Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ Changed The Tone Of Pop In 2020

Fifty years is a long time, Holiday House sat quietly on that beach
Free of women with madness, their men, and bad habits,
… and then it was bought by me.

— Taylor Swift, “The Last Great American Dynasty”

People love to project their own feelings onto Taylor Swift. Nothing illustrates that better than “The Last Great American Dynasty,” the best song off her eighth album, Folklore, and one of the funniest songs she’s ever written. I heard a writer I admire describe the song as “smug,” and that made me laugh, too. How many young women are in the position to buy historical mansions? How many old men have I endured bragging about their multiple homes since I came of age? When I was a college student in Malibu trying to grow into my madness, Taylor was hurtling from esteemed country songwriter to the slightly more terrifying role, most famous pop star in the world. We probably both listened to a lot of men drone on about their big houses. “Dynasty” is a dig at them, along with her haughty neighbors, not to mention the media speculation that constantly chased down her holiday parties there. But, it reads like a celebration. It’s not smug, it’s hilarious.

Going back to the projection — this is something that both Swift and her multitude of overzealous-though-often-justified fans have had to learn to cope with over the last few years. The ride was never rockier than when a celebrity feud painted her in an increasingly negative light, and the initially lackluster reaction to her bristling, exterior-focused album Reputation threatened to unseat her. For anyone who cared about Taylor Swift, The Person, the fallout of her feud with Kanye West, and later, Kim Kardashian, was more troubling than an apparent impact on album sales or awards. Deeper than that, the feeling that a vicious narrative conveniently left out relevant facts in order to portray the subject in the worst possible light is a hard one to bear, even for the head that (arguably) wears the crown. Following Reputation’s big beats and lyrical daggers, a quick about-face righted the ship as Lover’s floral, rose-colored haze landed critics, and the public, back on her side – even if history will likely reveal Reputation as the stronger record of the pair.

But after the warm interiority of Lover, and a discography built on laying the hardest moments of her personal life bare, Swift needed a new strategy. She’s found it and then some on Folklore, a record that has finally surpassed Red as the best album in her sizable discography, a seemingly-impossible feat that Taylor zealots have worried at for years. Consider the new approach in motion: Instead of writing an interior-focused song about her relationship to Holiday House, her neighbors, or dated ideas about “new money” and women buying property, Taylor pulled in decades of history to make her point. This is a Folklore tactic that re-establishes just why her songwriting eventually turned her into a massive pop star; she’s a master of knowing when to share blueprint details, and when to leave space for a listener’s emotions to move into the house.

In a dour year full of death, despair, and the bad kind of absurdist hedonism, the space and light of Folklore changed the tone of music in 2020, not just for certain listeners, but for nearly everyone. It was a signal of potential, a gleam under a dark door, a reminder that quarantine, as endless as it may seem, is not forever. There will be an after, the album argues, appearing as a kind of preparation for it. If country twang, shiny pop production, vocal fry, or distaste for beat-driven bops have ever kept you away from the music of Taylor Swift, then consider Folklore a formal invitation to join the ranks of those who swear by her melodies. Folklore is an album for those dense enough to think Ryan Adams’ version of 1989 was better, its shimmering folk and timeless production choices all but guarantee any hurdle to listening, enjoying, and relating has been formally removed. This too can be read as a joke, if it wasn’t so important to establish, in the midst of this summer’s darkness, that there are still beautiful things.

Folklore remains a deeply-felt, idiosyncratic album that only Taylor could’ve made, but there’s a sense of remove that has been absent in her earlier work; it’s more like a new collaborator in the room than anything has been subtracted. It seems she’s finally come to an understanding of her place in the canon, a quiet wisdom bred in the isolation of quarantine, or perhaps credited to the newfound stability of a loving partner (and, apparently, inspiring musical collaborator). Though, none of this growth came easy. Halfway through the record, a song called “This Is Me Trying” is one of the only tracks she’s ever written that directly addresses mental health, and she explicitly notes in a recent concert film, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, that it’s a song about “mental illness, addiction, and suicide.” What might’ve once taken an entire album to address is now just a three-minute flashback, a truncated sadness that simultaneously illustrates the most insidious thing about mental illness, the way it steals other potential narratives from us.

Trauma necessitates self-focus, the brain stuck on a loop in pain sees only its own agony. Folklore casts a much wider net, with narratives that grapple with healing and moving on from the past, and most of the pain portrayed here is seen in a distant rearview mirror, or gently reimagined through the lens of other people’s lives (“Betty,” “August”). This is music that contextualizes what Taylor’s personally been through, naming feelings rather than real people in songs that capture moods (“Mad Woman”) and consequences (“My Tears Ricochet”) instead of literal play-by-play moments. The result is that those who haven’t been able to connect with Swift’s music in the past now have the necessary room to do it, and those of us who have literally grown up with her can proudly acknowledge another step in her own growth. Folklore isn’t just the best album of 2020, it’s a marvelous unraveling of everything she’s ever been, and a brilliant reckoning with who she wants to become.