“I’m doing good. I’m on some new sh-t.”
That’s how Taylor Swift’s new album folklore opens, the opening lyrics to the opening track, “the 1”. It’s a promise she’s made before. And it’s a promise she hasn’t quite kept …until now. After all, Lover was supposed to be a new era and the first song on that album was “I Forgot That You Existed”, about old grudges and petty comebacks.
In “the 1”, she’s still looking back, at a past romance, but this is not about beefs and receipts. This is, rather, the kickoff to a whole mood – folklore is about storytelling instead of settling scores, and these stories are not necessarily her own. That’s some new sh-t too. As Taylor shared on social media:
“I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.”
In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result. Iâ€™ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now itâ€™s up to you to pass them down. folklore is out now: https://t.co/xdcEDfithq— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) July 24, 2020
ðŸ“·: Beth Garrabrant pic.twitter.com/vSDo9Se0fp
And she’s better for it. The “new sh-t” has made her work better, more interesting. But that’s not where the “new sh-t” ends. As Rolling Stone notes, Taylor has finally “abandoned the traditional album rollout”. This has been happening in the music industry for years now but Taylor has, right up to the release of Lover just last year, adhered to the old game plan: lead singles preceding a full album and a cycle that lasts months. That may not be an option right now, because of the pandemic, but there was no pandemic last year and she rolled out Lover the way she typically rolls out her albums. What’s interesting about that, though, is that she kicked off the Lover cycle with two of the weakest songs on the album, “ME!” and “You Need To Calm Down”. I mean, yes, Lover outsold basically everyone in 2019 and by everyone else’s measure of success, the album was a smash hit, but there really was no track on Lover that was by Taylor’s own standard a smash hit; no song that became, for anyone other than a die-hard Swiftie, a forever playlist, you’ll-never-forget-it track the way it was from the 1989 era and before. In fact, there were so many better songs on Lover that may have gotten overlooked by the time the album came out because 1. the promotional period was so long and 2. “ME!” and “You Need To Calm Down” weren’t really indicative of what that album was but they did overshadow the stronger material.
In a press release that accompanied the release of folklore, Taylor statement reads:
“Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the “perfect” time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” said Taylor. “My gut telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world. That’s the side of uncertainty I can get on board with.”
That immediate uncertainty resulting from the pandemic may have shifted her approach to how to put out this new work but I’m wondering too if she learned from her experience with Lover and realised that she could do it differently, that she could be on some “new sh-t” (for her, anyway, for others who’ve been doing this for years, this is not “new sh-t”, it’s just the way it is) that would better serve her music.
And folklore is a collection of songs that wouldn’t have worked with that old sh-t rollout anyway. This is Taylor in black and white, in the woods, if she was wearing plaid I’d say it was her Justin Timberlake Man of the Woods moment. If you’re not a Taylor Swift believer, you might say Taylor’s folklore is the baby that JT’s Man of the Woods had with Miley Cyrus’s Malibu. The problem with that comparison is the quality of the music. Miley’s Malibu was oatmeal. Man of the Woods was equally bland. Folklore, however, is quiet, sure, but it’s also powerful, relying on the music itself to make an impact, without the Swift gloss and the Swift reputation, putting into focus what should be the only reason Taylor Swift has become such a force in music: her songwriting. It’s always been the thing she’s most confident in – as friends and Lovers and praise and popularity come and go, songwriting is what Taylor will always have. And no doubt, she’s flexing that here, for sure. It just looks different on folklore and it’s a good thing. A great thing, actually.
One the things that made 1989 great is because it felt suited for its time and timeless. That album was so 2014/15. It was of its moment and beyond. It branded itself on you. And this is where reputation and Lover fell short. To me, there was never a sense of permanency with those two albums – neither one made a huge cultural impact. With folklore though, it fits the current mood and the songs have the potential to grow and change with the mood, they’re for contemplation and reflection. Taylor’s always been so goddamn literal, but the intention of folklore is for the present to become the future past. And it certainly has that potential. In addition to all the gossip. And even the gossip is on some “new sh-t”. Because here’s where Taylor is less literal than she was before.
I mean, she’s still Easter egging the sh-t out of this “new sh-t” but her secrets are now mixed in and layered with the secrets of other people – like Rebekah Harkness, who owned the Rhode Island mansion made famous by #Taymerica.
obsessed with Taylorâ€™s song about Watch Hill House and Rebekah Harkness.....yes queen give us a WASP history lesson, be the John Cheever you want you see in the world!!!!!!— rachel syme (@rachsyme) July 24, 2020
As Rachel Syme notes in her Twitter thread, Rebekah was also known to throw glamorous parties at “Holiday House”, and she too was surrounded by beautiful socialites, a “squad” of friends who bonded and bullied from one minute to the next. The parallels are obvious.
In the YouTube comments ahead of the release of the album last night, Taylor shared with her fans that three of the songs on the album represent a “teenage love triangle”. Diving deeper in that though, one of those songs, “betty” is about two people called “James and Betty”, and an “Inez” who gossips. “James” and “Inez” happen to be the names of two of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ daughters. So if the “James” in this story is a girl (Taylor was named after James Taylor), are we maybe talking about….
It’s Christmas for the “Kaylor” truthers out there who have insisted over the years that Taylor and Karlie were lovers. And Christmas for those who’ve declared that “betty” is “Queer Canon”.
And then there’s “William Bowery”, one of the credited co-writers on the album. Many think that this is pseudonym for Joe Alwyn. Others wonder if it might be Austin Swift, Taylor’s brother, or even Joni Mitchell. Whoever it is, Taylor’s sitting on that for now. Because, of course, not everything has to be told at once. Secrets are best revealed strategically. And there is more strategy here.
As I wrote yesterday in my post about Taylor’s folklore announcement, the deadline for Grammy eligibility is coming up in six weeks. This is the kind of album the Grammys get hard for. Taylor, one of the biggest artists in the world, is taking advantage of a weird year in music and has just positioned herself as a major contender. She might have just taken the pole position in the race. She doesn’t have to play all her cards yet. There’s time enough to slow-roll details about this album in the coming months.