Tales That Become Folklore

Taylor Swift releases surprise 8th studio album over the summer

Tales That Become Folklore

Camille Pfister , Managing Editor

Taylor Swift released her 8th studio album, folklore on July 23, 2020. This album steps a little away from her pop, going into a folk, indie sound instead. While with past album releases, Swift has maintained a 2 year separation from album to album, and had months of lead up filled with clues and hints to the new album, with folklore Swift released it less than one year after her 7th album, and skipped the months of hints. On the morning of July 23, 2020, Swift posted the album cover with a long caption announcing the album dropping that night at midnight. Along with the album, Swift released a letter to fans explaining the stories and images used to make the album. “It started with imagery. Visuals that popped into my mind and piqued my curiosity,” Swift begins her letter. 


The album is Swift’s most beautiful- lyrically and musically. From the deep, slow, melancholy “exile” to the slightly more upbeat “the last great american dynasty” Swift brings forth a new sound with beautiful, intricate lyrics. Swift’s album, conceived entirely in quarantine due to the pandemic, has 16 songs, plus one bonus song, “the lakes.” In Swift’s letter, she talks about creating the album while in isolation. “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.” 


While in the past, most of Swift’s songs have been autobiographical, these tell the tale of not only her but also other people- some she’s never even met. Swift writes in her letter, “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, and those I wish I hadn’t.” 


The album begins with a soft, pop beat, and Swift’s melodious voice. “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit, been saying yes instead of no.” “the 1,” a song telling the story of a person reminiscing about a past love, wondering what life would be like if they ended up together. “But we were something, don’t you think so?/Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool/And if my wishes came true/It would’ve been you,” the chorus goes. In Swift’s letter, she mentions the image, “A cardigan still bears the scent of loss twenty years later” which fans have attributed to this song and the following one, “cardigan.” 


Swift’s second song, “cardigan” falls into ‘The Teenage Love Triangle’ as Swift labels it. ‘The Teenage Love Triangle’ is a triad of songs on folklore, all of which tell the same love triangle story from the 3 perspectives. “cardigan” tells the story of Betty, the girl who gets cheated on. You see this in the line, “Chase two girls/Lose the one.” The song is soft and sweet, as Betty thinks about the good and bad in her relationship. Thinking on the bad she sings, “I, I knew you/Leavin’ like a father/Runnin’ like water, /And when you are young, they assume you know nothing.” And thinking on the good she sings, “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan/Under someone’s bed/You put me on and said I was your favorite.” Fans also attribute another image from Swift’s letter to this song. Swift recalls the image of ‘Stars drawn around scars’ which is mentioned in the line, “You drew stars around my scars/But now I’m bleedin’.” Betty is talking about how her boyfriend tried to make her scars beautiful by drawing stars around them, but he didn’t heal them, and now that he’s gone, she’s bleeding. 


The next song is “the last great american dynasty” which tells the true story of Rebekah Harkness, a wealthy heiress from the 1900’s. Rebekah married her second husband Bill Harkness in 1947, a rich oil tycoon. Rebekah and Bill bought a house in Rhode Island, nicknamed it ‘Holiday House’ and over the years renovated it into a huge mansion. After Bill died in 1953, and Rebekah inherited all of his money, she became one of the richest women in the United States. The song details how society blamed her for her husband’s young death. “The doctor had told him to settle down/It must have been her fault his heart gave out.” The song also goes into the sexism prevalent in that time and today. “Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been/There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/She had a marvelous time ruining everything.’” Swift bought Holiday House in 2013, and goes into this part of the story later in the song. “Fifty years is a long time/Holiday House sat quietly on that beach /Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/And then it was bought by me.” The song is bright and upbeat, as it seems like the women, Harkness and Swift, get the last laugh. In the song, Harkness seems to act without a care in spite of her judgmental neighbors. An image from Swift’s letter that connects to the song is, “A misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out.” 


In the fourth song, Justin Vernon (cred. Bon Iver) begins with a deep, warm voice. “exile” is a duet song between Swift and Iver about a relationship crumbling. The song uses the two voices to parallel one another, showing the two sides of when a relationship ends badly, and one of the members gets a new partner. In the first verse Iver sings, “I can see you standin’, honey/With his arms around your body.” And later, in response to that, Swift sings, “I can see you starin’, honey/Like he’s just your understudy.” Later in the song, their voices overlap one another. The deep piano adds to the sad, yet harmonious sound. The two people debate whose fault it was that the relationship broke. Iver sings, “Cause you never gave a warning sign.” Overlapping that, Swift sings, “I gave so many signs.” In the letter, Swift mentions an image that fans have attributed to this song, writing, “An exiled man walking the bluffs of a land that isn’t his own, wondering how it went so terribly, terribly, wrong.” 


