a late-night love letter to taylor swift’s folklore

for taylor swift

when was the last time I listened to an album from the first track to the last, no pauses, no skips, no shuffling, no multi-tasking, and with my eyes closed? maybe it was six years ago when “1989” came out on my graduation night from nanyang.

folklore,” in its entirety, is sixty-three minutes. i can’t imagine trusting another artist this much, to take her hand and enter into a sonic world of her making, leading me through sixteen snapshots of her stream of consciousness. i can’t imagine either caring enough to discern each lyric in a song, afraid to miss a word. it isn’t often that words move me in a song; i’ve always been more of a melody person. but when it comes to taylor, her lyrics are everything.

i still remember at the age of ten when my classmate called me on the landline and screamed over the phone that i had to watch the music video for a song called Love Story this very instant — not a moment more, she was going to hang up now, and i had to do so in the next breath. i did. i fell in love instantly, with how i could hear an entire story in a handful of verses and how iconic a bridge could be (Romeo proposes, thank God). even now, i close my eyes and the flashback starts.

her lyrics have done more than simply accompany me through my childhood and teenage years; they amplify the highs and the lows, putting into words what i don’t know how to say — I’d Lie for how I would never confess a word about my crushes in elementary school, The Way I Loved You for new year’s eve resolutions, Come in With the Rain and Cold As You for angsty bus rides and fights with best friends, Long Live for vibrant encounters and nostalgic goodbyes, Breathe, If This Was a Movie, Back to December and All Too Well for nonexistent heartbreaks and youthful melodrama, Enchanted and You Are in Love for moments brimming with attraction and racing heartbeats. taylor isn’t the most poetic lyricist out there but the most relatable.

folklore” is a complete pivot from “Reputation” and “Lover,” in a good way. no more trap, slick synth-pop, EDM, radio-friendly bubblegum pop! taylor’s quiet storytelling is back, stripped to the bare minimum, the closest we can get to hearing how the song sounded in her head. it’s no longer as angry or dreamy as her previous two albums. it’s a sad, moody album — contemplative, introspective, and strangely (for a swiftie) no longer as autobiographical. as taylor herself writes, in her prologue letter below, these songs are an escape into fantasy, history, and memory. this time round, she inhabits characters, excavates their untold, innermost thoughts, and writes them out in the sky for all to behold. and maybe because she is in the skin of these characters, the lyrics are more vulnerable than ever — subtle but still plaintive, unencumbered enough to be truly intimate. the lowercase aesthetic of the album (every track is in lowercase!) suggests a chill nonchalance: at last, taylor swift doesn’t care; at last, she eschews the ‘I’ (à la bell hooks). she frees herself from the intense scrutiny on the self to simply tell a story.

the hazy mistiness of “folklore,” from its black and white album image in a forest (taylor diminutive amidst giant tree trunks) to the dusky piano by the flickering fireside in Cardigan, permeates the lyrics too. her songs this time are rambling, no longer as precisely engineered.

i love the ambiguity, the messiness, the open-endedness. what matters is not the kernel but the haze, as Joseph Conrad tells us:

…to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine

Heart of Darkness

my favorite points of the album are those hazy moments, lingering on the periphery of a chorus, hitting me in the gut.

***

the 1

the best taylor swift album opener since State of Grace (“Red”).

“In my defense, I have none / For never leaving well enough alone.”

the last great american dynasty

the delicious tidbits!!!

a life story in three minutes and fifty seconds. the devil’s in the details, truly — i guess when you own an infamous mansion with provenance, you can write a hella good song about even your house? reminds me of Starlight (“Red”), which is about Ethel and Bobby Kennedy.

i can tell that taylor admires Rebekah Harkness, her unabashed wildness, shamelessness at being called the maddest woman in town, and most of all, how she had a marvelous time ruining everything.

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green

the neighbor is Dali. i rest my case. she is a genius.

exile

one of my favorite songs on the album. the duet with Bon Iver is devastating. the analogy of exile for heartbreak is pitch-perfect.

I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?

You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out

I can see you starin’, honey
Like he’s just your understudy
Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances
Balancin’ on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

seven

the folksiest, most spectral song on the album. also a solid favorite. i love the whimsical whispers, the garden and space imagery (“Love you to the moon and to Saturn“), the wilderness and nostalgia. gives me sad, wistful Bridge to Terabithia vibes, which i cried over as a kid.

Please picture me in the trees
I hit my peak at seven
Feet in the swing over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
But I, I was high in the sky
With Pennsylvania under me

Please picture me in the weeds
Before I learned civility
I used to scream ferociously
Any time I wanted

august

surprisingly, the line that guts me the most isn’t the gorgeous sentence in the chorus— “August sipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine” — but the part in the bridge.

wanting is enough. so true, isn’t it?

Wanting was enough
For me, it was enough
To live for the hope of it all

this is me trying

And it’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound
It’s hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you
You’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town

the cinematic motifs have been constant throughout her career — If This Was a Movie! — and the line above is like a one-horse town moment.

and this one line: “I got wasted like all my potential.” oof.

illicit affairs

the last verse saves the song. i wish i came up with this line: “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”

And you wanna scream
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me
You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this idiotic fool that you made me
You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else
And you know damn well
For you, I would ruin myself
A million little times

invisible string

in chinese folklore, the lunar god of matchmaking connects a red thread of fate between soulmates (千里姻缘一线牵,万年修来共枕眠), no matter the distance — an invisible cord that may tangle (knots symbolize hardships and obstacles) but will never break, leading lovers to their destined encounter. the mythic imagery pulsates in this song, winding through curious, mystical, wondrous time.

also, the bridge is taylor swift at her peak:

A string that pulled me
Out of all the wrong arms, right into that dive bar
Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire
Chains around my demons
Wool to brave the seasons
One single thread of gold
Tied me to you

mad woman

makes me think of Wide Sargasso Sea (reviewed in on my desk) and Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. women and hysteria are perennially linked themes — madness is often essentialized as a female trait, a defiant subversion of the patriarchy that must be suppressed, and dubbed a “wrong” in the face of scientific rationality which grounds modern civilization. the mad woman, as a literary character that haunts the texts by numerous female authors and now taylor, is the author’s double, the incarnation of rage that finds no easy release without violent protest.

an excellent essay on the topic is Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

betty

teenage me would gobble this up. now, it just makes me nostalgic for the Tim McGraw and Our Song days, when i had short hair and was anxious about bumping into certain boys from across the bridge.

hoax

“Stood on the cliffside screaming, ’Give me a reason'” — listen for this single line.

another go-to breakup ballad for the ages. i love this song so much, gets better with every listen.

and thus “folklore” ends with these final lines:

My only one
My kingdom come undone
My broken drum
You have beaten my heart
Don’t want no other shade of blue but you
No other sadness in the world would do

***

like taylor, in isolation my imagination has run wild. how to pull from solitude the utmost depths of ardor? taylor confesses, weaving magic: embody other lives, dream about past selves, wonder about missed turns and broken glances, delve into parallel universes, brush the dust off aged secrets and forgotten desires, and follow the thrust of emotion towards its unfinished expression.

thank you, taylor, for your music.

and also, thank you to your music for always being so crushingly, achingly, gloriously romantic.

lots of love,