Released with no pre-promotion, Taylor Swift’s latest album had the largest weekly sales and streaming figures of the year instagram/taylorswift

Normally before a Taylor Swift album release, there are weeks and weeks of build-up, from cryptic clues on her Instagram, hidden references to the number 13, and the ever-coveted secret listening parties for a small group of her fans. So when folklore was dropped with none of this fanfare, you knew it was going to be different.

The album is, at its core, Swift through and through: songs full of love, heartbreak and storytelling; fast-paced bridges used as emotional high points; and the occasional clichéd key change. Her love for somewhat contrived rhymes remains (rhyming ‘Inez’ with ‘she says’, or ‘cardigan’ with ‘car again’ spring to mind as the most audacious). The imagery used is familiar – high school romances, the colour blue, driving, forbidden love, American dreams, and an almost inescapable sense of nostalgia. Songs like ‘betty’ and ‘seven’ are reminiscent of 2008’s Fearless while ‘mad woman’ or ‘illicit affairs’ wouldn’t be out of place on 2017’s Reputation. If anything, folklore seems to tie together the many different genres Swift has experimented with over the years.

But it is also a marked difference from her previous work. Something about this album makes it clear that it was written during lockdown. It is an ode to escapism, moving away from Swift’s own life to a more expansive work that tells the stories of many very different people, from high-schoolers in love, to a WW2 soldier, to 1940s socialite Rebekah Harkness, almost as though Swift is trying to form connections to people in a new way.

“Swift expresses the feelings lockdown has brought about, while maintaining some distance from the subject itself"

There are huge parallels between all these stories and the current world we live in. The loneliness felt by a rejected teenager is an emotion many of us have felt over the last few months, barred from seeing loved ones. At first listen, these lines from ‘epiphany’ (a song about a WW2 soldier), ‘With you I serve, with you I fall down, down / Watch you breathe in, watch you breathing out, out’, can just as easily be applied to the current pandemic as to a war. Through these stories, Swift expresses the feelings lockdown has brought about, while maintaining some distance from the subject itself. Perhaps it was too soon for Swift to write about coronavirus, or perhaps she wanted to write music that would have resonance beyond 2020.

Her ability to convey such a complex variety of emotions, accompanied by some truly beautiful music, makes it a masterpiece, well deserving of the critical acclaim it is receiving. I have listened to it on repeat since the release; I have cried multiple times.

However, I can’t help but wonder why this album appeals to more people than Swift’s usual work, or why critics seem to favour it. Musically, the album definitely fits more into an indie genre, although what that word means when describing one of the most famous musicians in the world is uncertain. Producer Aaron Dessner, founding member of indie rock band The National, helped Swift create more stripped back instrumentals, relying heavily on sparse piano parts and atmospheric synths.

“Folklore certainly has great emotional maturity, but I would argue that this has always been present in Swift’s discography”

I wonder if people are taking this album more seriously just because it isn’t pop music, a genre often scorned for being shallow and meaningless and, by no coincidence, a genre often aimed at younger women. Folklore certainly has great emotional maturity, but I would argue that this has always been present in Swift’s discography; it has perhaps been overlooked due to more poppy production (‘Clean’ from 1989, or ‘Delicate’ from Reputation are some examples I would argue have as much emotional impact as anything on folklore, just cloaked in drum tracks and keyboards).

There is also a sense that, as an album not really focused on Swift’s personal life, it has more value than her previous works. Swift has often been dismissed for only writing about romantic relationships and break-ups, yet male artists do this all the time and are praised for it. When Swift writes about a boy, she is called ‘clingy’ or ‘boy-crazy’, but when Harry Styles does the same thing about a girl, he is praised for ‘vulnerability’ and ‘being in touch with his emotions’. Why is it that men can sing freely about love, but when Swift does so, it’s 'cringey' and subject to criticism?


Mountain View

The complexity of Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Misogyny has plagued Swift throughout her career, from constant speculations in the media about her relationship status, to comments on her body shape and appearance. Early in her career, following a Grammy award for Fearless, Swift was accused of not actually contributing to the writing and production of her own music; in response, she wrote and produced her next album entirely by herself. And still Kanye West claims he ‘made that bitch famous’. Swift is not usually taken seriously, seen as a pop star for hormonal teenage girls, not a real musician in her own right.

Folklore challenges this perception, allowing her to place herself as a serious songwriter. While I am glad she is now receiving the praise she deserves, I find it frustrating that she could not have achieved this by sticking to her previous pop sound, simply because pop music is seen as girly and not always taken seriously. It’s not that I’m not happy for her experimentation with genre – it seems like she genuinely enjoyed this different style of music, and I love how soothing it all sounds – but, as someone who is a huge fan of all her work (yes, even the country stuff), it saddens me that it took such a diversion from her usual style and subject matter to be appreciated.