Morphology of her folklore: Song, Story, and the Contradictions of Taylor Swift

FolkloreBackCover

When my journal article about Taylor Swift’s articulation of authorship during her transition from country to pop was held up in editorial for a lengthy period (a not uncommon occurrence in academic publishing), I thought it meant it was too late: in the time I was revising the article, Swift started an entire new album cycle with Lover, and when the article finally came out in March of this year she had just released her documentary Miss Americana on Netflix. I wrote a blog post reflecting on how my argument connected with those new developments, thinking that this would be the only necessary addendum until 2021, when Swift would (given past precedent) begin her next album cycle.

Needless to say, this all changed on Thursday, when Swift gave fans 16 hours to process the news that her next album cycle was starting at midnight with the release of folklore, her eighth studio album, recorded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a music video for “Cardigan” effectively frames it as the “lead single,” there is none of what we expect from a traditional album release in 2020: no trickle of advance singles, no lyric video/music video staggering to game the charts, etc. But what buildup we got from Taylor was nonetheless instructive, designed to frame this record and a new songwriting collaboration—with The National’s Aaron Dessner—both within her previous music and as a new form of creative process reflecting our current circumstances. It’s the next chapter in what I wrote about, and needless to say I dropped everything to immerse myself in both the album and, more importantly, what it says about the idea of Taylor Swift as an artist.

There’s no doubt that Folklore will go down as a definitive media artifact of this pandemic, the first “major work” to be entirely produced and released in social isolation, but its relationship to Swift’s authorship is less clear. Although one could argue it is easily her most cohesive and uncompromising albums, Folklore is nonetheless defined by contradictions:  intimate but impersonal, isolated but collaborative. The result is a record that, despite making no grabs at tabloid headlines or Billboard dominance, says a whole lot about how Taylor Swift considers her place within the music industry, and how it’s built around embrace those contradictions in order to retain the hard-fought appearance of controlling her own destiny.

“Teardrops on [Their] Guitar”: Swift as Collaborative Author

We can think of Taylor Swift’s authorship as two, interconnected ideas: storytelling and songwriting.

Storytelling has been critical to her brand from the beginning, pulling from the narrative traditions of country music and rebranding them as pages ripped from a teenage diary. The autobiographical nature of her discography has always been critical to her identity as an artist, her music a way for her to work through past relationships, process new ones, and comment on her celebrity as her transition to pop star brought even greater scrutiny.

And in this way, songwriting has always been linked to storytelling, although as my article investigates in full this was something that Swift had to carefully negotiate. As she started working with pop producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder, Swift was working with men who quite famously write and produce songs for many artists, and who—unlike producers in country music—historically take a writing credit on songs they produce even if the artist brought the song to them. While Swift’s early collaboration with Liz Rose was part of her origin story, she went from an entirely solo-authored Speak Now to being forced to share writing credit with Martin and his collaborator Shellback on the singles on Red, meaning that the onus was on her to prove that her storytelling had not been compromised by the fact her songwriting was no longer a sole expression of her emotions.

To TL;DR my own article, I argue Swift succeeded: I think it is fair to say that between the paratextual efforts I discuss and some combination of stoking the flames of tabloid speculation, tongue-in-cheek music videos, and a conscious effort to retain her sense of storytelling even as she committed fully to pop and dabbled with other genres (EDM, rap [unfortunately]), no one could reasonably say that Swift’s voice as a storyteller had been suppressed by her shift toward collaboration within her songwriting. Just consider how anonymous Joel Little—who produced three of the four singles from Lover, and most famously produced Lorde’s debut album—felt in the discourse around that record: he may not have the same credits as Martin and Shellback, or as Swift’s now longest collaborator Jack Antonoff (who we’ll get to more in a second), but it was still striking how much Swift’s authorship of her career superseded his involvement.

