folklore: A Track-By-Track Breakdown [MUSE]

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Wendy Zhu

foreword: It’s been a few days since Taylor Swift released her eighth studio album, “folklore,” and I’ve finally (somewhat) recovered from the surprise drop. This album represents many firsts for Swift. It’s the first time she’s released two albums within a single year. It’s the first time she’s announced an album less than 24 hours before its release. It’s the first time she’s released an album without any lead or promotional singles to precede it. It’s the first time she’s dropped the F-bomb in a song (it shows up in not one but two songs on “folklore”). It’s the first time she’s put out such a cohesive, mature body of work. For years, I’ve hoped for an album filled with stripped down, mellow songs. When the production is stripped down, Swift’s lyrical genius and heartfelt vocals shine. Her strongest suit, however, is her second to none songwriting, and “folklore” is filled with dazzling storytelling, clever word play and hard-hitting one-liners. There’s nothing quite like it. This is Swift’s magnum opus. 

 

standout tracks:

  • the last great american dynasty
  • my tears ricochet
  • august
  • invisible string
  • betty

 

the 1

The album starts with a quintessential Taylor Swift song. It’s both cheeky and vulnerable—Swift brags about being “on some new s—” while also lamenting about lost love. This song is the perfect opener for the album, and it sets the scene for recurring motifs about films and what-ifs. After my first listen, this track was immediately one of my favorites. I wonder a lot about how certain situations in my life would have panned out differently if one thing had gone another way, and this song puts that exact feeling into words. It doesn’t always have to be about relationships or romance—I think many people are curious about all the what-ifs and the might-have-beens in life. Especially with the unprecedented pandemic this year, I’ve been constantly thinking about how different my life would be if the events that transpired this year had never happened. But like the song says, “if you never bleed, you’re never gonna grow,” and I’d like to believe I’ve changed for the better during these past few months. 

favorite lyrics: We never painted by the numbers, baby/But we were making it count

 

cardigan

When “folklore” came out, this was the first track I heard because I watched the music video before listening to the album. “cardigan” is the younger, more adventurous version of “Lover,” capturing the intensity and magic of young love. According to Swift, there’s a triad of songs on the album that create what she calls the “Teenage Love Triangle.” There’s some dispute over which three songs make up the love triangle, but I’m convinced those tracks are “cardigan,” “august” and “betty.” The parallels between the three are uncanny, and comparing their lyrics make it clear that they are all connected. Additionally, “cardigan” is the second track on the album, “august” is the eighth track and “betty” is the fourteenth, forming a triangle. Any fan of Swift would know that her track lists are always very purposeful and help tell the album’s story. “cardigan” is told from Betty’s perspective, “august” is told from the other woman’s perspective and “betty” is told from James’s perspective. 

This album in particular is notably less self-referential compared to her past works, and it’s remarkable to see how Swift has created all these character arcs and developed detailed narratives about fictional people. Unlike her previous lead singles, “cardigan” is an accurate representation of what “folklore” is like both sonically and lyrically. This song makes me want to go for a long nighttime stroll somewhere in Europe while wearing, of course, a cardigan.

favorite lyrics: A friend to all is a friend to none/Chase two girls, lose the one

 

the last great american dynasty

“the last great american dynasty” is peak Taylor Swift storytelling and is in fact based on a true story. The track is very tongue-in-cheek and tells the story of Rebekah “Betty” Harkness, a socialite who formerly lived in Swift’s home in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Swift draws many parallels between Harkness and herself, and when listening to this song, I immediately thought of “The Lucky One,” where Swift also ends up inserting herself in the narrative in the bridge of the song. This is one of the greatest songs Swift has ever written and sounds like single material. 

favorite lyrics: 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

 

exile (ft. bon iver)

Swift doesn’t frequently collaborate with other artists, but I have to say that this is probably her best collaboration. Justin Vernon’s vocals blend beautifully with Swift’s, and I love the contrast between Vernon’s deep, heavy voice and Swift’s bright, airy voice. In that aspect, “exile” is very similar to “The Last Time,” which features Gary Lightbody—both tracks highlight the differences in the two artists’ voices. The call-and-response lyrics in this track (“You never gave a warning sign/I gave so many signs”) are heart-wrenching and show how miscommunication often leads to the gradual deterioration of a relationship. There’s also lots of finger-pointing and shifting the blame when it comes to figuring out where something went wrong, and “exile” artfully depicts this conflict.

favorite lyrics: 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?

 

my tears ricochet

Ah, here we are at *Track Five.* Track Five has become a sort of inside joke for Swifties because the fifth track on each of Swift’s albums is a sad song. “my tears ricochet” is no exception. Throughout the track, there are recurring metaphors about death, battle and funerals, and the eerie chorus of background vocals helps create the image of a “ghostly scene.” Swift says this track is about an “embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession, but fans have speculated that this song could possibly be about her old record label, Big Machine Records—lyrics like “You wear the same jewels that I gave you as you bury me” and “And when you can’t sleep at night (You hear my stolen lullabies)” seem to align with this theory. “my tears ricochet” is the only self-written track on the album and is one of her best written tracks yet. Hearing the line “And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” for the first time is something I’ll never forget. And that bridge? Impeccable.

favorite lyrics: And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?

