Taylor Swift's Folklore: Reflections In Isolation

By: Aliza Leichter  |  August 7, 2020

By Aliza Leichter, Social Media Manager

In Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the lead single from her 2012 “Red” album, Swift recounts her ex-boyfriend listening to “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Eight years and four albums later, Swift has released her own indie album, “folklore” (stylized in all lowercase). Unlike previous album rollouts, such as “reputation’s” cryptic snake videos uploaded to social media and “Lover’s” “easter eggs” found everywhere from interviews to music videos, “folklore” was announced on social media hours before its release — an apropos announcement for an album created during unforeseen times. 

Sonically, “folklore” differs from the rest of Swift’s discography, which consists almost entirely of upbeat, radio-friendly songs. “Folklore” feels melancholy with nostalgic songs like “the last great american dynasty” and “seven” becoming tinged in sadness when juxtaposed with “my tears ricochet.” Listeners of older albums such as “Red” and 2010’s “Speak Now” will recognize Swift’s lyrics sound like they’ve been ripped from the pages of her diary. Replacing the heavy synthesizers and layered vocals found in Swift’s crossover to pop, “1989,” and “Lover,” “folklore” is composed with moody strings, mellow acoustics, and soft pianos. The lo-fi production recalls “reputation’s” final track, “New Year’s Day,” which producer Jack Antonoff wanted to “sound like itself” rather than “the perfect tune”; Antonoff wrote five of the sixteen songs on “folklore” with Swift.

“Folklore” is an album of storytelling, of past regrets and “what-ifs.” On the opener, “the 1,” Swift reflects on past relationships and how they could have turned out (“But it would’ve been fun / if you would’ve been the one”). In the same vein, on “Lover’s” “I Forgot That You Existed,” Swift claims to have forgotten about her exes despite having written a song about them. This is Swift’s way of acknowledging that it’s impossible to ever forget someone; past relationships permanently etch themselves in our memories, where doubts sometimes overshadow relief. These doubts surface in “hoax,” a bleak, haunting song, in which the narrator is hesitant to leave a toxic partner, knowing that subsequent relationships may not be better (“Stood on the cliffside screaming, ‘give me a reason’ / Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in”). 

In Swift’s first release of her thirties, her maturity is reflected in her lyrics. “This is me trying” is reminiscent of “Red’s” “Back to December,” a track apologizing for how she ended a relationship. “This is me trying” paints a much darker picture, filled with intrusive thoughts (“Pulled the car off the road to the lookout, / could’ve followed my fears all the way down”) and a dependency on alcohol to cope with mental health struggles (“They told me all of my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential”). Swift recalls a time when she “didn’t pour the whiskey,” though she may have been tempted to. What makes these honest, uncomfortable lyrics so important is that by publicly sharing her struggles, Swift normalizes topics that people are afraid to speak of. 

“Only twenty minutes to sleep / but you dream of some epiphany / Just one single glimpse of relief / to make some sense of what you’ve seen,” Swift sings in “epiphany,” a song about her grandfather, Dean, landing at the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. These lyrics are an uncanny parallel to the experience of frontline workers during COVID-19. Swift references the difficulty in opening up conservations about mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder (“some things you just can’t speak about”), as both are topics not everyone can relate to. 

Amid heavy themes, Swift intersperses light moments in “invisible strings” (“Bold was the waitress on our three-year trip / getting lunch down by the lakes / She said I looked like an American singer”) and eccentricity in “the last great american dynasty” (“She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green”). The latter tells the intriguing story of Rebekah Harkness, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, who once scrubbed her pool with Dom Perignon. 

The word “folklore” refers to an “often unsupported notion, story, or saying that is widely circulated,” but in Swift’s album of “fantasy, history, and memory,” her stories transcend their origins — “folklore’s” lyrics become instances of looking beyond the mundanities of isolation, and instead at humor and compassion drawn from dark chapters.