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Taylor Swift folklore

How Taylor Swift’s 8th Album is a Musical Time Capsule for the Pandemic

Music has always been a tool for people to escape the harsh realities of life. It immerses us in another world in the same way books and movies do, allowing people to step away from what is going on around them. It brings people together through events like concerts and festivals as well as allowing people from around the world to bond over their love for a certain artist or group.

Many musicians however, faced similar challenges being in lockdown and feeling stuck both professionally and creatively as their ability to perform for others was taken away as well as the accessibility of creating music. Recording studios were unable to be used during the height of lockdown, so even if an artist did have inspiration and ideas, they were put on hold until recording music was an option again. This sparked things like drive-in concerts as well as livestreams just so these artists could attempt to keep their passion burning and keep their fans happy.

Celebrities in general are held to a certain standard to be the voice of reason in hard times and give their fans hope. However, this is difficult to do when personal struggles and a disconnection from their art comes into play. Despite this, many musicians took on the challenge of keeping a sense of normalcy with their work and their fans. 

One artist who did this flawlessly was American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. In July of 2020, she released her eighth studio album titled Folklore, in which she goes back to her country roots and presents her art in her truest form. Swift’s storytelling has always been her strongest musical attribute since she first started her career when she was a teenager. Folklore is Swift’s most unique album in every way. In ten years, we will look back on it and remember how it defined music during the pandemic and represented what the world, as well as the music industry, was going through. 

Folklore as a word is used to describe a story or idea passed down from generation to generation which is a perfect name for this album. Winning Album of the Year at the 2021 Grammy Awards, Folklore has cemented itself as one of, if not, Swift’s best work and also an album that people will never forget. Folklore will be passed on like folklore just as Swift intended.

In the caption, Swift explains her anxiety with the surprise release but also her excitement and love for the album

Through her lyricism, Swift appeals to pathos and captures the collective pain of the world. Many songs on Folklore provoke a plethora of very strong emotions with her use of imagery as well as the production of them. In her self-directed and produced documentary on Disney+, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, she says many of her songs were inspired by the collective need for a “good cry”. She most definitely succeeded in this by telling stories of heartbreak, infidelity, growing up and the hardships of the pandemic. There are two songs on the album that stand out as tracks specifically about the pandemic: “Epiphany” and “Mirrorball”. 

If we look at “Epiphany” without knowing anything about Taylor Swift or her inspiration for the song, it is very clear the story she is telling. The first part of the song presents the grotesque imagery of war with lyrics like “Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifle” and “Crawling up the beaches now / ‘Sir, I think he’s bleeding out’ / And some things you just can’t speak about.” These lyrics are paralleled directly in the next verse “Holds your hand through plastic now / ‘Doc, I think she’s crashing out’ / And some things you just can’t speak about.” By directly comparing war to the struggles of medical professionals during the pandemic, she successfully evokes emotion from her audience, especially those who are close to or who are healthcare workers on the front lines. We as a society view the hardships of war as the greatest sacrifice and honor those who fought multiple days a year, however, many individuals don’t take the pandemic seriously and go as far to say it is not real, thus downplaying the struggles of frontline workers. Swift uses her language of music to say to these workers that she hears them, sees them and validates their pain. Also, “Epiphany” may have been a way for people to realize how serious the pandemic really is and how hard it is out there for frontline workers if they had not before. It is impossible to listen to “Epiphany” without being confronted with the painful thoughts of the frontline workers and their trauma. 

Another song off Folklore directly inspired by the pandemic is “Mirrorball”. “Mirrorball”, unlike “Epiphany”, has more room for interpretation and multiple meanings. In the song, Swift compares herself/the narrator to a mirrorball or disco ball because of how she transforms herself based on the people she is around. Essentially, she relates to a lonely, spinning, shiny disco ball because of her ability to mirror what others want from her and act as people expect her to. She also sings about how people are often entertained by her pain with the lyric “Drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten.” This line sums up the mirrorball metaphor by saying how although the disco ball is made of broken glass, it provides light and entertainment for people to enjoy. However, it is not until the bridge of the song that she speaks about her struggles as a musician during the pandemic. She uses the metaphor of a circus (something historically used as a way to get entertainment from people on the outskirts of society) and writes, “And they called off the circus / Burned the disco down / When they sent home the horses / And the rodeo clowns / I’m still on that tightrope / I’m still trying everything to get you laughing at me.”

In her Disney+ documentary, in which she briefly discusses her inspiration for the songs on Folklore, she describes how these lyrics were written shortly after finding out her concerts had been called off. Trying to keep her fans entertained despite not being able to connect with them in person was a struggle for her. Swift tried to remain active on social media in fear her fans would lose interest in her or she would let them down when so many looked to her for reassurance and comfort. However, the double meaning of this song resonates with many listeners. The average listener is not a musician who had to cancel their concerts due to COVID-19. However, many people use devices like humor as a mask to cover up their own insecurities and get validation from others. Especially during lockdowns, people lost a lot of social connections and became more aware of their own “performances” in day to day life. Songs like “Mirrorball” show Swift’s ability to make something so personal reach so many people and make them feel seen, even if it is only for three and a half minutes.

That is the power of music. 

Even when Swift was not using her lyrics to tell specific stories related to pandemic struggles, many other songs on Folklore are reminiscent of 2020. Swift tells fictional tales of teenagers involved in a love triangle with “Betty”, “August” and the lead single “Cardigan”. She sings about the life story of Rebekah Harkness and her Rhode Island home that Swift now owns in “The Last Great American Dynasty”. “This is Me Trying” documents the feelings of addicts and those struggling with mental health issues, which for many people was worsened by the pandemic.

Swift also writes of her own healing in songs like “My Tears Ricochet” and “Mad Woman” which discuss the betrayal she faced by the hands of Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun when they sold her masters without telling her in 2019. Finally, she ends the album with “The Lakes,” which describes the fantasy of escaping the modern world and all that it entails for a quiet life in The Lake District in England with her current partner Joe Alwyn. The instinct of running away and going off the grid is a relatable feeling that Swift captures perfectly. All of these stories suck the audience in and pull them away from the harsh reality of the world around them. 

Swift explains her mindset while writing Folklore and how she used it to escape the world around her

Swift is not the only artist who has spoken to their audience through their art during the pandemic. However, Folklore to a lot of people, will be remembered as a pandemic album or even the pandemic album. Taylor Swift tells stories in Folklore which take us away from reality as well as placing it in front of us in a way that makes us feel seen and heard.

Music is a universal language, one that people communicate with in a multitude of ways from sending friends songs that they might enjoy or through finding hidden meanings in songs left by their favorite artists. Now, more than ever, people need that outsourced communication and comfort and thanks to artists like Taylor Swift, they can have it.

Fiona Loudon

Kent State '24

Fiona is a sophomore at Kent State University studying Political Science with minors in English. She's a Pittsburgh native who enjoys watching movies, reading, and drinking coffee. This is her first semester in HerCampus.
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