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On Candor and Comfort: Heights Speaks on Swift’s folklore

Simone Yatco | Aug 21, 2020

With months into quarantine, everyone has come to reluctantly accept the sluggish days that pass without much change in routine. Amid the uncertainty the pandemic brought, the last thing people expected was a spontaneous album drop from pop icon Taylor Swift. When folklore was released last July 24, fans scrambled to listen and found it to be almost totally different from Swift’s previous works. Nearly a month later, on August 18, Swift closed the album by making her bonus track “the lakes” available on all streaming sites. 

From its lovelorn lyrics to the decisive moment it was released, folklore garnered a special allure. Many have praised Swift for her poetic storytelling in the album and her use of whimsical visuals, and for this reason, Heights, along with the rest of the globe, dares to ask: “Is folklore Taylor Swift’s best album yet?” In this feature, Heights Art Staff Editors Clare and Justine, English Staff Editor Sean, and English Staffer Cat explore the artistic and literary merits of folklore to answer the question

Folklore’s woodland fantasy shoot

folklore Album Jacket

At initial impression, the black and white album cover renders a melancholy, just as, in contrast, Lover used color to complement its lively music. Unique to folklore is it being Swift’s first album cover that does not have her face up close. Though she is the focal point of the image, the trees dwarf her in comparison. With the top of the photo almost overexposed, the portion becomes much brighter than the trees. “It’s interesting that it’s not a closed-off frame,” Justine noted, “like she’s not trapped in totally and can still get out.” The cover, although shrouded by grain and noise, still emulates a calm and whimsical aura. 

On the other hand, the Heightsers thought differently of the back of the album jacket. Instead of being dwarfed, Swift looks like she will break off into a run, with a jacket lazily enfolding her. In this photo, the black and white distinction is made sharper and more defined through Swift’s attire. Cat pointed out that, in contrast to the album cover where Swift is fully covered up by a coat, here, she is seen shedding while in motion; possibly a symbol of beginning vulnerability. In terms of form, however, the Heightsers had qualms with this image, as the unbalanced placement of elements and the dissimilarity in mood from its front cover gave them the impression that it could have been from a different album. 

folklore Promotional Photos from Swift’s Instagram 

Apart from the album visuals, Swift also shared promotional materials on social media. The photo on the left, taken from Swift’s instagram, invokes a ghostly feeling with Swift foregrounded as a stark white figure against her gray surroundings. With a long skirt and sweater, Swift dresses in clothes for lounging at home, akin to many people in quarantine. Among these, the most notable feature of the photo is Swift’s body language. The image looks very still and placid, and Swift appears as though she is either wiping a tear away or hiding her face. Cat pointed out that Swift’s body language may be related to the previous photo, as she explains, “[Swift] looks like she’s moving away. Like [she’s] leaving. [This is] interesting because before, she looked like she was supposed to run.” 

The photo on the right, also taken from Swift’s Instagram, came with a letter describing folklore in the making. To Sean, of all the images, this photo "is very Taylor as a musician, Taylor as a celebrity,” he explained, "[there is a] larger connection and larger ‘hey look at me’. [The photo is] very different from the others." Like folklore’s back cover, Swift is caught in the middle of turning away. Justine also added that, with the camera angle lowered, Swift is framed with an air of confidence. 

On folklore’s visual coherence

Justine, Clare, Sean, and Cat unanimously agreed that the visuals could have been more coherent had they been shot in the same location. Their strongest bind relied on the use of black and white all throughout.

Sean shared that he was underwhelmed when folklore’s visuals were first released. “You obviously know where Taylor’s going with this, [and it] felt a bit predictable to me. She’s known for these transformations,” Sean explained. He went on to say that, to him, whilst the visuals weren’t as striking, it still enhanced a part of the appeal and reflected what the album is like—the muddled gray implicating Swift’s shift to melancholy slow songs.

