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Reflecting on a Year of “folklore:” a masterclass in songwriting

Billboard’s highest-paid U.S. musician of 2020 is Taylor Swift. She made a grand total of $23.8 million on sales from her sister albums, folklore and evermore, which were written and released during the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine the conditions under which she released folklore, but thinking back to July 23, 2020, Swift took the industry by storm with the help of 10 simple Instagram posts.

Swift, who is a relatively sparse user of Instagram when not promoting a project, broke her monthlong Instagram silence in July to surprise release her 8th studio album, folklore, a literal day after announcing it. Her choice was not only iconic, looking back at it, but important to the success of folklore and the growth of the Swiftie fanbase in general. Since July 24, 2020, Swift has seen a roaring amount of success on the three individual projects she’s released since that time, and with the re-recording of her fourth studio album, Red, coming out in November of 2021, there’s clearly no stopping Swift.

But what made folklore so special a year ago? The same thing that makes it so special: the strength of its songwriting. While she is lauded as a highly-awarded songwriter, Swift spared no expense in making her 8th studio album have a collection of standout lyrics from every track. Uniquely, folklore and evermore consistently cut deeper than the albums that came before them, featuring heavier lyrical themes and fictional influences from real American folklore and stories. folklore is a project completely unlike anything Swift had tackled prior to its release, and her decision to drop it randomly in July of 2020 only helped her build the buzz.

So, a year later, what still holds up? Let’s take a deep dive into some of the best lyrics from Taylor Swift’s folklore, track-by-track.

“the 1”

Standout Lyric: “But we were something, don’t you think so?/Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool/And if my wishes came true/It would’ve been you.”

Why?: Serving as the lyrical opener for folklore, “the 1” is a strong introduction to the new, acoustic-leaning world Swift is leading the listener into. Following the release of her 2019 album Lover, “the 1” sets the tone for a completely different type of album. Swift is fantasizing in “the 1:” what if things turned out differently? She weaves a tale of a different lover, a different reality, easing the listener into a mindset of a hazy, 20s inspired fantasy.

“cardigan”

Standout Lyric: But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss/I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs/The smell of smoke would hang around this long/‘Cause I knew everything when I was young.

Why?: “cardigan” is a standout track from the album. Part one of a fictional, three-song love triangle, “cardigan” tells the story of fictional Betty, the introduction to this make-believe love story. Swift explained, “There’s a collection of three songs I refer to as The Teenage Love Triangle. These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives.” The tracks “august” and “betty,” explore the same situation from the eyes of the two other teenagers involved. “cardigan” is a wise, melancholic perspective into this triangle, and there are too many standout lyrics to count. There’s a reason this was the lead single for the album.

“the last great american dynasty”

Standout Lyric: Who knows, if I never showed up, what could’ve been/There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen/I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”

Why?: An example of Swift using real American women to tell a story through her music, “the last great american dynasty” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness. Swift likens herself to Harkness through subtle uses of pronouns and ambiguity, referencing Harkness’s life as a woman attacked by the tabloids and media for her actions. While the track tells the story of Harkness, it also speaks to the larger problem that exists in the media regarding sexism that Swift knows all too well, and is expressing through a similar story in Harkness.

“exile (feat. Bon Iver)”

Standout Lyric: “All this time/We always walked a very thin line/You didn’t even hear me out (You didn’t even hear me out)/You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs).”

Why?: “exile,” featuring Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), is a personal favorite track of mine. Utilizing a dual perspective in each singer’s voice, “exile” explores the downfall of a relationship, in which Vernon’s perspective is unclear on what changed, and Swift’s is pleading for him to understand the “signs” she gave. Listening to the contrast in Vernon and Swift’s voices is part of the experience of “exile.”

“my tears ricochet”

Standout Lyric: You had to kill me, but it killed you just the same/Cursing my name, wishing I stayed.”

Why?: Swift explained this track as a song about an “embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession.” “my tears ricochet” carries the weight of bitterness and betrayal, most notably in Swift’s strong vocal performance. Her imagery is especially poignant in this track, relying on the vision of a funeral to hit the song’s message home.

“mirrorball”

Standout Lyric: And I’m still a believer, but I don’t know why/I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try/I’m still on that trapeze/I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me.”

Why?: One of the more personal cuts off of the album, “mirrorball” is a translation of Swift’s ability to reinvent herself and the attention that accompanies her musical career. The track explores how difficult it is for women to maintain attention in the music industry, and how there’s a constant need for female performers to appear young and vibrant whilst performing in order to attract the attention their work deserves. “mirrorball” is a devastatingly beautiful song all thanks to the simplicity of its lyrics and the strength of its message.

“seven”

Standout Lyric: “Your braids like a pattern/Love you to the Moon and to Saturn/Passed down like folk songs/The love lasts so long.”

Why?: “seven” is a sweet, nostalgic track of childhood, and a friend who needs an escape. “seven” explores the viewpoint held in youth that problems can be solved by playing pretend as “pirates” or moving “to India forever.” It’s endearing in the most upsetting of ways, conveying the feeling of not understanding how deep a problem runs. Swift masterfully conveys the innocence of childhood through “seven,” the listener pieces together the deeper aspect of the track through its lyrics.