 

mirrorball

It’s probably just because the lyric video features a spinning disco ball, but I firmly believe that this song belongs in a coming-of-age movie, in the prom scene where everyone is slow dancing under a twinkling display of multicolored lights. “mirrorball” has a very soft, hazy vibe, and the way she croons the word “hush” is so pretty. I also appreciate the way her voice reflects the lyrics, rising in pitch when she sings “tallest tiptoes” and “highest heels.” 

The song itself sounds heavenly, but the subject matter is heartbreaking. In Swift’s documentary “Miss Americana,” she briefly touches on how artists in the music industry, particularly women, must reinvent themselves over and over again to remain relevant. Throughout her career, Swift has released country, pop and now indie music. “mirrorball” describes these struggles that musicians must face in their brutal industry, and serves as a reminder of how easy it is for the public to leave artists behind once their content no longer seems new and shiny.

favorite lyrics: 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

 

seven

The innocence on this track is so endearing and makes me nostalgic about all my childhood friends whose faces I’ve forgotten after all these years. “seven” is heavily reminiscent of “It’s Nice To Have A Friend,” which is also about childhood friendship. As Swift recounts her childhood in Pennsylvania, her lyrics are tinged with childlike whimsy and nostalgia. The naivete of it all is the perfect touch, and it reminds me of how easy things seemed when I was younger. When you’re 7 years old, you don’t have the slightest idea how complicated the real world is—all you know is the love you have for your best friends. 

favorite lyrics: And though I can’t recall your face/I still got love for you/Your braids like a pattern/Love you to the Moon and to Saturn

 

august

Before “folklore” dropped, Jack Antonoff, one of her frequent collaborators, tweeted that “august” was one of his favorite projects with Swift. Considering the title of the song and the fact that Antonoff worked with Swift on both “august” and “Cruel Summer,” I predicted that the former would be a sort of sequel to the latter, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were indeed many parallels between the two. Like “Cruel Summer,” “august” shows Swift’s masterful depiction of bittersweet summer romances and love that was never yours to lose in the first place. As the second song in the “Teenage Love Triangle,” this track shows the ups and downs that come with being the other woman. The narrator of this song is never named, but it’s clear from the lyrics that even though she knows she’ll always just be a summer fling, she still remains hopeful. I can’t personally relate to most of the lyrics, but this track instantly transports me to the beach, especially with breezy, summery lyrics like “salt air, and the rust on your door” and “your back beneath the sun.” The chorus and outro are dreamy, and Swift’s voice sounds gorgeous on this track. 

favorite lyrics: For me, it was enough/To live for the hope of it all/Canceled plans just in case you’d call/And say, “Meet me behind the mall”

 

this is me trying

On this track, Swift opens up about her insecurities with vulnerable and earnest lyrics. She knows how it feels when you don’t quite know the right words to say but still try anyway. My favorite part of the song is those post-chorus when Swift sings, “at least I’m trying.” It’s become so easy to overthink our words and actions that I think everyone can relate to this song one way or another—we all come across situations where we’re simply trying our best to fix our mistakes. Those who love “The Archer” will also love this song. 

favorite lyrics: 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

 

illicit affairs

Swift is no stranger to songs about infidelity—take “Girl at Home,” “Babe” and “Should’ve Said No” for example. “illicit affairs,” however, is the first time Swift explicitly sings about taking part in an affair. The start of this song feels very inconspicuous and quiet, just like a secret affair. But as the song progresses, it gradually crescendos and peaks at the bridge. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I think the production of the song shows how these secret relationships always end up bursting once they’re all over. They might be fun in the moment, but at the end of the day, illicit affairs only result in messy heartbreak for everyone involved. 

favorite lyric: Take the words for what they are/A dwindling, mercurial high/A drug that only worked/The first few hundred times

 

invisible string

Enter the lovechild of “Paper Rings” and “Daylight.” Swift sings with fascination as she muses about being tied to her lover with an invisible string. Just as she does in “Paper Rings,” Swift uses incredible detail to describe her love, using color to paint a picture of green grass and golden leaves in Centennial Park, purple-pink skies and teal frozen yogurt shop uniforms. It’s admirable to see how there’s nothing too mundane for her to write about, and it reminds me to romanticize and find beauty in the little things in life. Like “Daylight,” the track also shows how time has allowed Swift to let go of her bitter past and grow from it. Not to be dramatic or anything, but this song makes me want to get married. It makes me want to believe in true love and soulmates. There’s truly a sense of peace that lets listeners know that Swift has found a love that’s golden. This is easily one of the best songs she has ever written and subtly nods at two of her past releases, “Delicate” and “Bad Blood.”

