On July 23, 2020, American singer Taylor Swift surprised the world by announcing that she was releasing her 8th studio album the following day, accompanied by the first single of the album “cardigan” and its music video. This was a complete shock to her millions of fans around the world, as she is known for her elaborated marketing strategies, starting every “era” (meaning the time span between the release of an album and the following one, generally characterised by certain colours, clothes and moods) with hints, one or two singles, and clues in the music videos. Furthermore, the “Lover era” hadn’t even lasted a year: Swift’s 7th album came out on August 23, 2019 and it hasn’t had the chance to have its own tour (the Lover Fest) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It seems like the cancellation of the Lover tour didn’t stop Swift, and she got to work during quarantine. Out of her time in self-isolation came “folklore”, which was released on July 24 and sold the equivalent of 846,000 sales in the United States. “cardigan” the album’s first single, also debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and as of August 25, the music video has 54 millions views. Additionally, she released a lyric video for each song on her official Youtube channel, with the least viewed one being “the lakes” (2.4 millions, although this one was posted on August 18 because it was an extra track) and the most viewed one being “exile” feat. Bon Iver (22.1 millions).
The album consists of 16 songs + the extra track, and Metacritic showcases its score as 88/100 by the critic reviews and 9.4 by the users. It has been highly praised in the media and social media. Many people point out that this is one of her most lyrical albums, as she gets away from the explosive energy of “1989,” “Reputation,” and “Lover,” and she seems to go back to basics with rhythms one could perfectly find in her early albums like “Fearless”, “Speak Now” or “Red”. Moreover, it’s one of the few times Swift hasn’t written about her personal experience too deeply. As she explained to her fans while they waited for the release, this album tells stories that might be found in the plot of a book, as they are not fully her own, but narratives she came up with. There are different points of view and different stories, and as she herself declared on the album announcement, “The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible”. The complete track-list of “folklore” is the following:
- the 1
- the last great american dynasty
- exile (feat. Bon Iver)
- my tears ricochet
- this is me trying
- illicit affairs
- invisible string
- mad woman
- Extra track – the lakes
I will go into a deeper review of some of the songs in the following paragraphs. Please note that this is my personal view and it’s not a general opinion from Zenerations nor the only possible explanation/feelings towards the album! The beauty of music, especially Swift’s, comes from the variety of opinions and interpretations.
The main narrative in this album is the “Teenage Love Triangle” between three characters: Betty, James, and James’s lover whose name is never stated (some people believe it’s Inez because of the lyric “you heard the rumors from Inez” in the song “betty”, but it seems more likely that Inez is just a friend of Betty). The story between these three is a classic one: James and Betty were dating, but in a summer fling, James cheated on Betty. This plot is developed through three songs, each one from the perspective of each character. We get the first approach in “cardigan,” which would be the story from Betty’s perspective, where she tells how she felt worthless after her boy went out with other girl but in the end came back to her.
The second point of view we get is the lover’s one in “August,” where she narrates how she had a summer affair with someone but it couldn’t continue once school started again. This song is my second favourite from this album. Swift did a great job with the rhythm, the lyrics, and the instruments. It’s one of the tunes that stands out the most both because of the beautiful melody and the emotional story.
The third and final version is James’s, which can be heard in “betty,” my personal favourite song from the album. The melody is incredibly heart-warming and charming, the harmonica sounds take you right back to her first songs in “Taylor Swift,” and the lyrics are heart-felt and innocent, creating an atmosphere of a “Grease,” type of scenario.
A curious detail of this song is that James and Inez, two of the three names that appear on it, are the names of the daughters of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, who are close friends with Swift. They had a third daughter in 2019 whose name hasn’t been revealed, which has led people to speculate that maybe the baby’s name is Betty.