Another factor here, though, is how much Lover as a record was telling a story about Taylor Swift’s personal life. It was by far her most political record, both within the context of her personal politics and within her battles with her former label Big Machine and its new owner, Scooter Braun: she was saying things—feminist things, queer ally things—that Big Machine hadn’t wanted her to say, and she was consciously framing those things as a kiss-off to the men who had tried to control her career. This is a hallmark of both reputation and Lover, both of which Taylor retains authorship over so strongly because they are—in the case of the former, to a fault—volleys in public debates around her life and her work. The autobiography that has defined her career was a shield of sorts from the claims by some that her identity was being subsumed by her collaborators: Little, like Martin and Shellback and other before him, was there to help Taylor execute her vision because she wanted him to be, a narrative bolstered as Taylor took her record deal to Universal and exerted greater control over the stories she was telling and how she would go about telling them.

This brings us to Jack Antonoff. His introduction into the narrative comes on 1989, which was the focus of my article, specifically the Voice Memos included with the deluxe version of the record. However, I actually didn’t focus on her voice memo for “I Wish You Would” in the article because Antonoff was not at that time a threat to Swift’s authorship. In the voice memo for the song, she very clearly acknowledges Antonoff as a friend, and their collaboration as an extension of that friendship. This is contrast to the deference she shows to Martin, Shellback, and particularly Ryan Tedder in the other voice memos. Of course, Antonoff was not yet a pop super producer at the time, but he has since become Swift’s second-most enduring collaborator after producer Nathan Chapman, who produced her first three records, the bulk of Red, and one track on 1989. It was only on reputation where Swift started working with Antonoff independent of Martin, working on six songs on the record before collaborating on the majority of Lover.

What’s interesting about “I Wish You Would” is that it is actually the voice memo that most threatens her authorship, musically speaking. While Martin and Tedder’s place in the industry foregrounds questions of whether Swift’s songwriting vision is being compromised or overwritten by mega-producers, her voice memo for her collaboration with Antonoff is specifically framed as her writing a song based on music she did not write. Antonoff had written a guitar riff, essentially, and Swift convinced him to send it to her. She sent back what would become “I Wish You Would,” framed in the voice memo as an example of “writing to a track” (in contrast to her other voice memos, which were an early piano demo of “I Know Places” she sent to Tedder and a collaborative studio session recording of her workshopping “Blank Space” with Martin and Shellback).

The voice memo asserts her lyrical control over the song, which came to her instantly when Antonoff played her the track while hanging out, but it nonetheless pushes back against the idea of Swift sitting at her piano, or with her guitar, and pulling a melody from the air to express herself. But whereas this same process might have felt threatening with Martin and Shellback, her relationship with Antonoff has always been different, and has emerged as a model of sorts for his collaborations with other female artists. His stock has risen after collaborations with artists like Lorde, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, and The Chicks, but his reputation as a producer has never taken on a sense of authorship that supersedes their own: these are distinct female voices in the music industry, each as invested as Swift in the singularity of their vision, and as Lindsay Zoladz wrote in 2017 “the most unifying force in Antonoff’s work is his ability to foreground the distinct personality of whoever he’s working with.” And so even if Swift admitting that her melodies are not always her own creates a potential division between storytelling and songwriting in her sense of authorship, the nature of their partnership has meant this never blossomed into a larger questioning of her creative process.

However, Jack Antonoff is not the primary producer on folklore. That duty went to Aaron Dessner, best known as the primary creative force behind indie rock stalwart The National. It was a left field choice, and yet one that Swift foregrounded in her announcement of the record, and which has become a critical discursive moment around the record and her authorship. Swift has framed the record through a variety of sources—including some YouTube live chat snippets that you can hunt down—but the two primary ones are the initial announcement of the record, and then a letter that accompanied the album’s release at midnight. The first, I argue, is about Swift negotiating the production of the record, and the songwriting therein; the second, which I’ll get to in a moment, is about renegotiating her identity as a storyteller.

