Let's Talk About Taylor Swift's 'Folklore'

Originally published on July 29, 2020 5:18 am

Taylor Swift was supposed to spend this summer touring songs from Lover, the album she put out last August. Instead, like many of us, she wound up cooped up at home. The isolation seems to have sparked her creativity, leading her to write and record an entirely new record in collaboration with producers Jack Antonoff and The National's Aaron Dessner. Folklore is a big left turn in style and subject matter; it also has already earned Swift some of the best reviews of her career.

It's hard to overstate the number of surprises involved here. Swift is usually extremely deliberate in how she schedules her music, but no one saw Folklore coming. The album was announced less than 24 hours before its release on Friday. And then there's the music itself, which sets words sung from a new range of perspectives against lush acoustic arrangements that evoke folk music and chamber pop.

To process it all, NPR Music's Ann Powers and Lyndsey McKenna joined Stephen Thompson for a roundtable discussion on Pop Culture Happy Hour. Read their conversation below (and watch your podcast feed for the full episode, coming later this week).


Ann Powers: We have to talk about Folklore not only in terms of artistry, but also in terms of Taylor Swift's career. She is 30 years old. She has been a superstar since she was a teenager. She's done the pop thing to the absolute ultimate. And she's trying to figure out, you know, how to continue what has been a remarkable and in some ways almost unprecedented run — eight albums with arguably no dip in popularity. Yes, Reputation, some people had issues with it, but it was still a massive seller and massive subject of conversation. And here she is at a place where very few pop artists ever get — so how does she make a turn, become more innovative, maybe and explore different aspects of herself? I think she has done it beautifully, and more seamlessly than a lot of people are giving her credit for. There are definitely connections between this record and Lover; she was already exploring this territory in a way. So I see this record as a continuum, not an abrupt about-face.

Lyndsey McKenna: I think that this is her most even album. Across her discography, Taylor's always had singles that aren't reflective of the record [they come from], that just do not really lend to her artistic abilities or represent who she is. Here, I think you've got a really even record that is so reflective of where she's at in her career. The songwriting's front and center. It's called Folklore, and I think at its core, it's really a record about stories and the way that we tell them to ourselves and to others.

I couldn't believe the idea that she was working with Aaron Dessner, who is sort of the sonic mastermind behind so much of the production of The National. If you look at the cover of 2017's Sleep Well Beast, that's his studio, and that's where so much of the tinkering for Folklore happened. He co-produced or co-wrote 11 of the tracks here, and he kind of brought in his cohort of collaborators who work with The National. For Taylor, a lot of people were blown away by that — like, "Since when did she pay attention to this band? This scene?" But she's actually had a long history of paying attention to them. She's added them to her playlists. She saw them at Saturday Night Live back in 2014, according to an interview with Pitchfork that Aaron Dessner gave. She went to their Prospect Park show last summer. Whether or not that's bled into her work previously, that's up for debate. But I think here it's very clear that she's applying that palette that he's so known for. The way that his production works on "Invisible String" is a really compelling fit for her voice: she's using that speak-song style, and the way that the instruments loop is really reflective of what he does on National records and on a lot of stuff that he produces. It just is such a natural marriage.

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Stephen Thompson: Taylor Swift is an artist I've often kind of appreciated more than loved. I think she's always had pretty remarkable songwriting talent. I've been impressed with her ability to navigate the worlds of country and pop — being successful in both of those fields is very, very hard. I've always been impressed with her artistry. But as a persona, I have found her frustrating. I think of her as somebody who is extremely self-conscious without being self-aware, and I think that came through the most with Reputation, which felt to me like this album that was about being Taylor Swift. And that's not what I'm interested in as a listener and as a consumer — like, you are now singing about what is like to be you instead of reminding listeners what it's like to be them.

I listened to this album and then watched her Netflix movie Miss Americana, which is this documentary about where Taylor Swift was at in her career around the time she was making Lover. And as I was watching I felt for the first time like, "Oh, I get her." She is somebody who is deeply, deeply affected by how she is perceived, and so she is constantly gaming out any move that she makes. [But] this record shatters that. It feels like she is making this record in collaboration with friends she trusts. I don't mean to suggest that they are tossed off in any way — they're deeply deliberate. But they're not burdened by, like, How is this going to play in stadiums? What are people going to say about me if I sing this? Oh, this is going to get people talking. These are just gorgeous songs. It is so consistent. It is one of my favorite albums of the year.

