September 24, 2020 | Arts and Culture
i didn’t know it at 15
the newfound maturity of taylor swift’s folklore
When I think back on myself as a child, I come up with many obnoxious qualities: I was a stickler for the rules, a teacher’s pet, and a musical purist who believed my ignorance of pop music made me superior to my peers. My parents had raised me on a steady diet of opera, and while they didn’t explicitly prevent me from experiencing anything else, it was pretty clear that they had a standard that they wanted to maintain. The only moderately popular music that ever found its way into my house was in the form of my mother’s Joan Baez LPs.
Is it any surprise, then, that the voice that found me from Top 40 radio was Taylor Swift? Her voice was dramatic, the exact manifestation of emotion expanded into space. In the same way that opera could stretch one romantic second into hours, she took one emotion and turned it into a 3-minute-and-51-second song. Her style was a slow bleed from country into pop music—a space where I felt comfortable. My daily allotted 15 minutes of computer time changed from obsessively searching for the last scene of Tchaikovsky’s Eugine Onegin to watching the music videos for “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” over and over again as my mother watched the walls she’d carefully constructed collapse. Taylor Swift held my preteen heart in her hands. She understood how I imagined the heartbreak that I’d never felt would be.
But it didn’t last. I began to see myself as a girl who was mature for my age. Taylor Swift didn’t fit into that meticulous self-image. “You Belong With Me” changed into “Wish You Were Here” and the sounds of my life drifted away from pop country and into the psychedelic rock of Pink Floyd. I wanted to be cool, and Top 40 radio was not cool. Though I still knew all the words to any Taylor Swift song, when I heard the tunes leaking into my surroundings from a classmate’s headphones, I never sought them out. I had become a girl who lived and died for alt-rock, who dissolved into indie folk, who lurked in record stores, and who imagined herself penniless in New York City trying to make it with an electric guitar. Opera became a secret passion hidden in the same brain crevice as Taylor Swift’s romantic ballads.
But my friends—who didn’t maintain the same cool veneer as I did—pulled me back to her. I was 16 when it happened. It had been two years since I listened to Taylor. She reminded me of a time I considered embarrassing, before I’d discovered vintage jackets and didn’t know about putting toothpaste on my acne. Then a friend offered me tickets to Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour––I lived in Boston, right? I didn’t live in Boston. I went anyway.
If you’d asked me what I had expected from the concert, I’d probably have said something about being excited to support my friend experiencing something she loved. I wouldn’t have told you that the concert took me from a skeptic into a consecrated Taylor Swift believer. As we held hands—our light-up bracelets glowing in the Foxborough Stadium normally occupied by diehard football fans––I melded with the throngs of adolescent girls in religious ecstasy. Taylor talked about all the hardships we’d gone through in order to make it to the stadium that day. I felt desperately in love. My friend had tears pouring down her cheeks. And when Taylor announced that she’d reworked some of her old music, the tears just kept coming. Say you’ll remember me… We definitely wouldn’t forget.
I listened to 1989 on repeat that summer. I played it for my mother, who liked Taylor Swift no better then than when I’d begun to obsess over her six years before. I played it for my dad who pretended to understand. I listened to the album as I fought airsickness on the plane to visit my grandparents. I listened to the album when I thought about how much I loved my boyfriend and I listened to the album when I was mad at him. I was still listening to 1989 two and a half years later when my boyfriend and I broke up and I finally experienced the heartbreak Taylor sings about so well. I never touched Reputation or Lover when they came out and I tried to ignore the various scandals and political criticisms of her work. I didn’t want to break the magic spell I was under.
I was still listening to 1989 until the end of July this year. Then my Twitter feed exploded. Taylor had released a new album! It was DIFFERENT YET THE SAME! It was queer? The lyrics were amazing. I decided I had to listen to it. I’d been listening almost exclusively to sad indie folk. Quarantine was breaking me and I was going to break out of my rut to try something new.
What I found on folklore was the perfect mix of everything that I’d loved about Taylor when I’d started listening to her at the age of 10 and a noticeable lack of everything that had made me afraid to listen to her most recent albums. Gone were the commercial clang and the obsession with image. Instead she was telling love stories. Instead she suddenly had the sounds of the bands I’d been listening to for the past couple years. Did we have the same music taste, locked away in our rooms? Mine in small-town Massachusetts, hers in a mansion in Newport, RI? She was the old cardigan that I’d forgotten under my bed and had taken out to find out it fit like it was brand new.
The influences of this album are obvious. Anyone who has been a Phoebe Bridgers fan could recognize the cover art of folklore evokes the album art of Punisher. The first time I listened to folklore, walking down the street approximately half an hour late for a distanced dinner gathering, I wanted to arrive later so I wouldn’t have to stop listening. It was odd. My first impression was of having popped into a version of Punisher with more commercial appeal. The orchestration is lush, while the influence of producer Aaron Dessner (The National, Big Red Machine) is probably the origin of the indie sound. The songwriting, however, is still 100 percent Taylor.
Mitski, another favorite of mine, is known for writing songs about characters she’s made up; she does not write songs about herself (at least not openly). Taylor Swift, in contrast, tends to write both shamelessly and self-consciously about herself for her entire career. Her exes are encoded in her songs, her loves are all intensely personal. In folklore, while she hasn’t lost sight of herself, she is free of that intense self-focus which made her teenage anthems so relatable and crippled Reputation—a record that was supposed to break free from the expectations she and others had set for her, but that emphasized them instead. At last she takes on the personalities of others, but it doesn’t feel performative. It’s just Taylor. “betty” is written from the perspective of a young man, and “the last great american dynasty” is sung from the perspective of a grand house on the beach. In her isolation, the world opened up before her, at the same time as COVID-19 made the real world become claustrophobic around everyone else.
A lot of the hype around folklore seemed to stem from the fact that fellow nostalgics desperately wanted Taylor Swift to release another record that felt worth our adoration, but that didn’t feel as stale as the Fearless-era Taylor we grew up with. Unlike her previous albums, folklore had no rollout—unless you consider the one Instagram post about it an announcement. There was a building anticipation for something that no one even knew they were waiting for. There was no frenzied panic about the release of the album. In its place was a self-possessed calm—a first for Taylor that indicated maturity. The album clearly states: We have all grown up. No more songs about being 15. Instead Taylor has released an album that understands what it means to have been 15 once.