“Hey [Aaron]”: Choices of Collaboration on folklore

In her initial social media announcement of folklore, Swift writes the following:

“Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into. I wrote and recorded this music in isolation but got to collaborate with some musical heroes of mine; Aaron Dessner (who has co-written or produced 11 of the 16 songs), Bon Iver (who co-wrote and was kind enough to sing on one with me), William Bowery (who co-wrote two with me) and Jack Antonoff (who is basically musical family at this point).”

Putting aside the William Bowery pseudonym debate, we have here a clear articulation of Antonoff as something more than just a producer, and all four men—yes, still all men, after that brief brush with Imogen Heap on 1989—are framed through the lens of collaboration. But her choice to identify the scale of Dessner’s contribution clearly positions him as the creative force behind the record. On his own social media, Dessner offered more insight into how the collaboration came to be:

“I was excited and honored when Taylor approached me in late April about maybe writing some songs remotely together. I had been isolating with my family but writing a ton of music in the first months of quarantine which I shared. I thought it would take a while for song ideas to come and I had no expectations as far as what we could accomplish remotely. But a few hours after sharing music, my phone lit up with a voice memo from Taylor of a fully written version of a song — the momentum never really stopped.”

This marks the return of Taylor giving up control over the “holistic” idea of authorship, actively writing “to track” of existing musical ideas that Dessner was working on at the time in exactly the same way as she did with Antonoff on the 1989 voice memo. In an interview with Pitchfork, bastion of indie credibility, Dessner expands on this process:

“So when [Taylor] reached out, I had this large folder of ideas that were pretty well on their way. She was very clear that she didn’t want me to edit any of my ideas; she wanted to hear everything that was interesting to me at this moment, including really odd, experimental noise. So I made a folder of stuff, including some pretty out-there sketches. A few hours later, she sent “Cardigan,” fully written in a voice memo.”

Here, Dessner is framing Swift in two keys ways. One, he is deferring to her skill as a songwriter, emphasizing that her ability to work with the “off, experimental…out there” sketches surprised and impressed him—there’s a very similar vibe to Imogen Heap’s blog post about their collaboration on “Clean,” another chapter in the myth of Swift’s songwriting prowess. The second way, however, is that she wasn’t asking him to produce a record she had written: she wanted to start a collaboration, hearing what he had been working on and excited about, and using that to fuel the creativity she was working with on her own. Dessner told Rolling Stone that “I think she was interested in the emotions that she feels in some of the music that I’ve made,” ultimately concluding that Swift “just has a very instinctive and sharp musical mind, and she was able to compose so closely to what I was presenting. What I was doing was clicking for her.”

There’s a cynical reading of Swift’s choice to collaborate with Dessner in order to explore those emotions: in a series of tweets which she has since deleted after much backlash from Swift’s fanbase, folk artist Tomberlin expressed frustration with what she saw as either outright or spiritual plagiarism of her work and the work of other emerging folk songwriters, asking her followers to “look back at each of [Taylor’s] records after realizing she could reach beyond the country music world. she rebrands her art to whatever the market is paying attention to. she doesn’t really even have to do this-she has a huge audience already.”

But this reading doesn’t jive with how Swift has articulated herself as an artist, or how Dessner is framing her motives in these interviews. Yes, Swift is consciously choosing to make an indie rock record, and we can absolutely unpack the way this serves to legitimize her work for outlets like Pitchfork as a songwriter in ways similar to how Ryan Adams’ cover album of 1989 did back in 2015, this time on her own terms. But she has always used her experimentation with genre as a way to express the stories that resonate with her, and she is not alone: while problematic at times, the pop charts are always about artists adapting to the sounds of the moment to say what they want to say, and Swift is not alone in this. And all of the work Swift has done to assert control over her narrative—Tomberlin acknowledged the inherent feminism of this, while lamenting that the presence of Dessner will lend legitimacy often not afforded to female artists on their own, which I agree with—means that Swift has ammunition to fight back against the argument that this is an opportunistic pastiche as opposed to a way to express new, different emotions she’s been working through.

