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Stolen lullabies, illicit affairs: sound and storytelling in Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

<h6>Inci Karaaslan / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Inci Karaaslan / The Daily Princetonian

Released in July, Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album, “folklore,” surprised music fans worldwide. Her seventh studio album, “Lover,” had dropped less than a year before, and few anticipated that she would co-write and co-produce a 16-track (17, if you count the song “the lakes” from the deluxe version) album in only 11 months.

Even fewer expected that a surprise album — with no prior promotion or Swift’s signature “Easter eggs” — would perform so well on the charts. In its first week of release, “folklore” sold over 615,000 copies and claimed the number one spot on Billboard’s 200 chart. And today, 16 weeks after its initial release, “folklore” still remains on top of the Billboard 200, in addition to selling more than 1 million copies to date.

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Perhaps more surprising was not the fact that Swift wrote such a successful album in such a short amount of time, but that the album radically departed from her original upbeat sound. Blending mellow tunes with slower tempos, “folklore” is layered with quiet pianos, guitars, and strings, manifesting an indie sound that contrasts starkly with Swift’s previous pop-driven albums such as “1989.

As someone who has always preferred softer, more subdued songs, this change was a pleasant surprise. While I have always appreciated Swift’s music, I was never a huge “Swiftie” because her pop sound was never really my thing. Of course, that does not mean that I thought her pop songs were “bad”; in fact, one of my favorite Swift songs is “New Romantics,” an upbeat, fast-paced pop song featured on the deluxe version of “1989.”

Moreover, not all of Swift’s music has been pop-oriented: she’s released country albums such as “Fearless” and even R&B-influenced albums such as “reputation.” And throughout all of her albums — starting as early as her debut album, “Taylor Swift,” through “Lover” — Swift has consistently supplied softer ballads that have always leaned towards the indie and folk genres. But these sounds have never defined any of her albums; they were never at the core of her work.

In “folklore,” however, this mellow sound I enjoy is at the center of her album, so — naturally — it immediately became my favorite Swift album as soon as I finished listening to it. Inevitably, then, most indie/alternative fans will also find this album enjoyable — even if they may not have enjoyed Swift’s previous sound, as I did.

Even if you don’t typically listen to indie/alternative music, however, “folklore” is still a worthwhile listen. In fact, it’s a magnificent album for anyone who simply enjoys thought-provoking, well-crafted music.

One thing that I’ve especially admired about Swift’s music is her consistent songwriting, and I was especially impressed by her lyrical prowess on this album. In “folklore,” Swift’s writing is even more elegant and mature (which I didn’t even know was possible) than before, and it is especially refreshing compared to the songwriting on other, more mainstream songs.

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For example, on “peace,” Swift sings that although she may never be able to give her lover a quiet life due to the constant media attention she attracts, she can “give you the silence that only comes when two people understand each other / Family that I chose, now that I see your brother as my brother.” In just a few words, Swift conceptualizes a complex, visceral feeling that most people (including myself) struggle to find the words for — and that’s something special that a lot of other songs nowadays don’t do.

In fact, while I am not claiming that all other artists are bad songwriters, it’s undeniable that most of the “popular” songs featured on the radio don’t really have great lyrics and do not attempt to conceptualize complex emotions like Swift does on “peace.” Instead, most “popular” songs are either repetitive or cliche; sometimes, they simply don’t make sense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that a great song needs to have Woolfian prose or tell a story as elaborate as “Anna Karenina”; I agree with many people that a lot of the best songs don’t have any lyrics at all. (Take classical music, for example: I love listening to Franz Liszt, a Hungarian composer and pianist, and none of his piano songs have words in them.)

And I also agree that simply just sounding good — having a good beat, a catchy rhythm, and a nice melody — should be one of the focal points of creating music. But when music not only sounds good, but also tells a meaningful, interesting story, that’s when it ascends to a whole other level. And that’s exactly what “folklore” does. Besides sounding beautiful, “folklore” also tells a story that makes us think.