The group believed that there could have been more creative direction. While the visuals were able to capture the album’s mood as well as the context it was released in, in a more artistic sense, there are still some elements lacking. “It works when promoting and encapsulating her album,” Justine explained, “but this isn’t art or a masterpiece outside of the Taylor Swift realm. It sells, but in a more artistic sense, underwhelming and kulang (deficient). It did its job.”

Folklore as storytelling

One of the most apparent attributes in Swift’s folklore is how it deliberately strays from a personal vantage and instead, directs focus to other narratives like the lovelorn boy, a mistress, and a child talking to her friend. In each song, Swift introduces a new story. Though her previous albums explored redundant tropes, in folklore, the stories are seen anew. 

But, in definition, what exactly is folklore? 

Folklore refers to the tales people tell—folk stories, fairy tales, “tall tales,” and even urban legends. The main characteristic of folklore is that it has no author—it just emerges from the culture and is carried forward by constant retelling. The same goes for Swift’s album; “So many songs in folklore [are] plots we’ve heard of before,” Cat explained, “for her to make an album centered around those plots is interesting. I think it’s impressive because it’s more of a concept album than just a music album. The concept here is: ‘what are the stories Taylor wants to pass down to people?’” Truly, folklore’s storytelling and lyrics are the center of attention for fans as Swift renders the album with each song blending together and each story thoughtfully crafted.

Diving into fan favorite folklore

The album’s content discussion followed the prompt: is folklore Taylor Swift’s best album yet? While it may be too premature to say for some, it is still worth discussing as folklore took the world by storm with all 16 songs hitting the Billboard Hot 100 and “cardigan” taking the number one spot of the list by August 3. Despite the album’s immediate success, the Heightsers have their reservations on declaring it as Swift’s best. 

With every album of Swift, there is always at least one song that others just can’t bring themselves to like; most often for an off-putting lyric or because of a song's estrangement with the rest of the tracks, like “Gorgeous” in Reputation, as well as “You Need To Calm Down” and “Me!” in Lover. Clare explained that some of Swift’s lyrics can seem arbitrary, but she did not feel this way with folklore, as every line seemed to be written with careful intent. Among her albums, folklore appears to be the most consistent in sound and mood. Sean weighed in further on the album’s merits, saying “Taylor Swift as a popstar strikes me as someone who is very self conscious, but in folklore, although she doesn’t grow out of it, she’s self aware. It’s a mature sentiment from Swift whereas in Reputation and Lover, she wanted to give a persona,” he said, “but folklore is kind of like, she’s had more time to process who she is as a popstar icon. People think [the album is] the best because it’s more mature.” 

The simplicity of the album was another factor that drew the public to listen. The group asserted that, lyrically, folklore was the best—it did not depend on the drama and rhythm as much as the previous albums did. It was then asked: is the music in folklore a departure from her previous work? For Sean, there was a clear progression in Swift’s music. To substantiate, he brought up “All Too Well”, “Safe and Sound”, and “Sad Beautiful Tragic”—all previously released songs that have a similar sound to folklore. The group agreed that Swift’s journey was almost like an evolution rather than a sudden change that led to the making of this album.

The difference in folklore’s sound may be a result of Swift’s recent withdrawal from Big Machine record label, which was at the center of the controversy between Scooter Braun and Swift in 2019. Folklore brings forth the impression that Swift wrote with equanimity and a sense of comfort in one’s self. The sincerity of the songs has enthralled both fans and non-fans alike. Clare explained that if Reputation was a response to the media, and Lover was a response to Reputation, folklore wasn’t a response to anything or anyone. Without the need to impress, folklore became a sound of its own.   

The prominent themes in folklore

 Folklore, according to Cat, completely differs from Lover. Lover looks at one emotion from different angles, and, while heartbreak is an evident theme in folklore, Cat said, “[In the songs, Swift] was nostalgic for a time when she got hurt. That’s not something she’s ever expressed before.” She gave the example of “august” as being one of the more tragic songs in the album. “The lyrics are extremely sad, but you don’t register the weight of it until you listen to it multiple times. Emotionally, it’s so complex.” Teeming with new sentiments, the acceptance of imperfections and the mature acknowledgement of the past makes folklore unique amongst Swift’s previous works.  