Although produced in isolation, this discourse emerging around folklore has nonetheless framed it as her most collaborative record to date, a contradiction that once would have felt destructive to Swift’s image but has been (some stray tweets withstanding) comfortably subsumed within her sense of authorship. In both interviews, Dessner emphasizes that once they began working together, their respective creative work was informed by the other: he would develop songs inspired by what she was responding to, and she would write lyrics in line with the soundscapes he was developing. He compares this to his work with The National where vocalist Matt Berninger adds the lyrics after the music is developed: describing Taylor to Rolling Stone as “very collaborative” after sharing her lyrics, he goes on to explain that he

“would sometimes suggest things or miss things, but she definitely has a lot of respect for the collaborative process and wants whoever she’s writing with to feel deeply included in that process… And she would sometimes have ideas about the production if she didn’t like something, especially. She would, in a tactful way, bring that up. I appreciated that, too.”

All told, Dessner’s interviews comfortably reaffirm that even if Swift is building songs in a way different from the archetypical “girl and her guitar” mode that was central to her start in the music industry, her authorship as a songwriter and her role as the executive producer of the record have given her the flexibility to absorb these collaborations without sacrificing her control over the broader narrative.

“The Story of [Us, Them, Etc.]”: Intimacy and Distance on folklore

This, however, brings us to the specific narrative of the record itself, and the second contradiction at the core of folklore. In his interview with Rolling Stone, Dessner expands on the nature of Swift’s development of the narrative arc at the core of folklore, which is a clear departure for her. He explains that

“every time she would send something, she would narrate a little bit, like how it fit, or what it was about. And then when she told me about folklore as a concept, it made so much sense. Like ‘The Last Great American Dynasty,’ for example, this kind of narrative song that then becomes personal at the end — it flips and she enters the song. These are kind of these folkloric, almost mythical tales that are woven in of childhood, lost love, and different sentiments across the record. It was binding it all together and I think it’s personal, but also through the guise of other people, friends and loved ones.”

With this description of the record’s storytelling, Dessner is continuing to validate her authorship by disconnecting himself from the lyrical content of the record: even if he did make suggestions, this is Taylor’s story to tell, and he’s adamant about this. But he’s also acknowledging that what they developed musically is in service of a different kind of project for Taylor. The album is intimate and personal—he mentions them wanting to avoid overproducing her vocals—and yet it’s also Swift’s most impersonal record, insofar as she is exploring themes and narratives that lack the explicit connections to autobiography that we are used to. Whereas one might have presumed that she would see the emotional sparseness of The National’s aesthetic as a way to become more introspective, she’s instead deployed it to explore a new form of storytelling that is pulled more from her imagination than her diary.

Indeed, Swift frames the record in these terms in the social media post that accompanied the album’s midnight release, writing at the end of a lengthy introductory letter that “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.”  She explains that “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.” Swift has always been a storyteller, but they’ve always ostensibly been her own stories: here, she is reframing herself as the author of fantasy, history, and memory in equal measure. In the rest of the letter, she details these influences, explaining her inspiration starting with “visuals that popped into my mind and piqued my curiosity” before “these images in my head grew faces or names and became characters.” Lest fans get confused, she admits that “I found myself not just writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.”

There’s a clear shift here with the assertion that Swift’s musical output is no longer primarily her way of bringing her diary to life (Lover’s deluxe edition was literally pages from her diary/journal). I didn’t expect an album from Swift this year because, given past precedent, there was no major change in her life that needed to be commented on: she appears to remain in a happy relationship, she worked through her feud with Scooter Braun, and it just seemed like she would go back to her two-year album cycles and figure out something in 2021. Her releasing folklore is her unlocking her creative process from its perceived limitations, a new stage of the freedom she’s been exploring since her shift to a far more flexible record deal with Universal. It was so flexible, in fact, that according to Dessner she didn’t even tell the label she was making the record at all until the days ahead of the album’s release (oh, to have been a fly on the wall), which reaffirms the level of control Swift had over the choice to explore new storytelling modes.

