Culture  On Not-So-Guilty Pleasures and Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

Why you should be shouting “Betty” from the rooftops

I have always tried to own the pleasure I get from listening to Taylor Swift’s music, instead of feeling guilty about it. I believe that I am an exception to the rule. Take this dude-bro, for instance:
@realtimcannonGuilty pleasures be like…##taylorswift ##folklore ##countrymusic ##MyBFF ##popmusic♬ original sound – realtimcannon

Part of the reason that I am loud and proud about my love for Taylor is that I can’t bring myself to hide one of my interests simply because it is shared by many other women. It frustrates me to no end that girls and young women are belittled and mocked for the things that they collectively enjoy because patriarchy deems them frivolous, unsophisticated, or lacking in value and merit. See: boy bands, romantic comedies, and our girl Tay. 

The most important element in The Taylor Swift Story is her feminist arc. “Tim McGraw” launched her to country fame at the age of 16, and as her star rose, she was criticized and ridiculed for her large catalogue of songs about what many considered to be an unacceptably long string of boyfriends. Then came the infamous 2009 VMAs moment with Kanye West; from that point on, the narrative of Swiftian victimhood –  both self-written and imposed upon her by others – began. That narrative was further cemented in 2016 when Swift challenged West’s song “Famous,” which featured the lyric: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” The world largely took West’s side, and the public hatred towards Taylor Swift came to a crescendo in the summer of 2016, when #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty started trending on Twitter. Taylor has been criticized for being too drama-entangled, too crafty in her creative and business choices, too much of a “serial dater,” too self-pitying, too catty, too two-faced. You name it, and she has been too much of it. 

In 2017, Taylor’s public image began to shift. She won a civil countersuit for a single dollar against ex-DJ David Mueller, who sexually assaulted her on a red carpet in front of a wall of cameras. Her album Reputation hardened her image, and she retreated from public life. In 2019, she admonished music executive Scooter Braun for purchasing the rights to more than a decade of her music recordings, claiming that she was never given the opportunity to purchase the masters herself. The Netflix documentary Miss Americana showed her opening up about her struggle with disordered eating, and her successful fight to unshackle herself from the political neutrality forced upon her by her labels and management. Her next album Lover featured her long overdue feminist anthem “The Man.” Now, in folklore, Taylor tackles the topics of sexism and women’s empowerment in a subtler, overarching, and more incisive way. In “the last great american dynasty,” she quips: “There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvellous time ruining everything. In “mad woman,” she sings: “Women like hunting witches, too / Doing your dirtiest work for you.” And in “seven”, she recalls the freedom of a childhood unburdened by gender norms: “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously any time I wanted.” And this newfound power goes beyond her lyrics – she is the owner of her last two albums, and has directed her last two music videos. 

Taylor’s feminism has never been – and still isn’t – perfect. It has been very white, and a very long time in the making. It has been whipped out at opportune times, and set aside at inopportune ones. But it has certainly grown. Taylor and her feminism have evolved in a way that feels personal to me. Like so many young women, I grew up with Taylor Swift. I first heard “Teardrops On My Guitar” on the radio, sitting in the backseat of my dad’s 1996 Camry when I was in primary school. Now, I get to see her transition into her 30s, exactly one decade older than me, growing as an artist and as a person. There is value in that. 

All this to say, I love folklore. Taylor’s voice, which has never been her strongest attribute, shines in the lower register she adopts for these songs. The production is spot on, from the grin-inducing harmonica that opens “Betty” to the driving pedal point of “Peace,” which is the song from this album that I believe will join the ranks of “Love Story” and “Blank Space” in the Swift Hall of Fame. The songwriting on folklore is masterfully clever, honest, and intimate, even in this form of fictitious storytelling which is a departure from her typically autobiographical fare. Lyrically, folklore is quick in wit and languorous in emotion. We have returned to the long forms of Red, swimming in indulgent bridges and lush codas that often take these songs past the four minute mark. Swift is once again delivering, as she always does. And that is precisely why I am frustrated that this album is receiving widespread acclaim, while her other albums have not. 

As the critics on the New York Times’ Popcast series suggest, folklore may be getting rave reviews because it is packaged in the trappings of “serious” (read: middle-aged, white, male) music. The black and white album cover, the lowercase song titles, the production by Aaron Dessner (a member of The National, synonymous with “dad indie rock”), the collaboration with Bon Iver (another indie touchstone), and the dense, acoustic sonic landscape all work together to create something that is a little less “Top 40” and a little more “found in the back of the record store.” The Times’ Jon Caramanica brings up this point as a jab at the album, but also to criticize the broader sexist culture that is creating this current folklore mania. Swift’s musical prowess has always been on display, albeit in a shinier, pinker, pop-ier package. Is it merely a coincidence that previous Taylor critics are suddenly jumping on the bandwagon, now that she is serving up something slightly darker? I don’t think so. While I don’t fully agree with Caramanica’s negative reading of the album, I do think his analysis of the culture is correct. Taylor Swift was pigeonholed as a “guilty pleasure” until Dessner and Justin Vernon stepped in to “legitimize” her.

So if you don’t consider yourself a Swiftie, or if you only consider yourself one now that you’ve listened to folklore, I encourage you to spend time with the rest of Taylor Swift’s discography. Maybe I only love Taylor because her music is nostalgic for me. But maybe you’ll find that her canon is truly filled with artful melodies, and words that will speak to you in surprising ways. Go listen to “All Too Well,” and get back to me.