Swift’s reflection in each song discloses her imperfections and regrets more genuinely than ever before—precisely how folklore appeals to Clare; “When you try too much to make something relatable it doesn’t feel that way. But when it’s personal, that’s when it works,” she mentioned, "When you make something personal, people will naturally try to relate to it. We’re social people, we can’t help it. We’ll find some way to connect to it one way or another.” Adding to Clare’s sentiment, Sean explained, “Maybe [the theme of folklore is] coming to terms with how the narrative won’t always end the way you want it to be. As opposed to her old songs, the persona here is a lot more mature and as a consequence to that, accepts the open endedness of the outputs.”

Justine apprehended how much more aware Swift has become in these songs. “I get a lot of themes of acceptance, acknowledgement, awareness from this album,” she explained. These themes, for her, were evident in lines like if my wishes came true, it would’ve been you in “the 1”, and, so much for summer love and saying ‘us’ / you weren’t mine to lose in “august”. “This is the acceptance, this is the narrative, that’s it,” she said. Cat joked that, like most in quarantine, this sentiment leaves us to accept what is happening, or where the story is going, even when we planned for things to go differently. 

Swift takes a new course through the album; exploring new territory in folklore in comparison to recent albums and straying away from the pop and belting breakup songs that fans are accustomed to. If in the past, she sang of spite and regret, in folklore, Swift sings of acceptance and recognition. 

Like any widely acclaimed album however, folklore too is imperfect. As all the tracks are played with a slow tempo, they easily blend into one another. Others in the group were in favor of removing some tracks, concerned about how similar some of the songs sound. Though this may have been intentional, the seamless blending of the songs may come across as repetitive. Sean mentioned that songs such as “illicit affairs” and “epiphany” can seem dragging. “For her approach to indie, I feel like she went for a very muted palette, tidy and neat production,” he explained, “though she makes use of some pop structures. Like in ‘madwoman’, I feel like she could have benefited more from a rawer approach.” 

One of the main criticisms raised was that the album doesn’t do justice to its title; Cat argued that it could have been emphasized more. Folklore, to her, is not attached to any one author, and has little to no hint of narrator eye. “There’s still a lot of confessional and autobiography [in folklore],” she explained, “[Swift is] still there, but she’s not completely faded into the background, like in ‘the last great american dynasty’ she inserted herself [in the lyrics].” Sean speculated that Swift could have inserted the word ‘folk’ to indicate that she was approaching a more acoustic type of music, and hence decided on the name folklore. As previously mentioned, the storytelling does contribute to the album name, but the Heightsers decided that, overall, it wasn’t the best title for an album that does not bring the folklore aspect all the way. 

The Heightsers then revisited the question: “Is folklore Swift’s best album?” For Sean, albeit there is no song that immediately stands out, the appeal of folklore lies in the complex feelings imbued in lyric. As for Cat, she explained that,“Folklore grows on us because it makes a very good impression on the first listen, [...] then it starts getting better when you listen to it again and again.”  Even as contentions vary on whether folklore is one of Swift’s best albums, it undeniably introduces something new to the table for Swift’s music career. 

Imperfection is not something Swift has been confident in showing before, but her new album lays everything on the table for the world to see. Folklore reminds us that despite the past, we have to acknowledge and accept the present narrative we are in—a terrifyingly timely message that we all must come to learn. The story we are in is far from what we planned, but it is what we were given. It is through folklore that Swift was able to capture the nostalgia, hopelessness, turbulence, and trouble that many of us feel today. The album became an avenue to both connect with and escape from these sentiments in the spirit of empathizing with each other, even within our solitary spaces. The world’s reception and resonance with folklore brought to light how, in the midst of affliction and noise, unfeigned humanity allows for us to share in a heartfelt understanding.

Art by Patricia Fermin.

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