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Music / folklore (2020)

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"I'm doing good, I'm on some new shit."

"A tale that becomes folklore is one that is passed down and whispered around. Sometimes even sung about. The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible. Speculation, over time, becomes fact. Myths, ghost stories, and fables. Fairytales and parables. Gossip and legend. Someone's secrets written in the sky for all to behold.

In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I've told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve.

Now it's up to you to pass them down."
Taylor Swift for billboard

Folklore (stylized lowercase as folklore) is the eighth studio album by American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. It was released at midnight on July 24, 2020, after being announced with no prior marketing only the morning before. The album was written throughout the spring and while Swift was in quarantine during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The project carved a new path for Swift's discography. It has a folksy, alternative sound, as contrasted with her earlier country work and more recent Synth-Pop. It likewise marked a shift in her lyrical content, focusing more on fictional storytelling and worldbuilding rather than the personal narratives that Swift had previously been known for. Swift continued to work with her frequent collaborator and producer Jack Antonoff, but brought some new faces to her team, including Bon Iver as her only feature and brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner from The National as writers and producers. The album also feature prominent writing (and production) credit of William Bowery, who was later revealed by Taylor to be her boyfriend at the time Joe Alwyn.

While folklore lacked the pop radio appeal of her earlier works, it was still an immense commercial and critical success and demonstrated her continued commitment to exploring new artistic avenues. This new path exposed Swift to a host of new fans and led to a general reevaluation of her entire oeuvre. folklore was named Album of the Year at the 63rd Grammy Awards, making Swift the first female artist to win the award three times.

Less than five months after its release, Swift once again announced a surprise midnight album: folklore's "sister record," evermore, which she described as a continuation of the same project and which shares many lyrical and technical similarities with its predecessor.

Preceded by Lover, succeded by evermore.
  1. "the 1" (3:30)
  2. "cardigan" (3:59)
  3. "the last great american dynasty" (3:51)
  4. "exile" (ft. Bon Iver) (4:45)
  5. "my tears ricochet" (4:15)
  6. "mirrorball" (3:29)
  7. "seven" (3:28)
  8. "august" (4:21)
  9. "this is me trying" (3:15)
  10. "illicit affairs" (3:10)
  11. "invisible string" (4:12)
  12. "mad woman" (3:57)
  13. "epiphany" (4:49)
  14. "betty" (4:49)
  15. "peace" (3:54)
  16. "hoax" (3:40)
  17. "the lakes" (Bonus Track) (3:31)

"I had a marvelous time troping everything":

