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.