Folklore is, by definition, homogeneous. It speaks to experiences, values, ideas that are shared. The best pop music over the last ten years has always been folkloric in this regard — more specifically, stories told by the young about youth — and I find it hard not to admire those young singers and songwriters who manage to excavate something oddly universal out of the inherent narcissism of adolescence.
(This is also why I think the Taylor Swift record cover meme embedded above is excellent — the continuum between melodramatic pop and melodramatic metal is real.)
Lorde is arguably the queen of this. I still find her 2013 album Pure Heroine really moving. Although it was heralded, at the time, as pop’s future — vindicated in the form of Billie Eilish, no doubt — it is also an album that today feels very much of its time. This may be in part for personal reasons. It came out just after I moved back home to Hull after three years away at university, but it’s emotional impact was only doubled by my own surprise at how relatable I thought it was.
It had this slippery appeal to a petite bourgeois lifestyle coupled with a paradoxical pride in the decrepitude of an immanent locale — the ultimate pop paradox. Lorde’s songs about tennis courts and teenage luxury had this phantasmatic quality, bringing to mind the stereotypical sweatshirt-tied-around-shoulder vibe of middle class leisure time and also those nights spent drinking WKD round the back of the sports centre. For me, this made it an oddly powerful ode to a new life in an old town that lacked all the glamour I thought leaving Hull behind might bring — a fact I would have found more depressing but Hull’s rough edges felt beautifully homely on my return, whereas before they had been stifling.
It was this spiral of conflicting emotions and class consciousness that Pure Heroine tapped into with a surreal coldness that nonetheless resonated with a hidden emotional truth. It felt like an album about uselessness, wasted summers, that strange gap between a life of leisure and a life of benign poverty, clinging onto the freedom of adolescence as that gross tick of adult responsibility and guilt starts its long gnaw on the back of your neck. But this wasn’t Deftones-esque angst. This was crystalline pop — a new kind of beautiful melancholy. It was pop in a kind of Beckettian mode — decadent songs for the destitution of modern youth.
I’m not that age anymore though, and so, today, Pure Heroine feels very much like the product of a very particular moment. I can’t imagine it would have the same critical or personal reception it did then.
But Lorde’s music nonetheless epitomises a postmodern folklore for me in this regard, with all of its mythic surrealism and interscalar movements from universal to particular. She has an unmatched ability in the pop sphere to bottle the grand cinematic melancholy — the screen memories — of white adolescence, as seen from the verges of a nihilistic adulthood; the banality of life seen through the grandeur of a pop lens. This isn’t a John Hughes vibe for the twenty-first century, however. It’s too ingrown and unassumingly grotesque. It’s much, much closer to the edge of something. It’s a pop music that clings onto an overabundance of meaning, an enchantment with your own banality, right before it all turns grey forever.
That haze of post-adolescent limbo is truly hauntological, I think — a brief moment where postmodernity’s psychedelic nostalgia feels far more like a positive feedback loop than a negative one. (That Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life came out a few months after Lorde’s album only compounded that odd emotional moment for me.)
With this sort of cultural artefact in mind, I think there is a great deal left to be said about our present moment’s utter fetishisation of adolescence — ideologically it says something about where the “secret sadness of the twenty-first century” (as Mark Fisher called it) might come from. It’s not new, by any means, but it has mutated into strange forms over the last decade of pop — forms that are quite distinct from the twentieth-century teenage mode. This is Breakfast Club meets The Thing, the bodies of all its individual members occasionally rendered in their amalgated grotesqueness by the flashbangs of postmodernity.
If it’s nostalgic, it’s a weird kind of nostalgia — of the sort found in The Last of Us Part II, recently discussed. Whereas adolescence is generally referred to as a frontier of freedom before the world of work swallows us whole, it has been moving into a newly postmodern phase as of late, where an odd self-awareness of the surreality of your own age warps adolescence with an ingrown nostalgia for itself before its even “officially” over.
Maybe this just says something about me but Lorde’s debut album bottled this absolutely. The fact that she could release an album at aged 17 — presumably recorded when she was 15-16 — that resonated so profoundly with my view of my own adolescence aged 23 was very disorientating (in the best sense of the word).