favorite lyric: Cold was the steel of my axe to grind/For the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents

 

mad woman

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. The mad woman in question is vindictive—she’s ready for her claws to come out. Swift says this track is about a “misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out.” At the surface, that appears to be the topic of the song, but “mad woman” also seems to address sexism. The chorus (“Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy/What about that?/And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”) reminds me of something Swift said last year in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning: “A man is allowed to react. A woman can only overreact.” Personally, I like to think this track is the anthem of all the women who were accused of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials. And just like all those women were falsely accused, Swift has been villainized time and time again throughout her career. But this time, she’s retaliating, owning the title of being a “mad woman”—and she’s not holding back.

favorite lyric: Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?/They strike to kill, and you know I will

 

epiphany

This song didn’t stick with me at first, but I think the lyrics and production are beautiful. My friend and I compared “epiphany” to clouds and floating through the sky. Swift may not be a vocal powerhouse, but the way she delivers each lyric in this song is ethereal and almost haunting. The line about holding hands through plastic also makes me wonder how the pandemic has affected and will continue to affect relationships. In the era of COVID-19, what’s the best way to greet friends and family? Hugs, handshakes and kisses have now become things of the past, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the situation. In this time of chaos and unrest, all we can really hope for is some sort of epiphany.

favorite lyric: Only twenty minutes to sleep/But you dream of some epiphany

 

betty

Welcome to the third and final leg of the “Teenage Love Triangle.” “betty” is told from the perspective of a boy who learns the hard lesson that you never know what you have until it’s gone. James, the narrator of the song, spends the summer cheating with another girl and expects that he can just show up at Betty’s party to ask for forgiveness. In conclusion, Swift does a perfect job of encapsulating the teenage boy mentality in just under five minutes. For the most part, the typical teenage boy is audacious and manipulative—no surprise there. No, James, Betty dancing with another boy in a high school gym is not comparable to you being with someone else for a whole month. To make matters worse, he gives the sorry excuse that even though he slept next to someone else, he dreamt of Betty all summer long. Ugh. Betty, do not take James back. If he really cared about you, he would’ve shown it. 

However, there’s something about “betty” that resonates with me. From the harmonica to the rhyming of “car again” with “cardigan,” there are so many little elements that work together to create this gem of a song. And it’s probably just because I’m 17, but I adore the lyric “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything/But I know I miss you.” There’s so much that 17-year-olds don’t know, but the one thing they think they do know is young love. Adolescence is an awkward stage for everyone: you’re old enough to know yourself and make your own decisions, but you haven’t quite experienced real life. So can teenagers genuinely experience romantic love? Maybe. But for the most part, I don’t think they really understand what it’s like to truly love someone. Exhibit A: when you truly love someone, you don’t cheat on them and expect to be welcomed back with open arms.

favorite 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

 

peace

“peace” is as adorable as it is painful. Swift is obviously deeply in love, but being the global superstar she is, it’s clear that she’ll never quite have a normal relationship that’s free of public opinion and flashing paparazzi cameras. She would sit with her lover in the trenches, see his brother as her brother and die for him in secret. But at the same time, she’ll never be able to give him peace. Listening to this track really reinforced my belief that celebrities should be viewed as humans, not otherworldly beings. They always seem untouchable and unreal, but underneath it all, they’re just like everyone else. Many of them want to lead regular lives, away from the media and the public. Sure, celebrities may have signed up to be in the spotlight, but I think this song shows just how difficult it is to be constantly scrutinized. Though I’m definitely interested in celebrities’ personal lives, I do think they deserve to have privacy, and I’m glad Swift has found a little more privacy and happiness by keeping her current relationship low-profile.

P.S. I love the dig at Kanye and Kim Kardashian West in this song: the lyric video capitalizes the word “west” in the line “But there’s robbers to the east, clowns to the west.”

favorite 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

 

hoax

This track is simply stunning. The bright piano works beautifully with the orchestral instruments, making for a musical masterpiece. Interestingly, it’s a melancholy tune, contrasting starkly with Swift’s closing songs on her past seven albums—all her other closing songs, like “Begin Again,” “Daylight” and “Long Live,” reflect some sort of joy and hopefulness. “hoax,” however, is arguably one of the most heartbreaking songs Swift has ever released, joining the ranks of “Last Kiss” and “White Horse.” 

favorite lyric: Stood on the cliffside screaming, “Give me a reason”/Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in

 

On this blog, Shruthi Ravichandran and Grace Xu (and the occasional guest blogger!) provide monthly curations of all types of arts and media, from TV shows to music to novels to even YouTubers. On top of mood-oriented playlists, there’s also the occasional rant-filled review. They hope readers will always leave with a new piece of media to muse over. Click here to read more from MUSE.     

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