How Taylor Swift Bottled 2020’s Ennui in Two Sublime Albums

Music

How Taylor Swift Bottled 2020’s Ennui in Two Sublime Albums

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

This year has come with precious little good news for most of us. But for her legions of fans across the globe, 2020 offered a pleasant surprise when Taylor Swift released an unannounced album, titled folklore. But no one was prepared when, mere months after folklore, Swift dropped a second full-fledged album, evermore on December 11  — just two days before her 31st birthday.

With folklore, Swift broke the world record for the biggest opening day on Spotify for an album by a female artist. The album rocketed to number one in several countries, selling over two million copies in the very first week. Single “cardigan” made her the first artist to debut on both Billboard’s Top 100 and Top 200. Adding to this wild success was evermore, which became Swift’s eighth number one album debut (only her self-titled first album failed to crack the top spot.)

Given Swift’s massive and loyal global fanbase, perhaps this was always going to happen. But her two sister albums have been equally popular with critics as with audiences. folklore was nominated for five Grammys, and along with evermore, has been widely lauded in music and art publications as one of the seminal albums of 2020.

It still somehow feels necessary to qualify Taylor Swift as an artist by pointing to these plaudits from the industry. Plenty of her previous albums have been met with widespread acclaim, especially those where she has collaborated with heavyweight producer Jack Antonoff, as she has on her two 2020 albums. With these latest releases, however, Swift is no longer embodying the identity of pop princess, bolstered by upbeat bangers like “Bad Blood”, “Blank Space”, “Shake It Off”, “Look What You Made Me Do”, and “You Need to Calm Down”  — the sassy, self-referential megahits from the four albums that came before folklore and evermore.

With these latest releases, however, Swift is no longer embodying the identity of pop princess.

Instead, Taylor Swift has reverted to her pastoral roots. Her early days as a country musician saw her face the ridicule that trails behind anyone who is a favourite among teenage girls, never mind that Swift herself was scarcely 16 when she arrived on the scene. In her cowboy boots and peasant dresses, featuring a guitar and her signature mass of blonde curls, Swift presented a singularly romantic vision. Her early hits, like “Love Story”, “You Belong With Me”, and “Fifteen”, had undeniably saccharine overtones. But unlike her manufactured teenybopper contemporaries, even Swift’s least mature writing came from a place of observational honesty. Years later, her plea to “just say yes” to a love story has the same breathless, fairytale charm as ever, and a certain genius for making the specific universal.

These are the same qualities that come through clearly in folklore and evermore. More refined, with an added narrative complexity, certainly, but to paraphrase her own lyrics, the old Taylor has come to the phone. Let no one ever doubt again that Swift is the modern queen of yearning, offering up a more authentic nostalgia than Lana Del Rey’s brand of Americana and a folk fantasy for a new generation. With her latest work, Swift claims her status as a storyteller and poet who can transport you straight to a dark, cobwebby meadow of the soul and make you never want to leave.

Who better to come forward as the voice of 2020, a year that we have all lived in the subjunctive tense, thinking of what might have been? On folklore’s first track, “the 1”, Swift laments:

But it would have been fun// If you would have been the one.

But it would have been sweet// If it could have been me.

In a few lines, Swift succinctly describes a romance that was better in her imagination than in reality, and her desire to be with a person not because she loved him, but because she wanted to be a part of that story. It’s a feeling that might as well apply to the lost time of a year where we’ve been stuck in limbo, with no way to live life except through our daydreams. The low-key escapism of folklore and evermore take us to a simpler world whose sensibility is cottagecore instead of apocalyptic, where our greatest struggles are with ourselves.

In a tradition shared by greats like Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks, Swift expands on the personal until it touches the core of a cultural crisis.

The reflective tone that pervades the albums — a common theme in Swift’s work that has never been more pronounced — makes for ideal listening in 2020. Both folklore and evermore walk us down whimsical paths that capture this peculiar moment in history we are living through. As the months blend together for us in lockdown, Swift flits between past and present:

I think I’ve seen this film before//

And I didn’t like the ending.

It’s a familiar sense of deja vu, especially now that new strains of the COVID-19 virus are threatening to plunge us back into the quarantine abyss. In a tradition shared by greats like Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks, Swift expands on the personal until it touches the core of a cultural crisis. Will we ever be able to listen to folklore and evermore without being reminded of 2020, and a pandemic that those who come after us will never quite understand? Perhaps they will get an inkling through Swift’s bottling of a sensation that is impossible to articulate.

“She said I looked like an American singer,” she sings in “invisible string”. It’s a classic Taylor Swift meta-lyric, one that is borne out by her work this year: she has officially joined the pantheon of singer-songwriters who will not soon be forgotten.

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