“my tears ricochet” is the fifth song on the album, which is historically Swift’s saddest, most emotional song. The song uses the image from Swift’s letter, “An embittered tormenter showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession.” In the song, the story is told of a funeral, singing, “We gather here/We line up weeping in a sunlit room.” The song is about a bully showing up at the funeral of their victim, but despite being the reason for the death, they blame the victim. “And if I’m dead to you why are you at the wake?/Cursing my name/Wishing I stayed.” The song’s music is very light, contrasting Swift’s sad, emotionally raw voice. 


“A mirrored disco ball hovering over a dance floor,” is the image attributed to this song from Swift’s letter, where she compares herself to a “mirrorball.” The sixth song is the brightest, happiest song on the album. The song compares Swift to a disco ball, singing about how she’s ‘shimmering beautiful’, when she breaks it’s ‘in a million pieces’, and that she can ‘change everything about herself to fit in.’ The song is addressed to a loved one, and how everyone regular people just pretend to understand her, but don’t. However, this loved one does understand and for that she is ‘shining just for you.’ The song also mentions how even with all of the hurt from other people, she still finds optimism. “I’m still a believer, but I don’t know why/I’ve never been a natural/All I do is try, try, try.” 


The seventh song on the album is, fittingly, named “seven.” The song is soft and innocent, told from a child’s perspective. The song starts with a slow piano, and Swift’s light and wistful voice, before transitioning to a faster piano tune. The song incorporates Swift’s childhood growing up in Pennsylvania. The song also uses images and metaphors reminiscent of an innocent childhood, ‘sweet tea in the summer,’ ‘cross your heart,’ ‘love you to the moon and to Saturn,’ and ‘passed down like folk songs.’ The song also brings up how growing up can make you lose your innocence, with lines like, “Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously.” There are also hints to child abuse and children not understanding the truth in the song, with such lines as, “I think your house is hauted/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.” In Swift’s letter she also mentions the image, “Hushed tones of “let’s run away” and never doing it” which connects to the aspect mentioned later in the song of packing up childhood mementos and moving to India. 


The second song in the triad of the “Teenage Love Triangle” is “august,” the eighth song, which is the perspective of the ‘other girl,’ the one who the boy cheats with. The song is reminiscent and sad, as the girl thinks about what could be if she hadn’t been the mistress. “And I can see us twisted in bedsheets/August sipped away/Like a bottle of wine/’Cause you were never mine.” The song includes lines that are called back to in the final triad song. “Remember when I pulled up/And said “Get in the car.”” The image from the letter that connects to this song is, “The sun drenched month of August, sipped away like a bottle of wine.” 


“I just wanted you to know that this is me trying,” is the chorus of the ninth song on the album. “this is me trying” tells the story of someone struggling to remain hopeful and survive. “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting/I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting.” Connections to Swift’s personal life can be found in the song, with lines referencing her 3 year break from the public eye, and her celebrity feuds.    “I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back/I have a lot of regrets about that.” “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere/Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here.” The song is slow and sad, as the person begs the object of the song to understand that this is just them trying to survive. 


“illicit affairs,” the tenth song on the album, tells a similar story to “august.” The story is one of a hidden relationship, and the feelings that come along with it. “Make sure nobody sees you leave/Hood over your head/Keep your eyes down/Tell your friends you’re out for a run/You’ll be flushed when you return,” is how the song begins, accompanied by a soft acoustic guitar. The lyrics tell the story of a person forced to hide their love, and suffering because of it. “Don’t call me kid/Don’t call me baby/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 single thread, that for better or worse, ties you to your fate,” is the line in Swift’s letter that connects to this simplistic, sweet song. “invisible string,”the eleventh song, is Swift’s love letter to boyfriend Joe Alwyn. The song uses several symbols fans have connected to Alwyn and their relationship, like the color of Alwyn’s shift when he worked in a yogurt shop as a teenager, or the waitress on their three year trip to the lakes. The sweet, innocent love-esque song imagines an invisible string tying Swift to Alwyn. “And isn’t it just so pretty to think/All along there was some/Invisible string/Tying you to me?” 