“august”

Standout Lyric: So much for summer love and saying “us”/’Cause you weren’t mine to lose/You weren’t mine to lose, no.”

Why?: The next track of the teenage love triangle, “august” is a summer romance translated into music. It’s sweet, easy to listen to and even more beautiful live (see below!). “august” is a song about an affair between James and the unnamed speaker of the track, though fans have come to call her “August” and Swift herself has suggested “Augusta” or “Augustine” as names of the song’s speaker. “august” is an exact capture of an ill-fated summer fling, and when understood as part of a larger trilogy, carries so much more meaning than just a standalone song.

“this is me trying”

Standout Lyric: I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere/Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here/Pouring out my heart to a stranger.”

Why?: “this is me trying” conveys the desire to amend failed parts of a relationship. It analyzes the faults of the song’s speaker, offering them up to the other partner on a platter (“And maybe I don’t quite know what to say/But I’m here in your doorway“). While this is one of the quieter tracks from folklore, it’s deeply intimate and expresses poignant vulnerability.

“illicit affairs”

Standout Lyric: And that’s the thing about illicit affairs/And clandestine meetings and longing stares/It’s born from just one single glance/But it dies and it dies and it dies/A million little times.”

Why?: This song shines brightest in its chorus. Literally about an “illicit affair,” this track is full of references to a love that can never last because of the immense secrecy it was brought up in. Swift compares the fading thrill of the affair to a “dwindling mercurial high,” but ultimately, something the speaker would continue to ruin themselves for.

“invisible string”

Standout Lyric: Gold was the color of the leaves/When I showed you around Centennial Park/Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven.”

Why?: There’s something uniquely endearing about the idea of an “invisible string” existing to tie two lovers together. The track is appropriately sweet, exploring how the string tying two lovers together can take them out of the worst relationships into the best one. “invisible string” explores the peace and healing that comes with time and being with the right person, making it one of the wisest tracks off of folklore.

“mad woman”

Standout Lyric: No one likes a mad woman/You made her like that.”

Why?: Similar to “the last great american dynasty,” Swift uses the concept of “mad” women to connect back to her own life, and criticize sexism in the media and music industry. Swift is subtle with her jabs (“And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry,”) suggesting the perception of others as the strongest tool in how a female musician “reacts” to criticism. Swift also explores the idea that “women like hunting witches too,” in reference to the weaponization of women against each other in the media.

“epiphany”

Standout Lyric: Only twenty minutes to sleep/But you dream of some epiphany/Just one single glimpse of relief/To make some sense of what you’ve seen.”

Why?: “epiphany” is a cry out for peace in a world of chaos, which is still poignant a year later. In July of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic was in a heightened, chaotic state, as it was for much of 2020. “epiphany” speaks to the desire for there to be a relief to the things “seen” by those directly involved in the chaos of the pandemic, and those removed. It’s a song that can be taken on its own, but deserves greater context to have a more crushing impact.

“betty”

Standout Lyric: If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?/Will it patch your broken wings?/I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything/But I know I miss you.”

Why?: The final installment of the aforementioned teenage love triangle, “betty” was an early fan-favorite upon folklore’s release. “betty” is the resolution of the affair that occurred in “august,” and is James’ apology to Betty for the summer’s infidelity. “betty” parallels “cardigan,” specifically in the way the speakers of each song view their age and maturity. In “cardigan,” Betty uses her age to justify the things she knows and doesn’t. In “betty,” James justifies his actions by saying he’s “only 17” and doesn’t know anything because of that. It’s a semi-triumphant conclusion to the love triangle, though a lot is left unsaid.

“peace”

Standout Lyric: All these people think love’s for show/But I would die for you in secret/The devil’s in the details, but you got a friend in me/Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?”

Why?: “peace” is another one of Swift’s gentle love songs. She explained the song’s origins in her fears about leading a public life, “and how scary that can be when you do fall in love and you meet someone, especially if you’ve met someone who has a very grounded, normal way of living.” At its core, “peace” expresses a beautiful sentiment. Swift is honest about her shortcomings in the relationship and hopes that, despite everything, her partner can stay.

“hoax”

Standout Lyric: You know I left a part of me back in New York/You knew the hero died so what’s the movie for?

Why?: Serving as the final track of the standard edition of the album, “hoax” is a quiet closer. Exploring the themes of a toxic relationship, it’s a more painful track than “the 1,” but serves as its anchor at the end of the album. Where “the 1” explores hypothetical changes to Swift’s love life, “hoax” is grounded, talking about the realities of a toxic relationship. It ends folklore on a tragic note, speaking to the magnetism of love, even when toxic: “no other sadness in the world would do.”

“the lakes – bonus track”

Standout Lyric: “I want auroras and sad prose/I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet/’Cause I haven’t moved in years/And I want you right here.”

Why?: While “the lakes” wasn’t technically released a year ago, it’s still included on the deluxe version of folklore and, in some fan’s opinions, should not have been a bonus track. “the lakes” is moody and timeless, using love and history to create a track with some of Swift’s most beautiful imagery. Swift plays on the names of poets in her lyrics, drawing a contrast between herself and the famous English poets and their muses. “the lakes” is a perfect ending track to folklore, incorporating romance, expert lyricism and a little bit of historical whimsy to top it off.

Featured Image via YouTube/Taylor Swift.

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