Swift’s embrace of the record’s liminality, though, means she’s not willing to let the autobiographical dimensions of her storytelling slip away entirely. This blurring of lines between fact and fiction still feeds the speculation that surrounds every new Taylor Swift record, as people try to match songs with her various relationships, confirmed or otherwise. And it’s arguable that Taylor is only encouraging this game more by adding in another layer of distance between her and her songs, her authorship now enmeshed in her various characters not unlike someone like a TV showrunner projecting through their various characters (I’m thinking of an Aaron Sorkin in this case). The fact is that she could have chosen to frame this project entirely at a distance, a full-scale concept album ala Chris Gaines, but instead she’s positioned it as an evolution of she is as a storyteller, working within comfortable themes and ideas but with an added level of distance to create room for experimentation. To add another simile, it’s like a memoirist deciding to try their hand at novel-writing, but being unable to shake their own role in the story and adding themselves as an unreliable narrator.

We could read this creative process as a calculated experiment, a concept album of sorts, but Swift’s openness about her songwriting pushes back against this by emphasizing the organic nature of how the story evolved across her different collaborations. While the bulk of the album came from Swift’s collaboration with Dessner, his interview with Rolling Stone reveals that the Antonoff songs that made the record were actually pulled from earlier sessions, folded in once Taylor realized the folklore theme she was developing would apply to them as well. The album’s one “story cycle”—which Taylor has referred to as the “Teenage Love Triangle,” and which fans presume refers to “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty”—actually spans most of her collaborators on the record: “cardigan” was the first song she wrote based on Dessner’s tracks, “august” was written with Antonoff, and “betty” was a collaboration with the mysterious William Bowery. This further asserts that Taylor’s storytelling is not tied to any one particular collaborator, her own vision the unifying force behind the record’s narrative even if Antonoff, Dessner, Bowery and Justin Vernon may have contributed to the album’s lyrics in some way or another.

In transitioning to writing pop music and working with mega producers, Swift was working to assert her involvement in the production of her music, using the voice memos and other contexts to emphasize that she was an active part of the final product on Red and 1989. With folklore, though, Swift actively gives up control of that part of the narrative. She remains the executive producer of the record, but her choice to work with Dessner and allow him to serve as the public face of the record’s production (as his deference to her in every interview gives the impression he would have asked her if he could accept interview requests and discuss the collaboration) seems to come with an acceptance of the fact that the outlets of indie validation—Pitchfork, Stereogum, etc.—will latch onto the way his presence “validates” the project musically. But because Dessner is not a lyricist, and because Swift herself frames the record through its stories, this doesn’t feel like it threatens Swift’s authorship in the way it could have otherwise.

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A screenshot of news articles, all from the website Stereogum, conspicuously foregrounding Dessner’s contributions to folklore.

Whereas Taylor framed 1989 as a conscious shift to pop music, she does not preface folklore with a lengthy salute to indie rock: while she is obviously experimenting with genre, it is storytelling and not songwriting that is driving the car here, and nothing about the way the album was produced can threaten that element of authorship given that Dessner isn’t that kind of storyteller, Antonoff’s career is built on helping his collaborators tell their stories, Bowery is clearly someone close to Swift personally, and none of the usual forces that could have constrained her storytelling—radio expectations, exec demands—were present given she completed the album entirely isolated from even her own label. The result is an intimately created record that Swift has nonetheless framed as her least personal, albeit in ways that assert rather than threaten her creative control over her music and her career more broadly.