She has this commitment to the truths that emerge from her experiences in this way. I remember reading an interview with her where she declared, before the release of 2017’s Melodrama, that she wouldn’t be able to write songs about tennis courts because that wasn’t her life anymore. She had to find a way to write about her new jet-setting lifestyle that could still resonant with people. No easy task but she managed it. She continued to find the universal emotions flowing through her particular existence.
To hear that Taylor Swift had released an album called folklore made me think about all of this in relation to Swift’s own creative output. Early on in her career, her best songs managed to walk this same tightrope between adolescent idealism and adult realism.
Take a song like “Fifteen”, for example. For all its age-of-innocence atmosphere and Disney princess chic, I’ve always found the song’s bridge to be a gut-punch. It feels like a powerful but momentary peek behind the rose-tinted Hollywood gloss, in which Swift — at least as the song’s default protagonist — reflects on her own naivety and the psychic pain caused when a teenage idealism falls victim to the harsh reality of a fickle teenage libido.
I’ve always loved the song for that reason. It’s this strange piece of whismical country-pop that contains this post-traumatic kernel of its own downfall. It’s the frontierism of country music repackaged in a Shakespearean high school pop tragedy; a true piece of adolescent self-reflection which is burst asunder not by the end of the frontier but its hormonal equivalent: the end of puberty.
Swift doesn’t really write songs like this anymore. She still writes love songs about the peculiarities of sexual politics, of course, but there’s often something missing… There’s no longer that country music nod to an emotional frontierism; no longer an Americana idealism with a knowing and melancholic nod to its own cultural redundancy at the end of history. Today, instead, it feels like it is all Hollywood and no truth; it is all capitalist capture with no opportunity to wriggle out through the emotional cracks in the firmament. It is simulation without the glare of reality visible on its otherwise over-polished surface.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment this doe-eyed stare through the haze of adolescence failed to overcome the all too real end of Swift’s innocence: her encounter with Kanye West at the VMAs. This wasn’t a foundational experience like crying over feelings of wasted virginity in a teenage bedroom, as dramatised on “Fifteen”; this was something all the more public and traumatic, and whilst the shadow this has cast over her private life can only be assumed, the shadow cast over her creative output is evidently long.
Since that moment, Swift’s music has never really recovered. Instead she began a downward spiral into pop mediocrity. It was as if, in that moment, her twisted self-image as the marginalised white country girl was shattered against the marginalisation of black excellence. Kanye West was, of course, right. That a video as iconic as “Single Ladies” lost out to a video as forgettable as “You Belong To Me” is widely acknowledged as a particularly mind-numbing example of music industry racism, but the fact that Swift then abandoned the self-pity contained on a song like “You Belong To Me” to embrace the pop braggadocio of her rival hardly seems like a coincidence.
Ever since, Swift’s attempts to affirm or negate the things people say about her have led to this country stalwart to transform herself into an oddly defiant fashion-flux pop weather vane. She has become the fatally insecure pop princess who defines the times for all the wrong reasons. It seems that, for Swift herself, she’s just staying loyal to her hopes and dreams in spite of the haters, but what is really on display here is a capitalistic vulnerability that is not commensurate with her post-adolescent vulnerability. It is nonetheless interesting to see how Swift attempts to conflate the two.
For instance, her attempts to absorb what she has previously been seen (patronisingly or not) as a wholesome alternative to — the R&B and hip hop-enthused charts — has been increasingly distasteful. From loosening up her songwriting to reflect some record exec’s idea of a sub-“urban” lyricism to the innumerable examples of her particular brand of lean-in feminism, it has all been done to death. But the impact of this on her songwriting remains a complicated topic.
So, what happens when all of that is stripped back? What happens when the usual flows of pop world drama are stunted by lockdown and the weather vane is left spinning in the uncharacteristically calm air?
