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Corporate Pop or Heartfelt Folk: A New Look at Swift’s Folklore

Taylor Swift’s most recent album Folklore has been met with enthusiastic and vociferous acclaim. The Guardian saw fit to award it five stars and praised its emotional acuity. It took BuzzFeed all of four days to put together a quiz assigning each viewer’s personality a song from the album. Even the Financial Times set aside its share prices and quarterly reports to gush about Folklore judged by the gushing reviewer to be glorious. 

Taylor must have looked askance at her rivals and their universally exquisite lockdown albums. First, we had Dua Lipa and ‘Future Nostalgia’, then Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, hotly pursued by – a welcome blast from a distant past – Lady Gaga. Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher – exquisite in a different way – only made matters worse. Being shut inside seems to have triggered an upswell of creative energy – at least for those of us with expansive mansions and butlers a plenty. 

Taylor actually uses Folklore to brag about one of those mansions, by the way.  A delightful break from the gratuitous and rather sickening self-pity with which she occupied herself on the album Reputation, I suspect the song ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ – concerned with the strange and epigonal life of Rebekah Harkness – is the first song in Taylor’s discography which is not ostensibly about Taylor Swift. I challenge readers to demonstrate otherwise. This track tells the story of an oil heiress by marriage and her squandering an inheritance on pleasures of the flesh. A whimsy and rather engaging, production, Anthony Fantano, the internet’s busiest music nerd, actually compared Swift’s lyricism here to the work of the indie underground’s longtime lodestar, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, which is a little presumptuous. I have been listening to the Mountain Goats for nearly a decade and this track is a dim and flitting shadow of anything Darnielle would have put out, but it is a shadow, and that, for Taylor, is progress. 

It is at this point in the review that we need to put a pernicious myth to bed. Many – including such bastions of the western literati as The New Yorker and even the BBC – have seen fit to describe this album as an indie record. What a patently ridiculous suggestion. Indie stands for independent. Taylor Swift is worth an estimated $360 million, with properties to her name from Nashville to New York and a fresh documentary on Netflix. Nothing about her brand or music is even remotely independent – it represents a vast leviathan of sharp-eyed marketing and artisan production. 

But it is fair to say that Folklore takes incidental inspiration from various staples of the alternative scene. The album’s fourth song features Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver, and the record was produced by Aaron Dessner, of the National. It does them justice, as well. The songs on Folklore – all 16 of them – are all in some sense likable, and the record in the main is charming and – at points – emotionally affective. It is inappropriate – as some have done – to judge Folklore by the standards of the indie tones to which it perhaps aspires. For all her emotional sensitivities and low-fi guitar tracks, Taylor Swift is still in the business of pop music and there is no escaping a genre and sound you have in part created. The drama of a real left-turn for Taylor still awaits us. 

Taylor Swift has a long and meandering discography, stretching from the faux-country of Fearless and Speak Now, to the glittering pop of 1989 and the floral ballads of last-year’s Lover. What has united her oeuvre – up until now, at least – is a confessional impulse, a drive to illustrate her story with flights of melodrama and despair. She seems to have given up that beloved first person on Folklore – in the main, at least – and is exploring taller tales of war, wealth, ghosts and the lives of others. It works –  for me at least – but we should remind ourselves that Swift’s music has always been an elaborate fiction. The music on Folklore – and perhaps this is latent in her title choice – acknowledges its deceit and does not bury it. It would be wrong to devalue Taylor’s music – or indeed the music of any other artist – because it does not meaningfully originate from the tranches of her memory or experience. Folk tales and fairy stories – inspirations, perhaps, for some of this album – hide deep truths about life within the folds of their imagistic narration. 

And it would also be wrong to see in Taylor’s earlier work any greater authenticity. She was never a country darling – the daughter of a New York stock-broker, she grew up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, a long way off from the Midwest flatlands and Appalachian forests of Tennessee. All of Taylor’s work has been pastiche, of sorts. But seldom any music can truly be confessional, and certainly not music designed to sell. For what it is – a pop album – Folklore is well-produced, well-written and – above all, perhaps – mature. Finally granted the confidence to step out of herself, Taylor Swift has grown up at last, and who knows what she will do next.