While most of us were simply trying to get back into shape or learn how to make dalgona coffee during quarantine, Taylor Swift was keeping herself busy writing one of her best albums to date. Through an Instagram post, the singer-songwriter announced to her millions of followers that she would have been releasing her 8th studio album titled folklore at midnight, which she had written during the lockdown. And with that simple update, she made all her fans (including me!) completely lose their minds.
Just as any swiftie (i.e. Swift’s fan) would tell you, folklore is a very different record from all her previous ones. Yet, somehow the brilliant songwriting and the compelling storytelling perfectly express the talent Miss Swift has always wielded.
All the songs on this album tell much more than the story they present at face value. Through metaphors and similes, Taylor reveals more of her life and her journey to us. Furthermore, in three of the 16 songs on the record, she imagines a fictional love triangle involving three characters – August, James, and Betty – and narrates their complicated relationship. Despite her not being a protagonist in these songs, Taylor is still pretty present as usual. That’s why folklore is such a brilliant title for the album – just like in every folk song, reality and fiction get blurred together in this record, and the emotions felt along the way remain pure.
Therefore, in my opinion, you need to be familiar with Taylor’s writing style in order to fully comprehend this record, as she often tells a story deeply, between the lines. Thankfully, after being a fan for 8 years, I feel that by now I have achieved a bachelor’s degree in Taylor Swift literature, or Swiftology if you may. In this article, I will be putting my experience to good use and unveil what’s hidden behind the folklore.
“And if you never bleed, you’re never gonna grow”
Swift chooses to start off the album with the upbeat tune the 1. In this initial chapter of the story, the singer describes an alternate universe where she and an ex-lover end up together. The hypothetical future described here is happy and rosy. Yet, throughout the album, Taylor shows that she would still opt for the real love she has now, despite it being rocky and painful at times.
“When you are young, they assume you know nothing”
This song is not only the lead single from the album, but also the first track about the teenage love triangle Taylor explores in the record. cardigan is from the point of view of Betty, who is reflecting on the young naive love she has for James. Swift surely drew from her own experiences and emotions while writing this song, as one notice with a quick peek at the lyrics.
the last great american dynasty
“I had a marvelous time ruining everything”
Here Swift begins telling the story of Rebekah Harkness, who was the previous owner of the Rhode Island mansion Taylor purchased in 2015. According to the song (and a quick snoop on the web), Rebekah was known for throwing massive loud star-studded parties. For this reason, she often received harsh backlash from the media, who used to call her a ‘mad woman’. This characterization creates an obvious parallel with Taylor herself, as she has been the victim of similar criticism for years throughout her career. The resemblance is further confirmed with the last verse, where Swift sings how she is the ‘mad woman’ who lives there now.
exile (feat. Bon Iver)
“I think I’ve seen this film before and I didn’t like the ending”
Justin Vernon (of the band Bon Iver) and Taylor Swift exchange lines in the song, acting like a man and a woman reflecting on their failed relationship from different perspectives. The man says she left without giving him any warning, but the woman swears she had given many signs he should have picked up on. This song perfectly embodies how real couples fight – one talks first, then the other gives their opinion, and in the end, both just talk over each other, without listening to one another.
my tears ricochet
“You hear my stolen lullabies”
The fifth track on every Taylor Swift album is known for showing the singer’s emotional vulnerability, and my tears ricochet is no exception. The literal picture painted by the song is of a ghost attending its own funeral and seeing its murderer there. However, just like any Taylor Swift song, there is a deeper meaning hidden between the lines. Through the melancholic melody, the singer unveils her true feelings regarding what went down with her old label (Big Machine Records) and the battle with Scott Borchetta for the ownership of her masters.
“I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight”
mirrorball is probably the most straightforward song on the record, and therefore easier to interpret. The singer admits how she is so eager to please others that she reflects their personalities to get them to like her – just like a mirrorball – but she is afraid to show her true self.
“I hit my peak at seven, feet in the swing over the creek”
At face value, this song is about one of Taylor’s childhood friend who had a hard life at home, and how she didn’t know how to help them because of her youthful innocence. However, the hidden meaning might be the feeling of nostalgia and sorrow that we all have felt at least once while reminiscing of our childhood. In seven, Swift tells us how she misses being young and unafraid, knowing who she was and what she wanted, and how she regrets losing that spirit because life got too complex.
“August sipped away like a bottle of wine, ’cause you were never mine”
The song tells the story of the love triangle from the point of view of August, i.e. the girl with whom James cheated on Betty. Here, Swift sings about a summer love that was bound to end, as the two never really belonged to each other. However, if we agree that the love triangle narrative is based in Taylor’s reality on some level, it’s pretty clear that she used the opportunity of a ‘fictional story’ to slip in details from her past.
this is me trying
“I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting”
In this song, Swift seems to hint to having had doubts about coming back into the public eye after her 2016 self-imposed hiatus, fearing that fans would not be there to welcome her back. She admits that even now she is still unsure about what to say most of the time and often puts her foot in her mouth, afraid of screwing up. Nonetheless, as she sings in the chorus, despite all her fears she is still trying to do better.
“You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else”
This song has probably been one of the trickiest to interpret for all fans. In the track, Taylor gives her take on infidelity, singing from what seems to be the point of view of ‘the other woman’. However, the song doesn’t seem to be part of the love triangle story, therefore it’s been hypothesized that she drew from her own past. In illicit affairs, Taylor gives her take on unfaithfulness with a mature approach, describing it as something that should have been avoided.
“One single thread of gold tied me to you”
This sweet and delicate song references the Japanese folk myth according to which there is a red string of fate that ties two soulmates together for their entire lives. However, for Swift that string is gold. In the song, she sings how life ties us to our fate without us even knowing, as she explains how she and her lover were always destined for each other.
“Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy”
mad woman is another very direct song, where Swift gives in to her angry and vindictive side. The targets of her anger are Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, who were the antagonists in the battle for the ownership of her masters. The two men tried to paint her as a ‘mad woman’ and make it seem like she was blowing the situation out of proportion, calling her rightful complaints ‘temper tantrums’. However, in the song, she doesn’t seem apologetic and instead owns up to the title.
“And some things you just can’t speak about”
In the hauntingly beautiful opening verse, Swift references her grandfather’s military experiences. However, the rest of the song is much more abstract and has been subjected to many different interpretations. Some theorize that she is talking directly about the pandemic, while others believe the song is about her mother’s battle with cancer. Above all, the track is about trying to make sense of some trauma you have had to endure, which is a very universal experience.
“Slept next to her, but I dreamt of you all summer long”
This song is another one from the love triangle narrative, this time from the point of view of James, who asks Betty to forgive him for cheating on her. Once again, this story is probably somehow based on Taylor’s reality, so she took some inspiration from her own life.
“Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?”
Over this captivating tune, Taylor reveals more of her deep fears to her lover. She confesses how she feels unlovable because of her emotional baggage caused by her past failed relationships and the hecticness of her life. In peace, she asks her partner to love her and accept her for who she is, despite her flaws and mistakes.
“Don’t want no other shade of blue but you”
Taylor ends the album with a pretty heavy track. In the song, she shows how real relationships are not black and white. Instead, consist of trauma and hurt, as well as forgiveness and acceptance. Showcasing the grayness of their love, but stating how she still wants him despite all their difficulties, perfectly ties with the themes of the record. In folklore she is not singing of a perfect relationship, but rather of a flawed one, where both parties are too stubborn and in love to walk away from each other. Instead, they decide to work on fixing their shortcomings. folklore doesn’t end with a ‘happily-ever-after’, but instead with the promise of working together towards happiness.