A number of publications have made the questionable decision of describing Taylor Swift’s folklore as her first “indie” record. No matter how “alt” her music sounds, how many lowercase letters she uses, or how much her fans praise her ability to shapeshift, Swift can’t be classified as an “indie artist” in good faith—she’s an international pop star signed to a major label, with all the privileges and trappings that categorization brings. Yet there is a homegrown element to the surprise release. Swift recorded the album at home during quarantine. There are no “Shake It Off” marching bands here, no “Should’ve Said No” fiddle squads. What’s more, there are no associated big-budget videos promoting singles about celebrity feuds (is this an allusion to “Look What You Made Me Do” or “Bad Blood”? Take your pick). folklore bears all the marks of an album written as a passion project during isolation—the sparse, sober, production; the lyrical precision; even the bleak cover art. Would the record have been made in any other timeline? It’s impossible to know—yet that’s beyond the point. It exists in this one, and that’s a wonderful thing.
The acoustic bent of folklore inevitably raises the question, Is “the old Taylor” back? Swift answered that question herself in 2017, on “Look What You Made Me Do”: “I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.” Perhaps this is true with respect to Swift’s personal growth. In the harshness of the public gaze, she has transformed from a girl-next-door type who preferred to let her songs do most of the talking, even when the world was begging her to confirm that she wasn’t secretly a Trump supporter, to a confident woman who has spoken up on a variety of issues: feminism, Kanye West’s use of her (naked) likeness in his infamous “Famous” video, the controversial acquisition of her music catalogue by Scooter Braun. However, musically speaking, Swift can’t claim to have totally shed her former image. Although she sings in a pop style, folklore’s instrumentation is rife with lovely references to her country past. “august” is a ballad with a vaguely Southern-sounding string section. “invisible string” is a guitar-driven love song. “betty” features the soft crooning of harmonicas.
It makes sense, then, that “august” and “betty” are two of the songs that most closely resemble Swift’s older discography in terms of lyrical content, the third being “cardigan.” Swift herself revealed that these songs comprise a “Teenage Love Triangle” telling the story of three fraught, heart-eyed high schoolers. In keeping with this conceit, the songs are full of anecdotes that sound like they’ve been ripped from the sacred pages of diaries—that’s to say, they sound like they’ve been ripped from the liner notes of Taylor Swift, Fearless, and Speak Now. This is absolutely a compliment. Young Taylor had an undeniable knack for capturing the intricacies of puppy love in a few words, and folklore shows that she hasn’t lost this ability with the passage of time. In “cardigan,” she sings about a boy “dancin’ in [his] Levi’s/drunk under a streetlight,” over the sound of a piano riff that repeats like a replayed memory. “betty” conjures up visions of house parties and school dances in gyms. “august” contains simple yet evocative line, “Meet me behind the mall.”
Ultimately, though, the “Teenage Love Triangle” is just a storytelling device. Swift is not a teen anymore, and she doesn’t think like one. She’s not attempting to step back into her old shoes by writing these songs, but re-examining the vicissitudes of youth from a more mature point of view—just as she does in standout track “seven,” which is even more poignant than any of the star-crossed love stories she’s told. “I hit my peak at seven,” she sings in the first verse—a line that might be interpreted as wry comedy in another context, but feels truly somber against the song’s stark soundscape. In the goosebump-inducing second verse, she adopts the voice of a child to express concern for a friend: “I think your house must be haunted/Your dad is always mad and that must be why/And I think you should come live with/Me and we can be pirates…” The song shines with the gracefully articulated pathos of a Lana Del Rey track, without the underlying torridness. Quarantine has us all losing ourselves in memory; apparently, Swift is no different.
Not only does Swift commune with the ghosts of her own past on folklore; in a surprising twist, she also conjures up the spirit of a 20th century heiress. In “the last great american dynasty,” she tells the tale of Rebekah Harkness, who lived in Holiday House, the Rhode Island property now owned by Swift, after marrying the CEO of Standard Oil. Swift is so well known for drawing upon her own experiences in her songwriting that hearing her immerse herself so deeply in another person’s narrative is a new kind of thrill. She strings together a series of biographical details—did you know Harkness had a group of friends called “the Bitch Pack,” was close with Dalí, and allegedly dyed a neighbor’s pet green?—to paint a picture of the Gatsby-esque celebrations that regularly occurred at the mansion. Yet as in Fitzgerald’s works, there’s a layer of sadness beneath the chaos. “She had a marvelous time ruining everything,” Swift sings of Harkness, assuming the perspective of the neighbors who judged her for her “shameless,” “loud” ways. By the end of the song, she’s changed the pronoun to “I” as a jab at her critics.
Swift continues to dip her toes into social critique on “illicit affairs” and “mad woman.” The former sees her deconstructing the glamour of secret relationships while extending great sympathy and tenderness towards all who have found themselves in such dilemmas. Whereas the Reputation era saw Swift reveling in flashiness, “illicit affairs” isn’t interested in that: “Tell your friends you’re out for a run/You’ll be flushed when you return,” Swift says at the beginning of the ballad, setting the tone for the three minutes of devastation to come. When she protests, “Don’t call me ‘kid,’ don’t call me ‘baby’/Look at this godforsaken mess you made me,” her cries serve as a reminder that not even fame can prevent abuses of power, a lesson that Swift has unfortunately had to learn too many times. The latter is a takedown of the “hysterical woman” archetype. Swift is at her most unapologetic here. “Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy/What about that?” she asks, most likely directing her righteous fury towards Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta. She even utters the phrase “Fuck you forever.” It seems counterintuitive that Swift’s “quietest” album is the first one to get an “explicit” label—and yet her coolly sung f-bomb perfectly hints at the pressure to “stay calm” that is often foisted upon women in distressing situations. Another notable lyric side-eyes internalized misogyny: “Women like hunting witches too…” Gone are the days of Swift glorifying the image of vengeful, runway-ready girl squads as the be-all-and-end-all of her feminism—at least, ostensibly. She’s getting down to the nitty-gritty.
Is folklore the new normal for Swift? Who can say? The album was created under exceptional circumstances, and Swift has carved out a… well, reputation for herself as a genre chameleon. Surely, Swift shouldn’t have to continue recording understated records if she wants to be taken seriously—she has just as much of a right to fun and games as anyone else. That said, folklore reveals an earnestness and eloquence that Swift has never before expressed to such an extent. Like the towering trees on its cover, it’s a testament to both steadfastness and growth.