Powers: I have to say, I kind of disagree [on one of those points], because these songs are still very confessional. Yes, she takes on different characters, but she is still writing about her own situation — she's just doing it in a way that's a little more sophisticated. A good example would be the song "My Tears Ricochet," which is multi-dimensional:

I didn't have it in myself to go with grace
And you're the hero flying around, saving face
And if I'm dead to you, why are you at the wake?
Cursing my name, wishing I stayed
Look at how my tears ricochet

The first time you hear it you might think, OK, here's another breakup song. But it's not about a breakup with a man or a lover; this song is likely about Taylor Swift's struggles with her old label, Big Machine Records. So here she is crafting a song about one of the most difficult experiences of her life, leaving the record label that nurtured her for so many years, but which ultimately, in her view, took advantage of her — she has really struggled to regain control of her music from them. "My Tears Ricochet" is a great example of how, on this record, Swift takes something very confessional, specific almost only to her, and opens it up into something universal that you or I can relate to — not because we are mega-pop stars who have parted ways with the corporation that owns our music, but because we have all experienced a sense of betrayal and loss of of self-ownership. The sound of it goes in a new direction; it's totally Bon Iver. But the approach she takes, I think, is very classic Taylor Swift.

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McKenna: Stephen, your impulse to go back and watch Miss Americana is really interesting to me. For so long, I think her fans really wanted to hunt down Easter eggs — any sort of reference in her lyrics that would give some sort of clue into her personal life. And for me, it's kind of jarring to hear something like "Exile," her collaboration with Bon Iver, up against [Swift's early hit] "Our Song," or "Mad Woman" right up against [the Reputation single] "End Game": You get a sense of her trajectory, and also the way that pop music has changed and where she thinks that she fits into that sort of lineage. I think a lot of people wanted her to sort of pivot back to country, or adopt the singer-songwriter mode that was more akin to maybe what she was getting at on Lover. [But] I don't think that you can get to Folklore without her experiments with hip-hop on Reputation, or trying to go back to that brighter aesthetic on Lover.

With Folklore, I think that you finally get the sense of a person who feels comfortable abandoning the big pop impulse to fit the influences of the moment, and adopting a palette that maybe isn't her primary mode, but fits with what she's doing. I love the way that she can use Dessner's orchestration to give her the ability to do the sing-speak that she does so well. Taylor's voice has never been her strongest asset, and I think her being able to adapt and unfurl these really detailed and nuanced sentences across the bridges that he creates is marvelous — it is her recognizing that this is something that she can work within. I think that there's restraint, and that's not something that was always associated with her work.

Powers: People often, I think, disrespect Taylor Swift in that they act very surprised that she has matured as an artist. Yes, she started in a teen pop mode, and she wrote incredible songs when she was still an adolescent, about adolescent life. But she's 30 years old now — think about what other artists were doing when they were 30. Joni Mitchell made Court and Spark, one of her great masterpieces, and incidentally an album on which she pivoted away from more confessional music toward more observational songwriting. Stevie Wonder made Songs in the Key of Life when he was 26; he was well into his masterwork phase by 30. Mick Jagger was 29 when the Stones made Exile on Main St. PJ Harvey was just over 30 when she made Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Elliott Smith made Either/Or when he was 28. In every single one of these cases, this was adult music tackling adult themes, made by adults. So why are we surprised that Taylor Swift is a mature songwriter? She's a grown woman. I think it's really wrong that the general conversation around Taylor is always as if we are amazed that she's taking baby steps. She's far beyond that.

McKenna: A lot of people are drawing attention to this sort of trilogy of young romance at the center of Folklore, beginning with "Cardigan," which is the single that we got right when the album was released, and also including "Betty" and "August." I love the way that she has always been able to, in the bridge, in the final act, transform a song, transform the perspective. If you see the track listing, you might tense up a little bit and worry that it might just be another set of confessional songs. But she's using these characters to explore reality.

Powers: For me the standout is the song "Seven." And what I love about that song is that it does something Taylor has done before, which is it hearkens back to childhood — her own childhood or a childhood story, let's not make assumptions. In this case she's conjuring a memory of a friend and addressing a very serious topic, which is witnessing as a child what might have been abuse in a family, and thinking as an adult, "Wow, I never acted on that. That was wrong. I wish I had." But then remembering all the different ways that these two friends crafted visions of escape. And I think it's at the heart of what makes this album powerful, which is its meditation on memory.

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Lyndsey, you said rightly that this is about storytelling, and of course, it's called Folklore. But what is folklore if not a body constructed of memory, a shared sense of the world, built of myths, heard stories, much repeated stories and stories that change because people needed them to change? And I think Taylor takes that on in a very personal way throughout this record, that idea that we each have our own folklore. This is her folklore.

Thompson: Yeah, I agree completely. I also think, listening to this record, I was really struck by [the idea that] this is an album that in all likelihood would not exist without the pandemic — or at least it wouldn't have come the summer of 2020 if Taylor Swift hadn't suddenly been forced to pull back and self-isolate. Nobody knew this album was going to exist, so the expectations surrounding it are completely different from the expectations surrounding everything else she's ever done. To me, this album feels so liberated in a way — it is a creative product of somebody who has been freed.

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