intention of playing Taylor, and consistently being turned down. Growing up, I went to every single one of Taylor’s concerts, dressed head to toe in ridiculous lyric-inspired costumes. When I was out of town for her Reputation show in D.C., my dad drove me to Pittsburgh to see her there.
Basically, I would do anything for Taylor Swift.
As someone who writes and performs my own music, there is no one I respect more than Swift. Lyrics have always been the most exciting element of songwriting to me, as I think it is amazing that intricate lyrical details can somehow cause millions of people to connect to one song. Taylor’s music never fails to do this.
The night folklore dropped, I stayed awake until 5 am, listening to it on repeat. I was amazed by every second of it - from “exile’s,” dark duet with Bon Iver, to “invisible string’s” uplifting message about true love, to “betty’s” harmonica solo.
I soon realized how timely Taylor’s change in musical style was. Released when many people were stuck at home overthinking anything and everything, Taylor created her most vulnerable, contemplative album yet, giving fans a soundtrack for their personal quarantine struggles.
Taylor Swift’s musical sound has evolved significantly over time, as she constantly introduces new thematic trends or dives into completely new genres. Her public appearance changed dramatically - she evolved from the sweet Nashville farm girl to the powerful pop “bad girl” -- but nobody saw folklore coming. And there are five reasons why it is her best album yet.
Swift wrote the entirety of folklore in 3 months. Beginning in late April, she released the 16-song album in July. Clearly her quarantine was a productive one, as she finished this project less than a year after her previous album, Lover. Swift usually gives her fans sufficient “easter eggs” (hints as to what the new music will sound/look like) before an album release to build anticipation. Taylor felt folklore did not need such a build-up - and clearly her intuition was right. The album earned 80.6 million streams in its first 24 hours, setting the global record for first day album streams by any female artist.
Swift explored a completely new genre. Far from her dance-party songs like “Shake it Off,” Swift produced a fully “alternative” album. This change of genre is shown most clearly through Swift’s focus on lengthy musical intros - something she shied away from in past albums. In the song “epiphany,” Swift features a 33-second intro of suspended chords before introducing the emotional story of her grandfather’s experience in the battle of Normandy. In “peace,” she one-ups herself with a 42-second intro of subdued electric guitar. Swift has always stressed her desire to tell a clear story in her songs - something that may have caused her to avoid including long musical segments in previous albums. But in folklore, she achieves both. Swift unapologetically makes people wait for the true meaning of the song, allowing the music to set the tone.
Swift wrote multiple songs that tell different sides of the same narrative. Every song Swift has written is based on her own life. Her tone is brutally honest. In folklore, Swift still leans on these storytelling skills, but most of the stories are not her own. Instead, she explored narratives that interested her - some about people she knows personally and some that are complete fantasy. The most interesting example of this is Swift’s choice to include three songs on the album that tell the same story - each from a different perspective. The songs - “betty,” “cardigan,” and “august” - narrate a fictional love triangle, with each chapter being told by a different teenager. “Betty” is told by the boy, James, who cheated on his girlfriend, Betty, but now wants her back. “Cardigan” is told by Betty, as she contemplates the pros and cons of being in a relationship with James. Lastly, “august” is told by the “other girl”, Inez, who sadly realizes that her relationship with James was fleeting. Swift weaves these stories together using subtle phrases, making her audience feel a connection to each teenager. Aside from this large storyline, Taylor connects some other pairs of songs on the album. If you listen closely, you’ll notice references to “mad woman” in “the last great american dynasty.” In that song, Swift also refers to herself and another woman as “mad.”
Swift demonstrated her impressive vocabulary. Taylor Swift may be the only artist to ever use the word “gauche” in a song. Not only does this album include great SAT vocab, it also provides countless lyrical riddles. Some of my personal favorites include: “you are not like the regulars, the masquerade revelers,” “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere,” and “take the words for what they are, a dwindling, mercurial high.” It definitely takes a large amount of time and effort to uncover the true meanings behind those deeply woven metaphors.
Swift used her lyrics to create an encouraging sense of feminism. In the past, Swift has been criticized for explicitly exposing the subjects of her songs. In some ways, her decision to call people out by name was a power move. Yet, as she’s aged, she’s found more clever ways to confront individuals. This is apparent in folklore, as Swift uses large metaphors to disguise her criticisms. Three songs from the album are perfect examples:
“the last great american dynasty:” Swift details the life of the gilded-age heiress to the Standard Oil Company, Rebekah Harkness - the previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island mansion. Swift explains that Rebekah’s neighbors complained about her, calling her the “maddest woman the town had ever seen” and claiming “she had a marvelous time ruining everything” - all due to her desire to live a lavish lifestyle. Only in the very last verse of the song does Swift reveal that those same insults were directed at her when she eventually moved into the mansion. The lyric is changed to: “I had a marvelous time ruining everything.” Swift evidently holds sympathy for Rebekah Harkness, as they were both women judged by the native Rhode Islanders for their social endeavors. Swift’s lyrics proudly defy those judgments and announce that she unapologetically enjoyed her time in Rhode Island.
“my tears ricochet:” seems to be about a woman singing to her abuser from her grave. In reality, this is Swift’s way of speaking to Big Machine Records - specifically Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta. When she left the label, these two men legally prevented Swift from owning her past albums and using her music freely. The lyric, “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace,” references Swift’s open letter on social media begging her fans to convince Braun and Borchetta to allow her to perform her own music at the American Music Awards. Another powerful lyric - “you wear the same jewels that I gave you, as you bury me” - is also directed at Swift’s metaphorical abusers. Here, she reminds the two men that she was Big Machine Records’ first artist, contributing significantly to their current success, and yet today they are unfairly limiting her musical power.
“mad woman:” Many believe this song is about Swift’s continuing feud with Kanye West, with specific references to the recorded phone call about Kanye’s song, “Famous.” In “mad woman,” Swift describes Kanye’s efforts to convince the media that she was crazy. She writes, “everytime you call me crazy, I get more crazy,” followed by the line, “no one likes a mad woman, you made her like that.” She then subtly accuses Kim Kardashian of causing additional trouble when she sings, “and women like hunting witches too, doing your dirtiest work for you, it’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together.”
In the end, these three songs all serve as clear examples of the changes Swift has made in her songwriting. She defends herself as she always has, but now does so in a more mature manner. Not only does she exclude specific names, but her complex plotlines provide discretion; she no longer gives the world immediate access to her inner thoughts and personal information. If they want it, they have to work for it.
Taylor Swift has never written an album like folklore. It provides new musical, lyrical, and visual perspectives (black and white photographs in nature, lowercase song titles, and the long-awaited re-introduction of her curly hair). It has already surpassed her previous pop album, Lover, in its number of streams and it has been widely praised by critics. Swift’s dedication to constantly reinventing herself - musically and visually - is what has allowed her to remain a top female artist in the music industry for over a decade. The core values and ideas in her music remain constant, but she changes her tune enough to keep people on their toes. Most importantly, she never lets us forget that she is still the same seventeen year-old girl that wrote “Love Story.”