  • Abusive Parents: Heavily implied in "seven":
    I think your house is haunted
    Your dad is always mad, and that must be why
    And I think you should come live with me
    and we can be pirates
    Then you won't have to cry
    Or hide in the closet
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: The (real) house in "the last great american dynasty" is named "Holiday House."
  • Album Closure: Out of keeping with her normal pattern, Swift concludes folklore with its saddest song: "hoax," a quiet piano ballad about feeling broken by a lover's betrayal but staying anyway.
  • Album Title Drop: The word "folklore" never appears in the album, but "seven" includes several variations on the line:
    Passed down like folk songs
    Our love lasts so long
  • all lowercase letters: The album and all of the tracks are stylized in all lower case letters.
  • Alternative Indie: It was Taylor's first album to be classified as "Alternative" rather than country or pop, and the visual and sonic aesthetic incorporate elements commonly associated with soft indie pop, but it's difficult to make a case for such a mainstream artist being either.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Does Betty takes James back? Accordig to Word of God, yes. Despite being the first of the three songs to appear, the storytelling of "cardigan" happens 20 or 30 years later, as Betty recalls the separation and enduring optimism of her relationship with James.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • While "cardigan," "august," and "betty" are all part of the same story, the way other songs on the album tie in (or if they do at all) is completely up for listeners' interpretation.
    • Did James outright cheat on Betty, or were they not really "together" when James had his fling with “August”?
  • Amicable Exes: Referenced in "invisible string" to illustrate how much the narrator has grown and matured over the years. She used to hold grudges against ex-boyfriends who hurt her, but has now let go of her anger enough to send gifts for their children.
  • Anti-Love Song:
    • "august" took this up to eleven, with every verses and chorus started by expressing the singer's longing for the guy... Only to subverted at the end of verse by concluding that "You aren't mine to lose".
    • "illicit affairs" starts with the singer setting up all the way the she and her love interest conducts an affair... right before revealing that all the lies and secrecy has eaten away and exhausted her for the rest of the song and ended the song stating that she can't end the relationship because she loves the man so much.
  • "Back to Camera" Pose: The inner artwork is a monochrome photograph of Swift's back while she looks out at a grassy field. It is appropriate for the melancholy, self-reflective tone of the album's songs.
  • Big Fancy House: Swift's Rhode Island beach mansion, Holiday House, features heavily in "the last great american dynasty", which is about its previous owner, a Nouveau Riche woman who didn't fit in with the Old Money. The song mentions how she turned the respectable home into quite the party place, "[filling] the pool with champagne and [swimming] with the big names".
  • Bittersweet 17: The main characters in the “teenage love triangle” plot are 17 years old and experiencing heartbreak for the first time.
  • Bowdlerise: On the radio edition of "betty", "would you tell me to go fuck myself?" gets edited to "would you tell me to go straight to hell?"
  • Break-Up Song:
    • "exile," a duet between both parties to a failed relationship.
      You were my town
      Now I'm in exile seein' you out
    • It's not clear whether "my tears ricochet" is about a breakup, a literal death, or something else entirely (such as, like some fans believe, Taylor's departure from Big Machine Records and long fight for ownership of her discography), but it can certainly be interpreted as one of these.
      Cursing my name, wishing I stayed
      You turned into your worst fears
      And you're tossing out blame, drunk on this pain
      Crossing out the good years
  • Breakout Character: "the lakes" was originally a deluxe release. However, the song's popularity has caused Swift to release the original version of the song for the 1 year anniversary of the album.
  • Burn the Witch!: Used metaphorically in "mad woman":
    And women like hunting witches too
    Doing your dirtiest work for you
  • Childhood Friends: "seven" is written to the singer's childhood best friend, whom she has fallen out of touch with but still remembers with great fondness.
    And though I can't recall your face
    I still got love for you
  • Children Are Innocent: A heartbreaking example in "seven." The narrator notices that her friend's father is angry all the time . . . and assumes it must be because their house is haunted.
  • Colorful Song: "invisible string" mentions green grass, teal shirt, gold leaves, "the blues and then purple pink skies," and, of course, "one single thread of gold" that tied the narrator to her lover.
  • Concept Album: Loosely organized around the topic of "folklore"—stories that get told and retold and morphed as they travel.
  • Continuity Nod: "cardigan," "august," and "betty" contain numerous subtle internal references that clue the listener into their connection to each other.
    • "cardigan" says, "Chase two girls, lose the one," setting up the Love Triangle.
    • "betty" and "cardigan" both mention walking on cobblestones and kissing in cars. Both also mention James coming back to Betty, standing on her porch, and saying he misses her.
    • The incident of the unnamed mistress pulling up and telling James to get in the car is discussed in the bridges of "august" and "betty."
    • "betty" mentions the song's subject "standing in [her] cardigan."
  • Darker and Edgier: Undoubtedly the darkest album she had ever done. The album has multiple songs with Precision F-Strike, exploration of heavy themes like death, abuse, alcoholism and sexism, and a lack of definitive happy endings for the characters involved.
  • Delayed Narrator Introduction: “the last great american dynasty” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness’s life in the third person until the bridge:
