Taylor Swift’s twin quarantine albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” are a complete retreat from Swift’s prior attempt at complete pop-superstardom. I say attempt because Swift never fully fit the mold of the unassuming centrist corporate popstar. Her propensity for going after pretension, her desire for musical exploration and the remarkable solipsism of her lyrics all pointed at something else, even as she became arguably the most famous pop musician in the world.
In an excellent 2018 NPR music opinion, writer Leah Donella points out that Swift has essentially managed and built her fame from a rapper’s playbook as opposed to a popstar’s. “The lyrical storytelling; the meticulous attention to detail; the centering of her own perspective; the posturing; the commitment to a persona; the fixation on rivals, haters, and detractors; the positioning herself as marginalized and mistreated; the support of a crew” are all cited as the cues she took from rap stardom. The fact that in a career of rivalries and public feuds, the only lasting one has been with Kanye West, an influential rapper, is telling.
Perhaps the growing inability of Swift to situate herself as an underdog, as an absurdly rich, white, influential woman, caused her to rethink her persona. In “Folklore” and “Evermore,” Swift abandons both the rap and pop playbooks to go full throttle into the world of folksy, heavily-produced indie music. And as a 2021 New York Times op-ed states, the two albums are “overflowing with the language and landscapes of the natural world.” The two interpretations, that these albums are a retreat from “the old Taylor” and emphasize the natural world, may seem completely unrelated, but their intricate interplay is vital to understanding the cultural impact and mission of the records.
Swift’s devoted fanbase is what enabled her to make such a stylistic change. If you have ever interacted with “swifties” on the internet, you’ll know what I’m talking about; they’ll follow her through anything. Swift’s fanbase is filled with people who have bought into the narrative, who see Swift as an underdog fighting against the evils of the music elite. They relate to the struggles she writes about, even as a multi-millionaire popstar writing about high school bullies gets somewhat questionable to an outside observer. It seems that Swift recognized the impact she had on her fanbase and wanted to mature it in a number of ways. Foremost among them is this focus on nature.
Taylor Swift doesn’t see her music as especially political. When responding to a question years ago as to why her music doesn’t grapple with the “big ideas” of the world or political struggle, Swift responded, “I think the best thing I can do for them [her young, largely female fans] is continue to write songs that do make them think about themselves and analyze how they feel about something and then simplify how they feel.” Swift wants to be able to contextualize the emotions of her fans — she sees herself as a companion to her fan’s internal lives.
This makes the annihilation of the environment her perfect political issue. Far above and beyond any issue in the American political sphere, climate change demands personal reflection. As both the number of natural images in pop culture and our time in nature diminishes, we have a hard time contextualizing ourselves in the devastation. A spiritual, personal approach to nature is necessary to engage people in the sort of radical rethinking necessary to avert the worst of the climate catastrophe.
Perhaps it is giving her too much credit, but I think Swift knows this and hopes to use her cultural cache and unique lyrical style to renormalize imagining our internal lives as something that exists in nature. If this is the new Taylor, I hope she’s here to stay.
Logan Graham ’22 is from Warrenville, IL.
His major is philosophy.