Before moving to other songs, I would like to link an incredible post that connects not only these three songs but every song on the album to the story of Betty, James and the girl. It seems less likely that these are all true since Swift herself explained the meaning of other songs and didn’t link them to this narrative, but at the same time it’s very well built and logical – https://www.reddit.com/r/TaylorSwift/comments/hx3pcr/my_interpretation_of_the_overarching_plot_of/
Moving on from the love triangle, “folklore” has many other incredible songs. It starts off with “the 1”, which refers to those endless “what ifs” of what a relationship could have been. The third track, “the last great american dynasty,” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, patron of the arts and founder of the Rebekah Harkness Foundation, and previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island mansion “Holiday House”. In the song, Swift draws a subtle comparison between her and Rebekah: the latter was known for her eccentric lifestyle alongside her husband, William (Bill) Hale Harkness. When he died, everyone blamed it on her and she was the target of harsh criticism for ruining “the last great American dynasty” (Bill was the heir of Standard Oil, an American corporation). She ran away to live a quiet life, and this is when Swift says she is also “the maddest woman this town has ever seen,” because she also had to endure the brutal hate campaign against her and decided to step back from her high profile life. On the other hand, “exile,” which she sings with Bon Iver, is also one of my favourites from this album, and it narrates the situation where two ex-lovers meet again in a crowded room. They both sing from their respective points of view, having a metaphorical conversation in which they both share their side of the story on how things ended. “my tears ricochet” has also become a fan-favourite, and Swift explained that this was the first song she wrote for the album. She wrote it by herself and it’s about a toxic person showing up at the funeral of his dead ex-lover.
Even though this album is not purely based on her life, fans have been able to link some songs. “this is me trying,” for example, seems to follow the feelings she showcased in Lover’s “Afterglow” about making an effort to repair the issues she caused in a relationship. Other songs dedicated to her relationship are, as I see it, “invisible string” and “peace,” the former saying that she and Joe were connected all along, and the latter speculating whether he will stay by her side despite the troubles her fame might cause him. “mad woman,” is another powerful track, which brings back this term she first mentioned in “the last great american dynasty,” and that is especially connected to her battles with Scooter Braun, Scott Borchetta and everyone who tried to tear her down. She sings about how everyone threw rocks at her and then were surprised she clapped back.
Other songs that might be connected to her personal life might be “mirrorball” (about trying to reflect people’s personalities and entertain them), “epiphany” (which she said touches on her grandfather’s experience in the military) and “hoax” (about enduring a toxic relationship, many fans have speculated that it might also be about her problems with her former record company). Lastly, “seven” (where Swift talks about her childhood friend) and “illicit affairs” (which could be about someone cheating on her in the past) were the two least memorable for me. I didn’t connect with them the way I did with the others, but they are still great songs. My final top 5 would be:
- the 1
- the last great american dynasty
One last interesting aspect of this album is that many fans (myself included) think that Joe Alwyn co-wrote two songs with her. In the album announcement, Swift said that a man called William Bowery co-wrote “exile” and “betty” with her, but when that name is searched on the Internet, no biography or song writing credits show up. Even though many names have surfaced as possible people William Bowery is a pseudonym for (Lorde, Joni Mitchell and even Swift’s brother Austin), Joe seems to be the most likely option, since his great-grandfather’s name was William and one of the couple’s first dates was at a Kings of Leon’s after-party at the Bowery Hotel.
All in all, this new album reassures Swift’s presence as one of the greatest artists of our generation, and proves that she is here to stay. Vastly different from the mainstream pop melodies from her previous three albums, she goes back to her roots in an alternative production that shows one more time her capability to reinvent herself, pour her whole soul into her writing, and achieve the same success she would if the world was in a normal situation.
listen to folklore
Bea is a rising Junior in the Autonomous University of Madrid, studying to be a teacher. Her dream job would be working for education institutions and promoting change in order to achieve a feminist education. She is specially focused on amplifying the historical women whose time silenced. She would also like to work on interculturality and inclusion in education, as she believes an educative system with those values will lead to social change. In her free time she enjoys watching TV Shows, movies, listening to music and dancing.
Sisario, B. (Aug. 3, 2020). Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ Is No. 1 With a Blockbuster Debut Week. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/arts/music/taylor-swift-folklore-billboard-chart.html
Metacritic. (2020). Folklore by Taylor Swift. Retrieved on August 25 from https://www.metacritic.com/music/folklore/taylor-swift