    Holiday House sat quietly on that beach
    Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits
    And then it was bought by me.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The album's cover is achromatic, effecting a sense of age (like folk songs and tales) and loneliness (like the solitude it was written in).
  • Deconstruction: "illicit affairs" deconstruct being The Mistress, showing that the all the sneaking up and lies eventually worn out the woman despite still loving the married man so much.
  • Destructive Romance:
    • The relationship described in "hoax" is obviously not a good one, with the narrator hinting that her lover is cheating on her, implying she has suicidal feelings because of her lover's behavior, and outright admitting she's unhappy—but still not wanting to leave, because if she's going to be unhappy, she'd rather do it with someone than without.
    • Depending on how you interpret "illicit affairs," it could also be seen as unhealthy, as the narrator clearly hates the sneaking around, and the final verse sounds a lot like a vicious argument.
      Don't call me "kid"
      Don't call me "baby"
      Look at this godforsaken mess you've made me
    • "exile" implies that the two lovers have extreme difficulties communicate with each other and the male singer (Bon Iver) ignores the signs that their relationship isn't working as well as willing to beat up guys for the female singer. The female singer on her part runs away without any words to the male singer.
  • Double Entendre: The line in the first chorus of "illicit affairs," which speaks of love "[dying] / A million little times," may refer to the euphemism, "little death," for sexual orgasm.
  • Double Meaning:
    • "seven" uses the phrase "hit my peak" to refer both to hitting the highest point in the arc of a swing and having the best time of your life.
      I hit my peak at seven
      Feet in the swing over the creek
      I was too scared to jump in
    • "mad woman" uses mad in both of its senses (angry and insane) simultaneously. A madwoman, it suggests, is often simply a mad woman.
      Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy
      What about that?
      And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry
      And there's nothing like a mad woman
      What a shame she went mad
  • Downer Ending:
    • While all of Taylor's previous albums end on a happy or bittersweet note, this album closes out with "hoax," a very sad and emotional track about a toxic relationship.
      Your faithless love's the only hoax I believe in
    • Subverted with the album's physical CD version, which ends with "the lakes", a love ballad about wanting to escape from the modern life to the aforementioned lake with her significant other.
  • Driven to Suicide:
  • Easter Egg: The video for "cardigan" contains a picture of Swift’s grandfather Dean in his military uniform. His service in the South Pacific inspired "epiphany".
  • Family of Choice: "the 1" states that the subject of the narrator has one and the narrator reminiscing about celebrating with her subject chosen family and wish she could have been a part of that family:
    We were something, don't you think so?
    Rosé flowing with your chosen family
    And it would've been sweet
    If it could've been me
  • Female Misogynist: Discussed in "mad woman". "Women like hunting witches too..."
  • Folk Music: Sort of. It's hard for an artist with the Billboard stats Taylor has to release what could be considered "authentic" folk, and the album's production is a lot more polished that usual for the genre. But it manages to capture the ethos and concerns of folk brilliantly.
  • Grief Song: "epiphany," a song about the COVID-19 pandemic.
    Something med school did not cover
    Someone's daughter, someone's mother ...
    And some things you just can't speak about
  • The Grovel: All of "betty" is James groveling to the titular character for her to forgive and take him back. He admits he's cheated on and hurt her, argues that his fling with another girl wasn't anything serious, and says he misses Betty and wants to make it up to her.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: In "betty," James does this twice.
    • "Betty, I won't make assumptions about why you switched your homeroom / But I think it's 'cause of me."
    • On the subject of his infidelity:
      You heard the rumors from Inez
      You can't believe a word she says
      Most times, but this time, it was true
  • In Medias Res: The "Teenage Love Triangle" trilogy is arranged on the album on opposite order, with "cardigan" is clearly about an adult Betty, while "betty" takes place in high school, and "august" is about James' unnamed mistress reminiscing about their romance after it's over.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: "seven" says the narrator's friend cries and hides in the closet, and their father is always mad; the narrator is too young to know anything about Abusive Parents and thinks this is because their house is haunted.
  • Ironic Episode Title: "peace" expresses a lot of tumultuous emotions as the narrator warns her beloved that she can never give them peace.
  • It's All My Fault:
    • "the 1" uses a variation:
      In my defense, I have none
      For digging up the grave another time
    • In "betty," James admits:
      The worst thing that I ever did
      Was what I did to you
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: "the 1" has the narrator dreaming about her former lover, whom she still misses, being happy without her:
    I have this dream you're doing cool shit
    Having adventures on your own
    You meet some woman on the Internet and take her home
  • Last Disrespects: "my tears ricochet" is about someone who made the protagonist's life a living hell coming to their funeral as a proverbial last middle finger.
  • Letters 2 Numbers: "the 1." Bonus as it's the first track on the album.
  • Location Song: Played with. "the last great american dynasty" is about both Rebekah Harkness and Swift herself, whose connection is the beachside house they both owned, fifty years apart.
  • Love Is a Drug: "illicit affairs" is a Love Martyr song about "A drug that only worked / The first few hundred times."