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For example, throughout the album, Swift chronicles what she has confirmed as the “Teenage Love Triangle” story. Most theories pose that the three tracks, “cardigan,” “betty,” and “august,” tell this story. Each song tells the story from a different person’s point of view in the love triangle: “cardigan” is told from the point of view of Betty, who describes how her boyfriend, James, cheated on her; “august” is told from the perspective of the unnamed woman James cheated on Betty with; and “betty” is told from the perspective of James, who is attempting to reconcile with Betty.

In my interpretation, other songs in the album, such as “mad woman,” also fit in the narrative arc of the “Teenage Love Triangle” story. Delineating a secret romance full of “clandestine meetings,” the song “illicit affairs” could be sung from the perspective of the woman whom James cheated with. Furthermore, “hoax,” sung from the perspective of someone attempting to hang onto a toxic love, could also be told from the perspective of Betty, who may still have feelings for James. A song reflecting on losing someone who seemed like the “perfect fit,” “the 1” could also reflect Betty’s disillusionment of James after he cheated on her.

Besides the many “fictional” songs on this album, there are also many songs that seem to reflect Swift’s personal life and career; usually, Swift centers her albums around her personal experiences, but on “folklore,” she mixes fiction with reality. Singing about how she can “change everything about [herself] to fit in,” Swift may have written the song “mirrorball” about how she has continuously reinvented herself throughout her musical career: from country girl-next-door to America’s sweetheart to the “new” Taylor (as seen in her “reputation” era) to a folk singer.

Furthermore, the lyric, “you hear my stolen lullabies” in the song “my tears ricochet” could easily refer to her feud with Big Machine Records as she was recording the album; since they owned the masters, the official recordings of her songs, to all of her previous work from “Taylor Swift” to “reputation,” Big Machine Records prevented her from performing her “stolen lullabies” — her old songs.

Sung from the point of view of a woman cast out unfairly by her town, “mad woman” could easily refer to Swift’s 2016 feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, in which she found herself in a “narrative” she never wanted to be in. “mad woman” could also refer to all the times Swift has endured the music industry’s sexist remarks for her “anger”:  as she addressed in her “CBS Sunday Morning” interview in August 2019,  “A man is allowed to react. A woman can only overreact.”

And in “the last great american dynasty,” Swift likens herself to Rebekah West Harkness, a famous St. Louis heiress of the twentieth century, as they both faced intense media scrutiny.

Besides the different stories that Swift crafts through this album, there is also space for us, as the audience, to project our own narratives onto her songs. In other words, while Swift sings about the “Teenage Love Triangle” and her personal life and music career, we can see ourselves in her music as well. For me, the song, “invisible string,” prompted me to reflect on my own life. As this song elucidates how Swift’s past romantic relationships and failures have led her to someone she really loves, I began to reflect on the “invisible strings” in my own life, how certain events in my life have specifically led to where I am today.

On “seven,” Swift reminisces about childhood and how one of her friends seemed to struggle with an unhappy home life: to this friend, she sings, “and though I can’t recall your face / I still got love for you.” Though my experiences are not analogous with Swift’s, this song made me think about all the friends I made when I was a very young child (particularly when I was four or five years old) but fell out of contact with, all those faces “I can’t recall,” but still care about.

Many of them moved away — some as far away as Hong Kong — and some I haven’t talked to in 12 or more years, but I still remember all the fun times we had together. And upon listening to “epiphany,” which delineates one’s attempt to find peace and solace especially in such a chaotic and disorganized world, I reflected on the tumult of 2020. 

Listening to “folklore” made me not only marvel at Swift’s masterful lyricism and her own narratives and stories but also reflect on my own life. It brought me to places that I’ve never been and made me re-experience some memories that I thought I had forgotten. It made me feel emotions that I haven’t felt in a long time, and it made me think about who I am today.

These memories aren’t stirred by every album — but they surely are by “folklore.”

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