“mad woman,” the twelfth song, is a dark, bite-back song, telling a story of a woman hurt, or ‘gone mad.’ The woman in the story, which takes from Swift’s personal experience, and the general experience all women go through. “What did you think I’d say to that?/Does the scorpion sting when fighting back?/They strike to kill/And you know I will,” is how the song begins, accompanied by a light piano which contrasts Swift’s slow, deep, dark voice. Speaking to the whole woman experience, Swift sings in the pre-chorus, “And when you say I seem angry/I get more angry.” In the chorus Swift sings, “What a shame she went mad/No one likes a mad woman/You made her like that.” Swift has often talked about the double standards for men and women, especially in the music industry. This line brings up an idea that feminists have been mentioning for a long time. When men get mad, they are justified, but when women get mad, they are overreacting, emotional, and crazy. The song references women coming to the aid of men who attack women. “And women like hunting witches too/Doing your dirtiest work for you.” 


“Hands held through plastic,” is the image from Swift’s letter that comes to mind with the song, “epiphany.” The thirteenth song has two aspects- the story of her grandfather, Dean, and his journey in war, and the healthcare workers in the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first verse, discussing the war and the PTSD that often follows, Swift sings, “Crawling up the beaches now/Sir I think he’s bleeding out.” And in the second verse, when singing about the pandemic, Swift sings, “Something med school did not cover/Someone’s mother, someone’s daughter.” The song parallels the two hardships, with the line, “And some things you just can’t speak about,” sung at the end of both verses. In the chorus, Swift describes sleep as searching for that minute of ‘epiphany.’ “Only twenty minutes of sleep/But you dream of some epiphany/Just one single glimpse of relief/To make some sense of what you’ve seen.” Both soldiers and medical workers don’t get a lot of sleep, especially during a war or a pandemic, and there is so much death that those people have to try and make sense of all the death and sadness. 


The final triad of the “Teenage Love Triangle” is called “betty.” The fourteenth song is from James’s perspective, the boy who cheats on his girlfriend, Betty. In Swift’s letter, she mentions an image of, “A seventeen-year-old standing on a porch, learning to apologize.” This comes back in the line, “Betty, I’m here on your doorstep/And I planned it out for weeks now but/It’s finally sinking in.” The song also makes connections to both the other triad songs. “Standing in your cardigan,” references “cardigan” and “Just thinking of you when she pulled up/Like a figment of my worst intentions/She said “James, get in, let’s drive”” references “august.” The song is a story of excuses and apologies, with James trying to justify his actions by saying Betty was flirting with someone else, it was the other girl’s fault, he “dreamt of you all summer long.” And while in “cardigan” Betty sings, “When you are young/they assume you know nothing.” In “betty” James sings, “I’m only seventeen/I don’t know anything.” Showing their opposite perspectives about the relationship ending. 


“peace” is another song fans have attributed to being about Swift’s boyfriend Alwyn. The fifteenth song is about how Swift’s fame can be detrimental to her relationships. “Would it be enough/If I could never give you peace?” Swift sings, and talks about how she’d “give you my sunshine/give you my best/but the rain is always going to come/if you’re standing with me.” The song is soft and slow, as Swift seems to ask if her love is willing to give up peace to be with her. The song ends on a question, illustrating the fact that Swift might still be asking herself that question. 


“hoax,” the sixteenth song, is one of the darkest songs on the album, as Swift writes about staying in a toxic relationship long after the love is gone. The chorus connects back to “this is me trying” where Swift’s character is standing on the edge of a cliff. “Stood on the cliffside screaming, ‘Give me a reason’/Your faithless love is the only hoax I believe in.” Swift also says that active hatred is just as bad as pretending, she sings the line, “You knew it still hurts underneath my scars/from when they pulled me apart/but what you did was just as dark.” Swift’s voice is numb and heartbroken as a soft piano accompanies her. 


“the lakes,” Swift’s bonus song, and number seventeen, is a perfect love song to boyfriend Alwyn. It is slow and deep, yet hauntingly romantic. The song is about The Lakes District in England, referenced in “invisible string” as well. Swift describes “setting off” to the lakes, and living a life away from the media and fame. “Take me to the lakes, where all the poets went to die/I don’t belong, and my beloved, neither do you/Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry/I’m settin’ off, but not without my muse.” Describing Alwyn as her “muse” Swift references how she gets most of her love songs from him, and how he is keeping her sane as she cries. Swift also mentions her masters being bought by Braun in the lines, “I’ve come too far to watch some name-dropping sleaze/tell me what are my words worth.” 


In Swift’s letter, she discusses what “folklore” is, and what it means to her. “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 indescribable. Speculation, over time, becomes fact.” These lines seem to reference Swift writing about her past relationships, and although she never names names, the media and fans speculate on their own and the lines become a little blurred. 


Swift’s album is special, it is musically intricate and the lyrics connect with one another in a magnificent way, with sadness and joy merging together. Swift closes her letter with a request to her fans. 


“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.”