Swift’s latest album, folklore, released just the other day, provides a very intriguing answer to these questions. In many respects, the title itself is an interesting enough response. Strip back the drama and you have an artist who has written love song after love song for fifteen years. Swift has her own folklore, in this regard — her own back catalogue of lovers’ lessons and social etiquette, cultural glamour and good business sense. She’s been doing it for so long that she’s going to be very good at it by now. And she is. Having had folklore on repeat for much of this past weekend, I have to say I think it is a great album — easily her best for many years. Whilst the album’s first half is business as usual (at least for late-2010s Swift) — albeit with production that gives the illusion of a more stripped-back sound — the run of songs from “August” to “Invisible String” might be her strongest run of album tracks since the first half of her otherwise bloated 2012 album Red.
Without any celebrity drama to subtly hint at or rumours to stoke for marketing purposes, it’s an album that seems to take a gradual slide back into a classic Swiftian mode, with the strength of her storytelling and her vulnerability on full display, but it also captures something often obscured by the spectacular sandstorm that is the pop machine — a giant ever-moving hard-to-ignore expanse of formlessness. This is to say that folklore, beyond the undeniable pleasantness of its sound, nonetheless captures the homogeneity of an acutely capitalistic post-adolescence, despite often being wrapped in the nostalgic cloth of her guitar-strumming heyday.
Because if there is anything folkloric about Taylor Swift, in a classical sense at least, it would be a song like “Love Story”. It takes that Nineties trope of updating Shakespearean drama to the present day — I’m thinking of 10 Things I Hate About You as an update on The Taming of the Shrew — and makes it into a pop trope. This was Swift’s MO for the first five years of her recording career — transform supposedly universal love stories into contemporary country parables. But — and this should go without saying — any adaptation of this kind always carries with it the baggage of the contemporary, and as Swift conjures up the novelty of returning to a “purer” singer-songwriter mode after an extended detour elsewhere, it is fascinating the see what kind of worldview she has inadvertently brought with her, following the maximalist spectacle of all her albums since 1989.
At first, it’s all quite predictable. From the sub-“urban” cadence of her lyrics on album opener “The 1” through to the Lana Del Rey-aping banality of lead single “Cardigan” and the strange ode to an oil heiress that is “The Last Great American Dynasty” — we’ll come back to that last one — the album’s first half is a stripped-back version of everything wrong with megastar Swift, nonetheless tied up in an innocuous and well-written package. Then, the album transitions, oh so subtly, into a kind of late 2000s indie-pop nostalgia. But, as Swift shifts towards more classically adolescent love songs, the songs nonetheless remain oddly contaminated by the ideological hangover of her more recent maximalist output.
This is to say that, just as Swift is derided for reflecting the worst of the music industry’s purely capitalistic impulses — particularly in her live shows if not so explicitly on her records — folklore encapsulates this same machine albeit in a moment of calm. It is novel, and it is strange to see it from this angle, but it is undoubtedly the same beast. Just as lockdown has made us newly aware of the faults or lacunae of a dysfunctional capitalist system, so too does Taylor Swift’s lockdown album reveal the default state of her worldview when not caught up in the spectacle of celebrity beefs and love affairs with beige actors.
This strange fidelity with the world at large is summarised perfectly by Jillian Mapes’ review of the album for Pitchfork, in which she writes:
There are those who already dislike folklore on principle, who assume it’s another calculated attempt on Swift’s part to position her career as just so (how dare she); meanwhile, fans will hold it up as tangible proof that their leader can do just about anything (also a stretch). While it’s true that folklore pushes the limits of Swift’s sound in a particular, perhaps unexpected direction, her reference points feel more like mainstream “indie” homage than innovation, taking cues from her collaborators’ work and bits of nostalgia.
Swift stans have been coming hard at the outlet for this passage, as if it betrays the reviewer’s bias. (It sounds like a total lack of bias to me and the album has received a generous 8.0 regardless.) But what I find most interesting is that, if you swap out “folklore” for “lockdown capitalism”, this section of the review still makes perfect sense.
