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The Radical Empathy of Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’

5 Stars

Promotional still of Taylor Swift for "Folklore"
Promotional still of Taylor Swift for "Folklore" By Courtesy of Taylor Swift/Beth Garrabrant
By Paul G. Sullivan, Crimson Staff Writer

In one of the opening shots of “Miss Americana,” the recent Taylor Swift Netflix documentary, Swift sits criss-cross-apple-sauce on a windowsill surrounded by her diaries. All of them are pink, as are Swift’s nails, as is the sweater under her denim shortalls. Swift picks up a diary — the very first one she recorded, she tells us, at age 13. The cover is full of Swift’s doodles of hearts and her handwriting spelling out in block-letters: “My Life. My Dreams. My Career. My Reality.” Yikes, we think. Someone give that kid a hug. Swift flips through the diaries’ pages. There appear to be hundreds and hundreds of them, the past 17 years of her life not just detailed in the tabloids, but inked out here too.

It is fitting that a documentary about Swifit should begin with her diaries. Over the course of seven albums, Swift continuously wrote from an “I” that was ostensibly her. This “I” was detailed to the point of obsession, definitive to the point of tunnel vision. It was also intimate and immediate. “All Too Well,” a song off her album “Red,” is the best example of this diaristic style: Swift’s repeated assertion — “I was there / I remember it all too well”— is her clinging to testimony, the validity of things as she experienced them. This unadulterated detail was necessary, important: Swift knows how to dig her heels in the ground. She will not be gaslit. But other songs and albums took this diaristic “I” to a near-tyrannical level: “reputation” was all about Swift’s white-knucled attempts to be entirely in control of the narrative surrounding her many celebrity feuds. “The Story of Us” and “Love Story” supplanted the messiness of reality (which, especially this year, feels something like a phantasmagoria) for the tidiness of narrative; they seemed to imply that experiences could be bound in something like a picture book, or perhaps like a diary, and that those pages would be enough.

But now, with the release of her eighth studio album on July 24, Swift abandons storybook pages for something more expansive and harder to pin down. It would be typical for an album like “folklore”— an album that leaves behind the puking rainbow that was “Lover” and the thumped up spectacle of “reputation” in favor of something more subtle, dare I say folk — to be inward-facing, the product of the self-reflection Swift has done in isolation. But “folklore” is more about imagination than introspection. In a statement accompanying the album, Swift wrote, “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.” “Folklore” trades in the diaristic “I” for a more traveling, indecisive and, above all, fair “I.”

We are transported from one story to another on “folklore” over the course of 17 songs, all of which beautifully pair acoustic guitar and piano with the soft synth Swift perfected on “Delicate.” The album feels like a departure for its sheer sparseness. The instrumental notes on each song are few and far between, leaving blank spaces (pun intended) that we would normally expect Swift to fill in with hammering percussion, desperate to show off her ability to craft every millisecond of a song. On “folklore,” these sonic gaps don’t feel like blankness so much as openness, characterized not by lack but by potential. Which is to say, less is more.

Still, the album is rich with narrative complexity. Swift’s greatest innovation on “folklore” is how much of its storylines she braids together. Three of the songs on the album are about the same love triangle between three highschoolers. Each one, however, is sung from a different perspective. In a stroke of literary and marketing genius, Swift connects these lovers with a traveling cardigan. “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan” is, indeed, a beautiful simile, but I suspect Swift also knew she could make bank selling some cardigans, $49 a pop on her website. One of these three songs,“betty,” takes the viewpoint of the cheating jerk at the middle of this mess: James stands on his girlfriend’s doorstep, skateboard in hand, learning how to apologize. “Will you kiss me on the porch in front of all your stupid friends?” he asks. Uhhh, pass.

A radical sense of generosity is sensed when, after listening to the whole album, one considers these songs together, each one like a puzzle piece. Swift has empathy for even the dirtbag skater boy. Everyone is allowed their two cents. Each perspective matters. “Exile,” a collab with Bon Iver, encapsulates this newfound generosity in one song: two sides of a failed relationship with dueling perspectives about what went wrong. “You never gave me a warning sign,” Bon Iver sings and layered over it is Swift singing “I gave so many signs.” “Folklore” feels like an admission about the limitations of providing one experience alone.

Critics have found many ways to characterize Swift’s development as an artist — the passage from one genre to another, the first time she confessed to drinking alcohol, when she started getting “experimental” — but one development, generally deemed a negative one by critics, has been how her lyric-writing has changed over the years. Her pen used to be sharp as a knife, critics say. She was often seen riding shotgun, her blonde curls wet with rain after dancing in a storm in her best dress. Everything was like a picture. When Swift went pop, this detailed imagery was traded in for less intricate writing full of catchy hooks. It was flimsy and vague.

“Folklore” transforms this flimsy vagueness into a tightlipped reticence. The album is full of beautiful, stark images: Swift is high over Pennsylvania riding a tire swing; the rosé is flowing, she’s drinking it up; there are Rhode Island mansions and old Levi’s, disco balls and yogurt shops. Unlike on previous albums, Swift doesn’t judge these images so much as she absorbs them and then pours them back out. “Invisible string,” about two people who never thought they would end up together, illustrates this reticence perfectly. “Time, curious time / Give me no compasses, give me no signs,” Swift sings over plucked strings. The song enacts its title: Swift strings together disparate anecdotes about a relationship — one of them about an unwitting waitress who tells Taylor Swift that she looks a lot like an American singer named Taylor Swift — but she imposes no definitive narrative on these scenes. Instead, she lets them hang like garments on a clothesline. She has always believed in destiny, but “invisible string” is different — not the sudden and pulse-quickening fate of eyes whispering across a room à la “Enchanted,” but a more realistic fate: the long and winding road of life, sometimes boring, sometimes distressing, always unpredictable. “Isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?” she asks. Conclusive narratives, the ones Swift has long favored, are usually unreliable ones. Words are just as likely to obscure the truth as they are to elucidate it. Swift seems to know this now. There is no closure on “folklore;” Swift isn’t rinsing away passion and pain so much as she is allowing those things to dawdle, like bathwater that’s never drained. She still has her knife. She’s just choosing to use the blunt edge of it, not wielding it so much as she is holding it out. Her lyrics on “folklore” don’t cut. They linger.

It will likely be said that “folklore” is Swift “stripped down” (whatever that means), no longer “performing.” But Swift is, at the end of a day, a performer. “Folklore” is no exception: she performs as many different characters on the album. If nothing else, the album makes a strong case for performance. Whereas Swift once believed in a love that comes naturally — a redemptive love, love like a clean slate or a “State of Grace,” something that makes you “Fearless,” sparks flying and wedding objections — she now views love as something more akin to effort, performance. On “mirrorball,” when all of the people have left the party, when it’s just two people alone in a room, Swift says that she is “still on my tallest tiptoes / Spinning in my highest heels, love / Shining just for you.” She compares being alone with this person to being on a tightrope and a trapeze. “I’m still trying everything to get you laughing at me,” she sings, practically panting. “this is me trying” picks up this idea, a song about showing up on someone’s doorway, pouring your heart out to them no matter how hard it is. Even James, that cheating teenage boy again, shows up on a doorway and tries. “The only thing I wanna do / Is make it up to you,” he pleads. And since it is after all Swift who we’re dealing with here, what could be more romantic than this, than people trying for one another?

— Staff writer Paul G. Sullivan can be reached at paul.sullivan@thecrimson.com.

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