I don’t think I’m alone in feeling as though, in the past few months of lockdown, I’ve regressed into a version of myself as a surly, overemotional teen. Stuck inside with nowhere to go, I’ve been eating too much junk food and staring moodily out of windows and feeling bad about my body. (I’m also yet again under the delusion that getting a bunch of tattoos will solve all my problems.)
Into this sad, strange summer of adolescent redux comes Taylor Swift’s new surprise album, Folklore. I’ve been listening to it on repeat at my girlfriend’s house in the English countryside, but I could just as easily imagine bingeing the album on a portable CD player while lying spread-eagled in the front yard of my childhood home, wearing an oversize emo band hoodie and softly weeping. The writer Bolu Babalola tweeted that Folklore makes her feel like she’s in a One Tree Hill episode, a “super brooding CW teen soap heroine.” And honestly, what more could you ask for?
It’s not only that Swift has taken a folksier turn after spending many months teasing out the Target commercial singles dominating 2019’s Lover. (This new album’s somber, reflective mood is more a natural followup to Lover’s best songs, like “The Archer” and its titular track, which see her at her most poetic and personal, contrary to the saccharine universality of a bad pop ballad like “ME!”) Swift has long since incorporated fictional storylines into her music, but in Folklore, as she writes in the album’s notes, “the lines between fantasy and reality blur, and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.” There’s something about this dreamy worldbuilding that reminds me of the way I use to think and write when I was younger and chock-full of feelings, as well as chronically unsure of the future (the only thing that pandemic uncertainty reminds me of is my total inability, at 15, to imagine that high school would ever actually end). Without being able to live much of a life on my own terms, I had to write my way into one.
All this isn’t to say that Folklore is reductive or juvenile — nor is it, as Laura Snapes notes in her 5-star Guardian review, any more “authentic” for its toned-down earthy feel and lack of overproduced bops. Not only would that assumption be “facile,” Snapes writes, but “asserting some authentic self is also explicitly not her aim.” She quotes Swift on her intentional blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, and argues that “more interesting than parsing which [song] is which (many are obviously both) is the sense that Swift is interrogating her own self-conception and challenging that personal mythology: how helpful and true those ideas are to herself as a woman of 30.”
So much of Swift’s most potent work, ever since she was a teenager herself, has depicted just how intense and earth-shattering it feels, as a young person, to fall in love — with a boy, with a friend, with a song. Answering fan questions on YouTube upon the midnight release for the “Cardigan” music video, Swift explained that “the song is about a lost romance and why young love is often fixed so permanently within our memories, why it leaves such an indelible mark.” With Lana Del Rey–style ethereality and “ahh-ahh-ayes,” she sings on the lead single, “When you are young, they assume you know nothing / But I knew you.”
The album was largely produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, with some assists by longtime collaborator and “musical family” member Jack Antonoff, which accounts for the tear-jerk-y throughline. I expected to reach my weepiest levels with “Exile,” since it features king sadboy Bon Iver, but instead found myself overcome by “Invisible String,” with its pretty guitar-plucking reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. This song isn’t about lost loves, but a present one: “Isn't it just so pretty to think, all along, there was some invisible string tying you to me?”
My lesbian-heavy timeline is losing their minds over “Betty,” a tale of teenage crushes, that is bouncy with laid-back harmonica vibes; it’s very old-school, Fearless-era Taylor. Swift said she’s written songs from the perspective of different people, both real and fictional, and this one is apparently from the POV of a boy named James who regrets the way he treated his classmate Betty. #Kaylor truthers and other queer Swifties were quick to note that Swift was named after James Taylor, so might she really just be writing about herself? The song’s already been declared queer canon.
As someone who was 99.9% convinced that Swift was going to come out as something other than straight during the Lover era — and then got seriously burned — I’d like to think I’m over Taylor’s longtime queerbaiting. I really do think she’s guilty of it, subtle as she might be sometimes; she’s an infamously frequent Easter egg deployer who’s far too savvy about her own image-making to be completely unaware of how often she’s courted speculation about her sexuality from her representation-hungry young fans. I also somewhat soured on her after Miss Americana, the artist-approved documentary about the star that came out earlier this year. (How was that this year????) After what I thought was a strong and provocative first half, in which Swift wrestles with the implications of broadcasting her political opinions after years of frustrating silence, the film devolves into one-note pro-Taylor propaganda — revealing that, as she discloses early on, Swift is still just as obsessed with needing to be liked, to be seen as “good” (the very thing she embarked on the project to supposedly free herself from).
And yet, with Folklore, I find myself not-so-begrudgingly taking on the mantle of Swift stan once again. This woman has weathered — and instigated — over a decade’s worth of page-one celebrity drama; she’s become an avatar for the perils of White Feminism; she’s a political disappointment turned sudden Democratic crusader. No matter what else she is, though, Swift’s really, really good at her job, boiled down to its most essential elements. In isolation, alone with a paper and a pen and a guitar, she’s yet again written some fucking great songs.
My favorite track has probably got to be “Mirrorball,” a classic Antonoff number and very modern-indie-girl, perfect for drunkenly slow-dancing with your friends at the end of a long night. (Remember when we could do things like that?) Though my first couple listens I definitely thought that she was singing about being on her toilet spinning on her highest heels (she’s on her “tallest tiptoes,” actually), I was still captivated by the lyrics, especially during the bridge: “I’m still a believer, but I don’t know why / I’ve never been a natural — all I do is try, try, try / I’m still on that trapeze / I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me.” Perhaps this is Swift admitting that she never really rose above the need to be liked after all (“I can change everything about me to fit in”). And how could she have? To be an artist sharing her work with the world is to crave something from her audience, whether connection or admiration or absolution.
“I know they said the end is near,” Swift sings on “Mirrorball.” But she’s still singing, still dancing, “shining just for you.” I’m grateful for it. ●