  • Love Martyr:
    • The narrator of "illicit affairs" admits she's this.
      Look at this idiotic fool that you made me
      You taught me a secret language I can't speak with anyone else
      And you know damn well
      For you I would ruin myself
      A million little times.
    • The narrator of "hoax" knows her lover is "faithless" and is obviously very broken up about it, but stays anyway.
      You have beaten my heart
      Don't want no other shade of blue but you
      No other sadness in the world would do
  • Love Nostalgia Song:
    • In "the 1," the singer reminisces about an old love and wonders what could have happened if they had stayed together.
      We never painted by the numbers, baby
      But we were making it count
      You know the greatest loves of all time are over now
    • "august" looks back at a summer romance which would never have worked out but which the singer still misses:
      But I can see us lost in the memory
      August slipped away into a moment in time
      'Cause it was never mine
  • Love Triangle: "cardigan," "betty," and "august" are each written from the perspective of one of the teenagers in a tumultuous love triangle: Betty, James, and the unnamed girl James had an affair with. "cardigan" spells this out with the line, "Chase two girls, lose the one."
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "seven" is set to light piano tune. The lyric of the song is about the narrator begging her childhood friend to not forget her while reminiscing about their relationship and innocently plotting the friend's escape from their abusive father.
  • Misery Builds Character: In "the 1," the narrator says, "And if you never bleed, you're never gonna grow," trying to justify the pain of losing her love.
  • The Mistress: The narrator of "illicit affairs" has been in a secret relationship with her married lover for quite a while. Much of the song is about how the sneaking around and always being in second place is really wearing her down, but she loves them too much to end it.
  • Mood Whiplash: "invisible string" is a Silly Love Song sandwiched between the very angsty Deconstruction of being The Mistress in "illicit affairs" and the incredibly rageful "mad woman" that decries sexism.
  • Motif:
    • In "mirrorball," the singer uses the central image of a disco ball to discuss various facets of her personality—her sparkle, her reflectivity, and, ultimately, her fragility.
    • Movies/films are mentioned in several songs, in accord with the album's theme of storytelling.
      • "the 1" says, "You know the greatest films of all time were never made," paralleling the narrator's thoughts about her lost love being the greatest.
      • "exile" has the line, "I think I've seen this film before and I didn't like the ending."
      • "this is me trying" says, "You're a flashback in a film reel / On the one screen in my town."
      • "hoax" is the album's Downer Ending note  that says, "You knew the hero died, so what's the movie for?"
  • New Sound Album: Swift's previous albums range anywhere from pure country to pure pop to a hybrid between the two. folklore, on the other hand, is classified as an alternative album and is considerably more low-tempo and minimalist than her work in other genres. The closest thing she'd ever done to it was "Safe and Sound", a collaboration with The Civil Wars created for the first Hunger Games movie.
  • Never My Fault: "mad woman" calls out men who blame their own poor behavior and inadequacies on the women in their lives.
  • Nouveau Riche: Rebekah Harkness in "the last great american dynasty" came into her fortune by marrying the heir to an oil baron. She has trouble fitting in with the Old Money "Rhode Island set."
    The wedding was charming, if a little gauche
    There's only so far new money goes
  • No Name Given: The girl James has a summer fling with is never named by the narrative.
  • One-Woman Song: "betty", named for the object of the singer's affection.
  • One-Word Title:
    • Like most of Swift's albums, folklore has one.
    • "cardigan," "exile," "mirrorball," "seven," "august," "epiphany," "betty," "peace," and "hoax," also have them.
  • Patriot in Exile: The duet song "exile", comparing two ex lovers relationship to this trope:
    (Bon Iver) You're not my homeland anymore
    So what am I defending now?
    You were my town
    Now I'm in exile seein' you out
    (Taylor) You were my crown
    Now I'm in exile, seein' you out
  • Perspective Flip: "cardigan," "august," and "betty" give the perspectives of each of the three teens involved in a Love Triangle.
  • Platonic Declaration of Love: "seven" says, "Love you to the moon and to Saturn" to a childhood friend.
  • Precision F-Strike: Swift's first album to be given an explicit content label, with five songs considered explicit. "mad woman" and "betty" use the word "fuck", "the last great american dynasty" contains "bitch", and "the 1" and "peace" use "shit".
    • "mad woman" particularly is the only one that uses it degradingly and almost viciously.
      Do you see my face in your neighbor's lawn?
      Does she smile
      or does she mouth 'Fuck you forever'?
  • Poor Communication Kills: Miscommunication is one of the major problems in "exile."
    You didn't even hear me out
    Didn't even hear me out
    You never gave a warning sign
    I gave so many signs.
  • Production Throwback:
    • The previous album's song "ME!" says, "I never leave well enough alone," self-deprecatingly but proudly. "the 1" says, "In my defense, I have none / For never leaving well enough alone" in It's All My Fault fashion.
    • "betty" is reminiscent of Swift's early country work—songs like "Love Story" from Fearless—with its harmonica, jaunty chorus, and teenage heartache lyrics. It even has a Truck Driver's Gear Change in the final chorus!
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Apparently averted. In stark contrast to Swift's previous albums, which made her notorious for writing about her real interpersonal relationships, folklore is supposedly composed of stories that aren't about her. Some, like "the last great american dynasty," tell stories which have a clear connection to her life, but the inspiration behind many of the other tracks has been the subject of much speculation.