There are those who already dislike lockdown on principle, who assume it’s another calculated attempt on capitalism’s part to position itself just so (how dare it); meanwhile, fans will hold it up as tangible proof that capitalism can do just about anything (also a stretch). While it’s true that lockdown pushes the limits of capitalism in a particular, perhaps unexpected direction, its reference points feel more like mainstream “austerity” homage than innovation, taking cues from its collaborators and bits of nostalgia.
Maybe it requires a bit of poetic license… Still, to the cynics, lockdown capitalism is calculated, insidious yet innocuous, worryingly static and also oddly safe, turning an otherwise traumatic global event into an opportunity to steady itself anew; to the fans, our present moment is evidence of its unparalleled adaptability and superiority and long may its reign continue. For an artist like Swift, who has been criticised for epitomising the worst cultural (read: WASPy) tendencies of the music industry, it is interesting that this album should take on such the thin ideological veil of a moment so easily.
This is going to start sounding like a conspiracy theory. The point, in short, is innocuous but interesting (to me at least). The dream pop mode of expression is taken as a given — it fits this woozy moment. But why does it feel that way? And what about the content?
For instance, is it too much of a stretch to note that Swift’s “indie” album seems to be specifically drawing on a kind of dream pop vibe that was all the rage around 2007/08? Is it a coincidence that the moment this album seems to be nostalgic for is the American dream pop moment from around the time of the last recession? Is folklore an album for the next one?
This is all conjecture, I suppose. The album makes no grand statements and only quietly pledges certain allegiances so I’m undoubtedly over-reading it… And yet, the references it does make are very telling, and whilst I have found myself at first utterly seduced by its catchy lyricism — “Invisible String” has been in my head for a few days now and I can’t get it out no matter what I do — it nonetheless starts to leave an odd taste in my mouth as I become more attuned to its references.
Take “The Last Great American Dynasty”. It is a song that has been praised left, right and centre as one of Swift’s best. I don’t hear it personally. To be honest, it’s a song I find weird and uncomfortable.
On the surface, it’s a kind of real-life Great Gatsby ode that feels like a Swiftian take on Lana Del Rey’s 21st century post-modern renegade regionalism (which hangs over much of this album as a blatant reference).
Whereas Rey’s last album felt like a humble attempt to emphasise the modernism of her otherwise postmodern stylings, as she finally sours on her temporally displaced Americana (contextualised really well here), Swift takes on an odd choice of subject matter for her moment of reckoning with the current way of the world.
Just as capitalism comes up against its biggest speed bump since the financial crash, Swift finds “her spirit animal in the eccentric heiress Rebekah Harkness” who lavishly blew her inherited millions on champagne, boys and bets with Salvador Dali. She’s a bourgeois icon renowned for doing whatever the fuck she wanted as the world went to shit. “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen”, Swift sings. “She had a marvellous time ruining everything.”
Harkness’s cultural glamour (for Swift) seems to come in part from her association with Salvador Dali, and much like Dali himself Harkness seems to epitomise the surrealism of a dying breed: an aristocratic old-money capitalist overdosing on twentieth-century decadence. She’s a telling person for Swift to admire — Swift lives in her old house, apparently — and it is telling that this ode and affirmative affinity with the loud heiress gradually slides into songs about sexual politics and illicit desires over the course of the album’s run. Whereas, at first, it feels like an album of two halves in this regard, the self-ruin of capitalist decadence soon starts to bleed into and even finds itself mirrored in the more innocuous tales of teenage love affairs.
Harkness’s wasted millions start to reappear in nods to wasted potential, wasted time, wasted liquor. It’s not long before the innocent love songs lose their nostalgic wholesomeness and start to feel as decadent as Swift’s old money idol. Soon every appeal to broad cultural themes is filtered through her lean-in worldview. It’s all a love affair.
This is certainly a kind of folklore but it soon starts to feel corrupted by a contemporaneity that it oddly insists on denying itself access to.
The result is that folklore becomes a conflicting listen. It is seductive and beautiful and fascinating but also troubling. It is melancholic in the best and worst senses.
