folklore | The bizarre rebranding of Taylor Swift that none of us asked for

I love Taylor Swift. I’ll be the first to say it, I am an unlikely believer in the talents and motivations of ‘Miss Americana’, especially since her opportune feature documentary showed us all her SJW side and highlighted the disgusting, sexist actions of Kanye West. But this is a topic for another day and one that has been done to death, not least by the two artists themselves. 

Today I want to talk about folklore. Yes, that surprise album that Swiftie sprung on her fans with no pre-release campaigns, no marketing and no upper-case lettering (I’m not a grammar fascist but I still don’t understand or condone abandoning it, everyone’s started doing it these days, as if lack of grammar equals indie). 

Taylor definitely knows how to utilise the Instagram algorithm

I held off on listening to folklore for a week or so, I wasn’t too bothered and if you’d asked me when the release date was, I wouldn’t have known. I guess I’ve grown up a bit since the days of ‘Love Story‘ and Speak Now. After all, I’m not 10 anymore. 

Swift wasn’t going to let me get away with that though, and with a few creepy Instagram ads that tend to convince people their phones are listening to them, (as if phones can listen) I was sucked in and opened up my Spotify. There was something so raw and casual about a superstar speaking to her iPhone, offhandedly asking me to listen to her new material.

I couldn’t contain my excitement when I saw the name of Swift’s latest collection. I am a contemporary folk nut and I mean that with the greatest sincerity, I even have a playlist called Folklore, which sits conspicuously next to Taylor’s album on my ‘recently listened’. But the similarities between my playlist and Taylor’s folklore are sadly, in name only. 

Folksy? Yes. Folky? Not so much 

Now, I don’t have a degree in music, but I do have ten years of fiddle experience and an A level, so I figured I could give my opinion. The first thing I want to go over is the difference between Folk music and Folk lore because the two are very different. 

Folk music isn’t easily defined, most people don’t really know what constitutes folk, as the genre has come to mean, well, basically nothing. It is defined not by instrumentation, chords or key, but by the stories it tells through these aspects as a whole. Folk music tends to have a strong connection to nationhood and collective national experience – think war, oppression, depression… 

Folklore is a little more straightforward. People started using the word in around 1850 when someone basically mashed together ‘folk’ and ‘lore’ and we’ve been using it ever since. The Oxford definition describes it neatly as ‘the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth’.

This is where the problem arises with Swift’s album. If she had just named it ‘folk songs’ or something unassuming like that, no one really could have criticised her – the defining features of the genre are so painfully vague after all. 

Now, if I were to write an article and name it folklore, I would understandably be criticised because my work is not a common truth or collective story, and it has certainly not been passed down through generations. To name my work as such would put my work on a pedestal it has not earned yet, whether it will in the future is irrelevant.

The same applies to Swift’s album, you can’t release new material and call it folklore because it just hasn’t got that recognition yet. Admittedly, there is a mention of her grandfather in the song ‘epiphany’, which could be argued to be some sort of lore in the Swift family, but this is a bit of a stretch. 

Rather than get bogged down in the language, though, it is more prudent to examine why Swift has done this, to which I think I can apply an educated guess. 

folklore was no accident, shocker 

Swift has been writing, producing and creating music for over a decade. ‘Love Story’ was released in 2008, an obvious hit and something the pop world hadn’t seen yet – a country infused, popular artist. Teenage girls swooned for their new idol and Swift did not disappoint, she has continued to billow out single after single and her fan base has only grown. 

Yet, her music has never been considered ‘mature’ or ‘serious’. She has dominated the scene for such an impressively long time and the fruits of her labour have been admired for their relatability, sound imagery and pop beats. 

Swift is thirty now, approaching middle age and the idea that she could continue pumping out tracks like ‘You Belong With Me’ into her late thirties and beyond seems slightly inappropriate and perhaps demeaning for a womxn who has matured and aged substantially since her career began. So, a change was indeed necessary. Cue Aaron Dessner, a 44 year old who created music alongside Justin Vernon (founder of Bon Iver), he is the quintessential ‘indie’, age-appropriate producer. This was no accident.

Why am I so disappointed by folklore

If Lover was a toe dipped in the chilly waters of US politics, folklore is a tactical move to hold on to a demographic – fans who just grew out of Taylor Swift. Hell, five out of the sixteen tracks are rated explicit, hearing my TayTay sing the word ‘fuck’ is shocking, but its mature, isn’t it? 

You may be wondering what my point is here. Well, it all feels a little calculated to me, the absence of pre-release marketing doesn’t mean an absence of branding altogether. In fact, I would go as far to say this little foray into the indie scene (if you can call it that) is the most over marketed album we have seen from Swift. It all feels a little self-conscious, a little manipulative and frankly I tend to expect more of Taylor.

The content on folklore is no departure from the Swift we all know and love. Its relatable, rhymey and predominantly focussed on romantic relationships. The fact that folklore is branded as this ‘stripped-down’, new-age Taylor is dishonestly subjective. 

That being said, I will wait with bated breath, for the ninth sequential album our Taylor graces us with. After all, I am still a Swiftie for life. 

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