  • Recovered Addict: The narrator of "this is me trying" is implied to be an alcoholic in recovery.
    Pouring my heart out to a stranger
    But I didn't pour the whiskey
  • Red String of Fate: The concept behind “invisible string,” although here the string is gold.
    A string that pulled me
    Out of all the wrong arms right into that dive bar
    Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire
    Chains around my demons
    Wool to brave the seasons
    One single thread of gold tied me to you
  • The Scapegoat: Rebekah in "the last great american dynasty" gets blamed for everything, up to and including her husband's untimely death by heart attack.
    She had a marvelous time ruining everything
  • Self-Deprecation: "mirrorball" has a lot of lines where Swift admits to her vulnerability and her great effort to keep people to pay attention to her.
    Shimmering beautiful
    And when I break, it's in a million piece
    I'm still on that tightrope
    I'm still trying everything to get you laughing at me
    And I'm still a believer, but I don't know why
    I've never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try
    I'm still on that trapeze
    I'm still trying everything to keep you looking at me
  • Self-Referential Track Placement: Three of the album's tracks are arranged in numerological order. Track #1 is called "the 1," track #7 is called "seven," and track #8 is called "august" (August being the eighth month of the year).
  • Shout-Out:
    • "cardigan" references the ending of Peter Pan.
    Tried to change the ending
    Peter losing Wendy
    • In "invisible string", the repeated use of the phrase [X] is the [Y] of ("Green was the color of the grass", "Cold was the steel of my axe", "Gold was the color of the leaves") is almost certainly one to the most famous and often-covered Appalachian folk songs, "Black is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)".
  • Silly Love Songs:
    • "invisible string" plays this the most straight, with the narrator recount all the events that brought her and her love interest together by the string of fate starting from their teenage years. This is the song most explicitly based on Swift and Alwyn's relationship, containing details from their personal lives.
    • "peace" is about the narrator recounting all the things that threaten their relationship but also all the things she is willing to give him. Finally, the narrator asking her love interest if all the things she offers would be enough "if [she] could never give [them] peace?".
    • The narrator in "the lakes" wants to escape with her muse from the business of the world to a quiet nature retreat (more specifically, the Lake Country of England).
  • Song of Many Emotions: "peace" has Swift first lament her journey to maturity and the downsides of celebrity, then proclaims her love for her significant other before asking if that would make up for never giving him peace.
  • Stealth Pun: "the 1", "seven" and "august" are all arranged to position in the album to exploit their number-related title.
  • Switching P.O.V.: In the "teenage love triangle" trilogy, every character gets their turn in telling the story: "cardigan" is narrated by Betty many years after she's reconciled with James, "betty" is James groveling to her after his summer of infidelity, and "august" is James' unnamed mistress reminiscing about their past romance.
  • Take That!: While the majority of this album is much more subtle than Swift's usual works towards people she dislikes, the "peace" lyric video gave us the most obvious dig. Especially notable since the person she insulted wasn't even the main subject of the song.
    Clown to the West.
  • Textless Album Cover: Neither the standard cover nor any of the eight special editions has any words.
  • Their First Time: "august" implies that the unnamed girl and James lost their virginity to each other.
    "Are you sure?"
    "Never have I ever before..."
  • Tuckerization: James, Inez, and Betty are named after Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s three daughters.
  • Title Drop:
    • "seven" drops its title in the first verse:
      Please picture me in the trees
      I hit my peak at seven
      Feet in the swing over the creek
    • "betty" is the first word in the song (and its subject), rather than part of the hook.
  • Tranquil Fury: Part of what makes "mad woman" so disquieting is how Taylor delivers it in a completely calm, even tone, even as she spits venom.
    • The song scorns those that treat women like they're crazy and irrational, when in reality they're justifiably angry over being mistreated.
      There's nothing like a mad woman
      What a shame she went mad
      No one likes a mad woman
    • Threats are delivered serenely, too:
      Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?
      They strike to kill and you know I will
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: The last chorus of "betty" shifts up a key to capture the singer's more hopeful mood and to make it sound like a Fearless-era country pop tune.
  • Unfocused During Intimacy: Implied in "betty":
    Slept next to her, but
    I dreamt of you all summer long
  • War Is Hell: The first verse of "epiphany" draws on Swift's grandfather's traumatizing experiences as a soldier in World War II.
    Crawling up the beaches now
    "Sir, I think he's bleeding out"
    And some things you just can't speak about
  • Wham Line: The ending of "betty" delivers one of these: "I know I miss you... standing in your cardigan" revealing that the subject of the song is the narrator of "cardigan", Betty.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Betty in "cardigan" observes that "When you are young, they assume you know nothing," then says she foresaw all the twists and turns of her romance with James concluding, "I knew everything when I was young." That's in stark contrast to James who, in his POV song, uses his youth as an excuse: "I'm only seventeen / I don't know anything."
  • You Can't Go Home Again: In "my tears ricochet," the narrator laments:
    I can go anywhere I want
    Anywhere I want—
    Just not home