As a result, Swift soon starts to embody a boomer ideal of renegade adolescence that has found itself beached upon postmodernity’s cultural dementia. Just five years ago, she was channelling this on songs like “Style”, with its anachronistic synthpop James Dean chic; now she’s settled for the melancholic demeanour of Mae West, as seen through the eyes of Salvador Dali — the drooping face of old glamour made into fancy furniture to lounge on in lockdown. Her career becomes a strange ouroboros, where teenage dreams collapse onto Norma Desmond fantasies.
This is not to cast unnecessary aspersions upon Swift’s character or this album. Again, much of that has been done to death already. And I am nonetheless enjoying it immensely. If this post is anything, it is a shaky attempt to treat her output as she seems to want it to be treated — as an ode to old Hollywood glamour for 21st century women.
However, within the broader context of the present moment, what Swift represents — as ever — inevitably starts to resemble something surreal and melancholic. It is pitiful, in many respects, but contains its own kind of beauty in another. I must admit I find it endlessly fascinating. As negative as all this might sound, I am inclined to put it back on repeat. It is an album that captures so much about this present moment, much of it without meaning to. There are strangely eccentric perspectives buried under her appeals to a kind of late-capitalist folklore. I’m left interrogating the threads that stitch together these supposedly shared values and desires and seeing a surprisingly Lynchian underbelly. There is an invisible string here, beneath the pop beauty, but it doesn’t connect Swift to babyfaced heart throbs; it connects her to a peculiar decadence.
Beneath the glamour is a sickly sweet rot. The pop machine itself has obscured it with tabloid drama. Now, after years of hiding behind a strange defiance, it seems like Swift is ready for her close-up. For better and for worse, it’s the performance of a lifetime.
Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya:
I have really mixed feelings about this album in a way that I haven’t been able to put a finger on, and your write-up here definitely helped me think through that. You describe some of the tracks as ‘uncomfortable’ and that is spot on… I find Folklore, with all of its weird mixing of profound melancholy and banal pop stylings, to be discomforting to the point of being unlistenable at times. The track ‘Epiphany’ in particular stands out for me as being in this mode… I recently lost a friend to an unsuccessful cancer surgery, and the focus on medical death, psychological trauma (and release) in the context of both this personal event and the wider situation with coronavirus unfolds in a way that is a bit much!
You also describe the album as being ‘Lynchian’ at times, with its play of a surreal, normalized surface and hidden, decadent depths being the motif that links the tracks together. This seems extremely apt, from the Hollywood-in-decline vibes that crop up repeatedly to the broader (career-spanning) trend of artificialized Americana. But even some of the tracks (including Epiphany) tap into the synthy dream-pop that brings to my mind Twin Peaks. I have no idea if this is intentional or not, or is born from a mutual interest in the genre on the part of both Lynch and Swift (the obvious mutual admiration of Lana del Rey by both parties also folds neatly as another point in this).
The third season of TP has been on my mind a lot lately, in particular the use of a variety of dream/synth pop tracks throughout the musical codas that ended each episode. I recall some critics saying that the modernization of Twin Peaks (both in terms of the reboot but also the literal modernization of the in-universe town) caused it to lose a bit of surrealist edge (surreal in this sense being the strange anachronistic time-character of the locale). But the use of dream pop, and the accompanying fashion sense used — and maybe even the color template of certain scenes — still seemed anachronistic to me. For a show released in 2017, it *looked* as if it was set in cultural climate of 2010 through roughly 2014 — which in my mind was really an extension of the cultural formations that you note as emerging within the context of the Recession years. Perhaps this is reading into something that is not there, but it seems very deliberate to me.
Across the whole span, my perception of popular ‘indie’ culture pivoted around the twin poles of the folk revival and the dream/synth pop moment. The question of Twin Peak’s third season aside, this is (as you point out) the basic template for Folklore. The name deliberately invokes ‘folk’, and the whole neo-Americana aesthetic harkens back to this constantly. At the same time, the music tilts between this form and the synthetic… I’m curious as to why. Is it a simply case of repetition in the face of similar, yet different, traumatic events? Or is it an indication of how narrow the distance between present-nostalgia and its vanished object has become? Or something deeper still?