Taylor Swift has made the first great pandemic art
While the rest of us were learning to make sourdough, ill-advisedly texting our exes, and reorganizing our junk drawers for the 17th time since mid-March, Taylor Swift was quietly working on an album. "In isolation my imagination has run wild and [Folklore] is the result," she wrote in the surprise announcement on Thursday. "[A] collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory."
Folklore is notable not just for coming out so soon after Swift's 2019 album Lover, but because it is also the first major work of popular culture to emerge that is almost exclusively a product of the quarantine. Due to the circumstances of, well, all of 2020, it would have been easy to lean too heavily on the novelty of the moment, or veer too far toward making the album a self-indulgent — or worse, opportunistic — distraction. But Swift sets a high bar for pandemic art going forward, because Folklore is none of those things, instead taking an approach that is quiet, introspective, and reflective.
Swift collaborated on 11 of the 16 songs on Folklore with The National's Aaron Dessner (who, if you're unfamiliar, once played a song called "Sorrow" live for six-hours straight) and it shows: the album is unusually subdued for the world's biggest pop star. In an Instagram post, Dressner described the way the two worked together to quickly assemble the music: "I thought it would take a while for song ideas to come and I had no expectations as far as what we could accomplish remotely," he said. "But a few hours after sharing music, my phone lit up with a voice memo from Taylor of a fully written version of a song — the momentum never really stopped." Dreamy piano, string arrangements by Bon Iver violinist Rob Moose, and lyric-forward songwriting gives the album a wistful air; paired with its lonely, Picnic at Hanging Rock-style packaging, which is perhaps the only too-on-the-nose element of the release, Folklore is, in the fullest sense of the term, a mood.
In the early days of quarantine, though, this did not seem to be the direction most artists would head. The pandemic felt a little like a too-good-to-be-true sci-fi plot line had been dropped in our laps: the most obvious ideas (a why-I'm-leaving-New-York essay! Quarantine as alienation metaphor! Coronavirus as a horror story!) were the low-hanging fruit. On the flip side came the understandable impulse to find or create noisy distractions from the unbearable events unfolding around us.
Admittedly, escape sounds pretty good right now, and in her own way, Swift offers it. But the result is anything but noisy; after all, why write music you can dance to when no one's going to be going to concerts or clubs for who knows how long? Folklore instead is one pensive love song after another, with the album structured around a trio of tracks ("Cardigan," "August," and "Betty") that explores a high school love triangle from each participant's perspective. This, of course, has long been Swift's bread-and-butter: the highs and lows of teenage romance. But rather than writing any of the 16 tracks as a guaranteed pop hit, she holds back, singing about sweet first love and the ache of heartbreak, but this time with the more contemplative maturity of perspective. "Our coming-of-age has come and gone," she puts it up front in the penultimate song, "Peace." (Swift turned 30 last winter).
In "My Tears Ricochet," Swift goes so far as to use the finality of a funeral to reflect on a past relationship ("Even on my worst day, did I deserve, babe / All the hell you gave me?"), while the opening track, "The 1," throbs with yearning and regret that has been held on to for too long ("in my defense, I have none"). Folklore also makes a number of references throughout to movies, a sort of lyrical motif, serving almost as Swift's acknowledgement that even the sweetest fantasies she peddles to her lovelorn listeners must eventually have the credits roll. Rather than closing out the album symbolically with "Peace," she put "Hoax" in the final spot.
It is this more internal, introverted mode of working that stands out as a product of the environment it was created in. As much as the pandemic is an anxious or even exciting time, it is also an opportunity for rumination, pause, and reflection. The songs on Folklore feel more at that pace, like they were written for gazing out the window in the early morning, or for sitting alone late at night. "Mirrorball" is practically shoe-gazey, a gauzy, vulnerable song on the opposite end of the spectrum from something like 2017's "Look What You Made Me Do," while the single, "Cardigan," is reminiscent of the queen of sad girl pop, Lana Del Rey. Even the angriest track, "Mad Woman," which lashes out lyrically — "Does a scorpion sting when fighting back? / They strike to kill, and you know I will" — sounds so beautiful and moody that it takes a second to register the meaning of Swift's words.
A cynic might call Folklore indulgent in its own way, wallowing in the stew of emotions that arise in isolation. Swift might even agree: she was the one to call it a "stream of consciousness" album, and it sounds the part, blue and melancholic, lost in its own world. But Swift's aspirations with her ambitious and uncharacteristic eighth project are clearly bigger than writing pop hits for fans to play on loop in quarantine. After all, "folklore" refers to collective stories, tales you can't remember hearing for the first time but nevertheless feel a part of you. One day, many years from now, the pandemic, too, will be its own memory, its own history, its own half-remembered lyric, a fragment of a song that we used to know.