Taylor Swift’s folklore focuses the spotlight on her talent, as the album strips away much of the fanfare that has become synonymous with her work.
Ever since Taylor Swift debuted, the world has been obsessed with knowing who and what she was singing about. It’s a trope that befalls many autobiographical singer-songwriters, but one that fit the young country star’s brand particularly snugly.
Not only did Taylor’s early album liner notes include written clues indicating who each track was penned for, she even called out names directly in the songs themselves! These name-drops likely served as an ego boost for the likes of Drew and Cory, named in Taylor Swift, led to widespread scrutiny for less favored celebrity mentions like Joe Jonas and John Mayer, and created a culture of curiosity surrounding every track and album Swift released.
The world became obsessed with who Taylor Swift was dating and dropping, hoping for a glimpse of insight into these real life love stories upon the next album release. Fans would line up to get each album, eager to scour the lyrics for clues about those who had served or scorned the singer enough to be carved permanently into her ever-evolving discography.
Things changed slightly with the reputation era, when Taylor Swift began to live more privately. After years of intense scrutiny at the hands of the public and the media, on top of a few high-profile celebrity feuds, Swift decided to hold her cards a little closer to her chest. She stopped being so open about her romantic relationships and cut the clues from the album liner notes, blocking the easy path to the identity of her muses.
Despite the lack of explicit hints, Taylor Swift’s songwriting remained as candid and personal as ever. On top of that, she placed many not-so-subtle signs in her larger than life music videos, making it even more fun for fans to pore over her work and decipher its meaning. This continued into the Lover era, which was more stable and contented, but still laden with latent meaning.
The release of a new Taylor Swift single, music video, album, or even tweet came to be about so much more than experiencing the music. It afforded Swifties hours and days of entertainment as they scrubbed each line and frame for subtext, obsessively lurked over Swift’s own social media, and read theories and research about whatever new content we’d been blessed with.
Most Swifties, this writer included, would be lying if they said that this aspect wasn’t one of the best parts of being a Taylor Swift fan. After years of the routine, it all just became part of the package that was Taylor Swift. She had ceased to simply be an artist. She became an icon. At a certain point, it was difficult to untangle her lyrics from her legend.
And then she dropped folklore with a surprise release, and it turned all of that on its head.
It would be one thing if the only thing missing from the equation was the intense anticipation that preceded both reputation and Lover, but that wasn’t even close to the only deviation from the formula.
Alongside the release of folklore, Swift tweeted out the written introduction that’s come to be expected with her albums. In it, she explains that many of the tracks and lyrics on the album are not autobiographical, but externally inspired.
That means that unlike most of Swift’s work, many of these songs weren’t born from her memories, but instead were spawned from flashbulb images in her head that “grew faces or names and became characters.” In addition to her own stories, folklore also includes the narratives of “a misfit widow,” her own grandfather, “lovestruck teens,” people she’s known, and people she’s never met.
In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now it’s up to you to pass them down. folklore is out now: https://t.co/xdcEDfithq
📷: Beth Garrabrant pic.twitter.com/vSDo9Se0fp
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) July 24, 2020
Not only did folklore arrive without the usual adornment of easter eggs and speculation, but it also navigated away from the “who’s this one about” experience that has always accompanied Taylor Swift’s music. She’s still telling stories, which is what she’s always done well, but this time, they might not be her stories.
“Epiphany” is told from the perspective of her grandfather who served in the war. “The Last Great American Dynasty” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, a woman who died before Swift was even born. “August,” “Cardigan,” and “Betty” tell three sides of a teenage love story.
Folklore isn’t Swift’s first foray into telling the stories of others. She’s done so adeptly since the beginning, with tracks like “Mary’s Song,””Love Story,” “Mine,” and “Starlight,” but in the past these have been the exception, not the rule.
As “the lines between fantasy and reality blur” throughout the rest of folklore, the feeling of looking directly into the singer’s life dissipates. Of course there are clear autobiographical moments, such as the gold “Invisible String,” but the obvious ones are fewer and farther between than ever before.
This point-of-view transfer was perhaps a greater risk for Swift than the album’s musical shift toward the alternative genre. Swifties have learned to trust her with any type of music she takes on. However, the fundamental change to the experience of being a Taylor Swift fan could be a much bigger deal.
Fortunately, like every major move Taylor Swift has attempted in her career, folklore has proven to be another win. And because of this risk, it could be the biggest win she’s gained yet.
Not only does folklore prove that she can take on pretty much any genre of music and make it her own in the most beautiful way, but it also solidifies that her star-power goes so far beyond the reputation she’s gained and the lovers who’ve imprinted on both her life and her lyrics.
Her talent has always transcended all of the other stuff, and now that it’s been stripped away, her fans are just as happy as ever. Many count the alternate POV songs as their favorites, just as mesmerized by Swift’s storytelling abilities when they start outside her. On top of that, folklore is on track to becoming her most critically acclaimed album yet!
Taylor Swift has evolved exponentially with her last few albums, and folklore seems, in a way, like a reset. The album proves that she has successfully broken free of the chains that were holding her in the reputation era, and it seems like she can really go anywhere from here. With the ability to tell equally inspiring stories about anyone and anything, it’s clear that there’s no limit to this woman’s creative potential. It feels like she’s unlocked the next level of the best video game ever, and a whole new world of opportunity awaits.
Just like Swift is clinging onto her piano for dear life in the “cardigan” music video, it’s abundantly clear that her music is what her fans hold to be most sacred. The fact that we loved her music seems obvious, but folklore feels like perspective. Like the album’s stepped back cover, directly contrasting the previous seven close-ups, folklore looks like seeing the forest through the trees.
And we really like what we see.