Music Review: “folklore” – Taylor Swift

I feel some context is needed before we dive in. There have been two things that have fueled my disdain for Taylor Swift in recent years. The first is the fact that my college roommate for a period of time would play “Mean” non-stop, over and over and over, seemingly from sunup to sundown. This elicited various responses in me, from intense nausea to the desire to drive my head through a wall. I’ve never really confirmed it, but I suspect that it’s through such experiences that I developed a strong attachment to headphones, and explains why being without a pair leaves me with such a profound feeling of helplessness.

Despite all of this, I never actually disliked Taylor Swift as an individual or artist because of this. Some of the hits from her early catalog I liked, and I fully embraced her pop pivot with Red because “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a bop and “I Knew You Were Trouble” produced amazing meme content.

By the time “Shake It Off” was released, I had become pretty enamored with Taylor Swift and her charming self-awareness and self-deprecation, attributes she was leaning into more with her transition to pop music. She seemed in on the joke, aware of how ridiculous it might be that a breakout country artist would break from the genre which made her insanely popular. Levity is an appealing quality in celebrities because it makes them feel more down to earth, authentic, and human.

Then I read the Gawker article, “Taylor Swift is Not Your Friend” and slowly my appreciation turned into abhorrence. Swift was undoubtedly at this point not simply a star, but a phenomenon, (she would go on to win Artist of the Decade from the AMA, and Woman of the Decade from Billboard in 2019) and all the Avenger’s style posse assembling with the backdrop of her business maneuvers and machinations seemed nothing less than an individual who had grown up in the limelight long enough to not just become complicit but instrumental in the consolidation of their cultural prominence and financial dominance.

All while this is happening, she managed to find herself the subject of scrutiny for romantic woes and public beefs with other celebrities. Bear in mind, none of this was related to substance abuse, struggles with mental illness, or legal troubles, as we are accustomed to expect with our young idols. No, Taylor was accused of a far greater sin: being unstable, insufferable, and self-righteous. This may have solidified her presence in the collective cultural consciousness, but it also furthered every publicist’s worst nightmare: that their client would soon have to become an active combatant in the war over their reputation and legacy and the surrounding culture war. Both of these fears were realized, as Taylor would become a vocal commentator on the music industry, sexual assault, and political issues. All of this inched us forward toward the most recent event in her saga, the purchase of her back catalog by her former label, effectively preventing her from performing or using any of those songs in the future. With this baggage and history, how are we supposed understand the impact of all of it on Taylor and her latest release, folklore? Further, I’ve rambled on for, like, a bajillion words without even discussing the new album. You’re probably saying, “Get to the point, how is it?” Simply put: it’s fantastic.

“I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit,” Taylor emphatically declares on the album’s opener “the 1”. The sentiment is all encompassing: not only does the album mark a drastic shift to indie and 90’s pop/adult contemporary/soft rock, it was announced with no promotional campaign or build up. No single, no music video tour, no press junket. Rather, Taylor opted for posting on social media, less than a day before it was released. One would think that it would go against every publicist’s instinct to discard any type of hype train, especially for a release that marks collaborations with Aaron Dessner of The National and the Patron Saint of Making Music in Isolation, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Showcasing such restraint to herald the project adds credence to the idea that Taylor wants this album, and herself by extension, to be judged first and foremost by the music.

The restraint parallels the immaculately and precisely constructed musicianship on the album. Dessner’s fingerprints are all over the entire affair, so much so that co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff’s presence is barely felt, even if the album still bears that polished pop coating. While The National may have perfected minimalism as a music genre, these songs would stand toe to toe with any selection from their discography, and Taylor’s similarly subdued voice pairs very nicely with these soft piano and string arrangements. For certain, this is Taylor at her most contemplative, forlorn, and longing when she’s musing on past relationships, past mistakes, and current love. The album is full of ballads that swell towards emotional endings, such as “exile” her duet with Vernon, where their back and forth as former lovers crescendos towards a rapturous finale. Despite the singular feature it’s hard to not hear his influence elsewhere on the album. The song “epiphany” with its pervading organ creates a reverent atmosphere that may as well have been on his second album. Songs like “cardigan”, “peace”, and “hoax” find her singing in an jazzier and soulful inflection (“cardigan” itself could be a Harmonium b-side) that I never knew she had, and now I want more. All of this isn’t to say that her country roots are totally absent. Songs like “seven”, “august”, and “betty” blend her former country style with these newfound affinities, with an execution that’s reminiscent of Sixpence None the Richer. In fact, “betty” with the background finger picking serves as fitting homage to her namesake James Taylor and could fit right at home on any of her first three albums if the chorus didn’t contain the phrase “would you tell me to go fuck myself?”

That’s right, folks, Taylor Swift swears now. It’d be condescending to describe this lyrical decision as Taylor Swift being pretentious. Rather, this is the natural progression of an artist who has had to face the highest of expectations, a symbolic removal of the gloves. If her toughest critics can’t find a reason to take her seriously, then might as well abandon any remaining barrier. Even with the “adult” direction of Reputation, Taylor has always been judged by the youthful nature of her audience, that has prevailed despite her own maturing. With folklore, while some of her preferred lyrical themes around lost and found love still abound (there’s additionally a unique tribute to medical professionals working through the pandemic) the music will hopefully remove any excuse for her artistic efforts to be doubted. That’s not to say she’s going to stop spitting fire. The aforementioned business dealings and controversies give her enough ammunition to take aim at her biggest adversaries. On “mad woman” she sings, “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back? They strike to kill, and you know I will” assuring the world that she will remain unapologetic in defense of her life and career. But Taylor then displays her self awareness on “this is me trying” when she sings “And my words shoot to kill when I’m mad. I have a lot of regrets about that.” She is tuned in to her perceived capriciousness and her own duality. She mourns her own proclivities in how she reacts while pointing a critical eye towards the unyielding demands of her public detractors as she paints parallels between her and socialite Rebekah Harkness on “the last great american dynasty” (Swift purchased Harkness’s Rhode Island home in 2015).

So much of the criticism for this album will be over the unchanging lyrical themes and whether someone of her privilege and age can be taken seriously when talking about these matters. At one end of the spectrum, folklore will be viewed as a desperate Hail Mary attempt for someone to provide legitimacy to their heavily critiqued career and image. Meditations on being a hopeless romantic coming to terms with their failings will be viewed as immature and evidence of an artist scared to grow. Melodies proclaiming herself a fierce yet flawed warrior, fighting to preserve her dignity, integrity, and legitimacy will be seen as self-victimizing and egocentric. And while there very well may exist some justification for these claims, the medium of these songs provides ample ways for audiences to connect with her humanity. Even if you regard folklore as Taylor cosplaying as Neko Case or Leigh Nash, that doesn’t invalidate the power in these songs. I prefer to view this offering as an artist shutting down the internal echoes and reverberations of their detractors to arrive at the most honest expression of her being.

Truthfully, folklore‘s release marks an important contribution to the musical landscape of the COVID era. I don’t know why she chose today, but regardless I’m thank…wait…wasn’t Kanye supposed to release his latest album today? Shit. Was this release all about upstaging Kanye?! Dammit Taylor, you’re going to be that petty? Really?

Oh, well. Still a great album.

Follow me on Twitter @anotherRahulJ.

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