On July 23, Taylor Swift saved 2020 with a single Instagram post. Well, more of a series of Instagram posts that culminated in the surprise release of “folklore,” her eighth studio album, but the sentiment still stands. This release is different for Swift in more ways than one, whose attention to detail and complete mastery of social media, copyright and streaming services have cemented her status as a genius businesswoman. Swift is meticulous, which she acknowledges in the announcement post.
“Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time,” she writes. “But the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.”
Though surprises are not part of her routine, Swift is no stranger to versatility. She got her start in the country genre with twangy, guitar-heavy ballads, then made the official switch to pop with her 2014 album “1989.” Her sound has always been varied, but never quite like this. An entire album of stripped down tracks that are more reminiscent of the indie and alternative genres is brand new for Swift — and as it turns out, entirely needed.
Less than a year ago, Swift released “Lover,” an album best characterized by its cover art. “Lover” is bright, dreamy and undeniably pop. Two tracks of particular earworm status are singles “You Need to Calm Down” and “ME!” Her previous release was certainly successful and marked by her characteristic lyrical talent, but now, it comes off as almost childish in comparison to “folklore.” With her eighth album, Swift is showing the world that she’s a grown woman, fully embracing that identity.
The new maturity of “folklore” is clear from the very first line of the very first track, “the 1.” The opener of the album is “I’m doing good, I’m on some new s—t.” This is Swift’s first album with a parental guidance label for explicit language, and opening “folklore” swearing establishes that the album is quite literally adult. The fact that the curse comes in a line about something new, something good, secures its significance — this is an unapologetically grown-up Taylor.
Though “folklore” is a new note for Swift, the songs are still characterized by her storytelling. Swift delicately weaves stories through consistent details in her lyricism. The second song on the album, “cardigan” draws comparison to Lana Del Rey’s wispy stylings, slow and deliberate and full of tangible images — the namesake cardigan, the contrast between a vintage tee shirt and a brand new phone, high heels teetering on a cobblestone road. These images appear again on “betty” in the lines “I was walking home on broken cobblestones” and “standin’ in your cardigan,” linking the two tracks telling the same story.
The apparently fictional narrative in “cardigan” and “betty” juxtaposes with other stand-out tracks on “folklore,” namely “the last greatest american dynasty” and “mad woman.” These songs are rooted in a blend of personal and general history. In “the last greatest american dynasty,” Swift explores the life of a woman named Rebekah, who, to put it simply, is a total badass. Rebekah is under constant scrutiny in the song. When she marries rich, Swift sings, “And the town said, 'How did a middle-class divorcee do it?''” When her husband dies, the blame gets shifted to Rebekah. “The doctor had told him to settle down / It must have been her fault his heart gave out.” The judgement is cemented in the chorus, where Swift sings, “There goes the last greatest American dynasty / Who knows, if she never showed up what could’ve been.” The chorus varies, referring to Rebekah as mad and shameless, but ends the same way — “She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
Rebekah was a real person. She married William Harkness, the heir to the Standard Oil company and lived like there was no tomorrow, actually doing the crazy things Swift writes about — including swimming in champagne and dying her neighbor’s dog green. In fact, she lived in the Rhode Island mansion Swift would eventually purchase. Through this song, Swift reaches out to the woman who owned her house previously. She forges a connection between the two of them, and it really comes as no surprise.
Entertainment media has consistently focused on Taylor Swift’s romantic relationships with men. Meme-makers and talk show hosts warn young men — “she’ll just write a song about you!” In a way, Swift has been criticized for the same thing Rebekah was — using men for money and having some sort of poisonous effect on them. This mockery of Swift is not harmless. It is a product of a culture rooted in sexism and slut-shaming. Taylor Swift is not a black widow. She is a woman who dated several people throughout her teens and twenties. And she had the audacity to use her creative works as an outlet. Moreso, she had the audacity to make money from it.
This romantic, personal and heavily criticized Taylor came to be known as “the old Taylor” after the release of single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” off her 2017 album “reputation.” The single is widely interpreted as being about the effects of the feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. West called Swift a b—h in his song “Famous,” Swift says she did not consent to that, Kardashian released a video where Swift said she loved the verse and Swift was cancelled.
In the single, Swift says, “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, cause’ she’s dead!” The new Taylor loudly and rightfully rejected the criticisms she faced. She spoke out and claimed her space despite the negative attention, and it was ultimately revealed earlier this year that West and Kardashian fabricated the particularly damning part of the video that supposedly exposed Swift as a liar. The equivalent of “Look What You Made Me Do” on “folklore” is the song “mad woman.” “No one likes a mad woman,” Swift sings, asking the listener from the onset, “What did you think I’d say to that? / Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?” She refers to a woman, more specifically, a wife, being complicit in the creation of a mad woman.
On “folklore,” Swift combines the love songs of the old Taylor with the unabashed freedom of the new Taylor. She refuses to be reduced, saying yes to both sides of her. Yes, Swift is powerful and emotional. Yes, Swift writes songs about herself. She is also a creative mind capable of crafting narratives from nothing. “folklore” is more than a fantastic album from an established icon. Its stripped-back nature reveals a Taylor focused on herself and on showing off her chops, without regards for the boundaries of genre or perception. It demands that we free Taylor Swift from the assumptions that have plagued her whole career, and finally appreciate each and every identity she holds.