“This Is [Her] Trying”: The Calculated Contradictions of folklore

Taylor Swift didn’t need to make an indie record to be taken seriously as an artist, broadly speaking: she’s the first female artist to win two Grammys for Album of the Year, after all, and when Lover was released last year Pitchfork was already on board, reviewing all of Swift’s pre-reputation albums as a mea culpa of sorts for ignoring them for not adhering to their (masculine, rockist) definition of relevance. And so while it’s true that folklore feeds into that narrative in ways that further validate Swift’s legitimacy, I wouldn’t frame this as opportunistic or calculated given what we know about Swift’s sense of authorship over her music and her career.

But I do find myself going back to a key moment in Miss Americana, where we see Taylor filming herself as she awaits news about the 2019 Grammy Awards, where reputation was eligible for Album of the Year. It’s a long wait, as reputation wasn’t part of the announcement of the major categories aired live on CBS’ morning show, and ended up only nominated for Best Pop Album (which it lost to Ariana Grande’s Sweetener). And while she made her way back into the major categories when the title track for Lover was nominated for Song of the Year, the album itself was nominated for Pop Album but snubbed even in an expanded Album of the Year category, with Swift eventually losing in all three categories as Billie Eilish was crowned as music’s future by the Recording Academy.

Putting aside for a moment that award shows create a false horse race narrative that pits artists against each other, and not wanting to imply that Swift is responding out of jealousy of Eilish’s success, I would argue it’s very clear that the Grammys matter to Taylor Swift, who tells her publicist that “she just has to make a better record.” And so while the narrative around folklore is focused on Swift’s active quarantine imagination and her desire to channel how she felt emotionally when listening to Dessner’s work with The National into her storytelling, I do think the shift to an entirely different tone and focus is informed by the fact that her “reboot” record Lover didn’t have the resonance with the Recoding Academy that she might have thought it would. And to leverage a key voice from the amorphous Alternative Album category that has seen artists like Arcade Fire and Beck dethrone huge pop records in Album of the Year based on the Recording Academy’s inherent rockism is, if one were to be thinking about such things, not a bad strategy to win over peers who despite twice awarding her album of the year could still be perceived as withholding the respect she deserves much as Pitchfork did for all those years.

This is a deeply cynical reading of folklore, which I don’t necessarily buy, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Swift’s celebrity has always contained the narrative that she lacks authenticity. Her “who, me?” award show reactions signify something deeper that people believe about Taylor, owing to her youth, her gender, and how those factors framed her songs, her stories, and her public image as she navigated a music industry that wasn’t ready to grapple with those things in the way she was. I have no doubt Swift looks at how Eilish was able to bypass so much of the bullshit she had to deal with with great envy, imagining how different her career might have been if she hadn’t been forced to funnel her creativity through the engine of country radio to get her music heard, and if she hadn’t had to spend years threading the needle between country and pop to avoid being shunned by both, and if she could just make music that connected with people and use that to control her own narrative. And while Swift has come out the other side, able to control who she collaborates with and make an album with zero radio aspirations alone in quarantine without even telling her label, she bears the scars of that experience, and there’s a chip on her shoulder that makes it difficult for her to ever frame something as purely creative. Everything Taylor Swift does is going to be a chess move in her complicated relationship with the music industry, and she’s never going to be able to change that: all she can do is assert that she is the player and not the pawn, and accept that her flowery prose about folklore will be read as both creative purity and industrial savvy in equal measure.

And so folklore is isolated and collaborative, intimate and impersonal, poetic and strategic; it is built on contradiction because nothing Taylor Swift ever does will wrestle her identity as an artist away from such muddled meanings. Her only recourse is to control those narratives in ways that assure us that the morphology of her songwriting and storytelling was by her own design. folklore represents a marked departure from the image of Taylor Swift as a girl with a guitar pouring out her heart, but as long as that departure can be successfully framed as part of her creative evolution as an artist, it will still support the narrative she’s spent her entire career building album by album, song by song, story by story.

1 Comment

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One response to “Morphology of her folklore: Song, Story, and the Contradictions of Taylor Swift

  1. Pingback: Look What She Made Me Do: Notes on my scholarly journal article about Taylor Swift | Cultural Learnings

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