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CultureCow: Folklore is beautiful, but nobody tell Joe Alwyn

Commentary by Devin McCue, Sumner Newscow — Happy Friday. Taylor Swift emerged from her lavishly decorated cave last week to drop a surprise album Folklore on us without provocation and we were not ready.  Unlike previous iterations of Swift album releases, there was no lead single dropped months in advance that we all had to tolerate until the album came out.

There was no secret code hidden in an elaborate web of Instagram posts.  Instead, she just decided to come out of the blue and bestow us with one of the best works of her career (top three easily).  Folklore is the type of album I was expecting in 2017 when I wrote my review of Reputation (Swift’s best album) and listened to the final track New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day showed a marked departure from the rest of the album and would’ve led so beautifully into Folklore, but instead, we got Lover.  Lover was a fine album, as all her albums are at their bare minimum, but it wasn’t the evolution I was looking for in one of my favorite artists.

Folklore is a true progression in her sound without losing the song-writing that made her a pop icon.  Let me be very clear: Folklore is not a folk album.  It most likely will get labeled as one because most of it was produced by Aaron Dressner from the National and it is seeping in folk influence, but it’s very much a pop album that swings closer to country than folk.

Regardless of what genre it’ll get thrown into, it’s the genre she was meant for because she used more acoustic instruments than ever (because she recorded in quarantine) and wrote truly unique songs.

Before I get into the actual song-by-song review, I need to mention queer signaling.  Queer signaling is a technique of sending dog whistles to other queer people in front of straight people without directly outing yourself.  It’s something every queer person does throughout their life and it’s immediately recognizable.

Taylor Swift will do this through almost every song in this album.  This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s coming out or is even attracted to the same sex, but these rumors have been around for years and as you read on, you’ll start to see what I mean.  There are plenty of gay icons who are straight like Hozier, Judy Garland, and Ariana Grande (who was just named gay icon of the decade by Billboard), but they don’t use the signaling and personal experience as Taylor.  But I digress, on to the review:


The 1

The 1 is how you kick off a new album when changing your whole sound.  The minute it starts, Dressner’s influence is immediately clear and to push that point home, Taylor tells a story she’s told a thousand times before: a breakup song.  By rehashing a subject she’s beat to death, it’s super clear this album is about growth in sound rather than anything else.  That being said, leading off your album with a song lamenting about a failed relationship you’re still mourning isn’t a good look for long-time boyfriend Joe Alwyn. (She also used a curse word, go Taylor!)

Cardigan

This is the first song in a trio of tunes Taylor has dubbed “the teenage love triangle” that tells the story of infidelity between a bunch of teenagers on the cusp of understanding themselves.  Cardigan is from the point of view of the girl (Betty) who was cheated on and felt like an old cardigan left forgotten under someone’s bed.  The song itself becomes the root of the album in both tone and style and each following song is layered with a sense of nostalgia and deep regret that Taylor is only now exploring.

Last Great American Dynasty

The Last Great American Dynasty is about the woman Taylor Swift bought her Rhode Island beach house from.  Her name is Rebekah West Harkness and she, at one point, was one of the richest women in America.  You can read Rebekah’s backstory here, but let me suffice to say she married an oil tycoon who soon after died and all of her neighbors hated her.  Not only is it nice to see Taylor tell someone else’s story, but this song is more about the double standard women see when they’re wealthy.  She uses lines like “had a marvelous time ruining everything” among others to show how using the language of sexists proves her point that a man would never get those kinds of remarks.  Sometimes, girls just wanna have fun.

Exile

Here we go, we finally got a Bon Iver track on the “folk” album.  This song, coupled with Dressner’s producing, will be the largest factors deciding if the record makes it into the folk genre and to be fair, this is definitely a folk song.  The song itself is about a tumultuous breakup once Taylor found a better lover that listened to her.  Exile is brutal both lyrically and musically when Taylor’s almost dismissive tone pairs with Iver’s powerful ballads of regret.  Once again, not a good sign for Joe Alwyn.  Another curious thing about this track is that it was co-written and produced by William Bowery, a person who doesn’t seem to exist.  Taylor is no stranger to using aliases when she appears on other artists’ song so this isn’t out of the ordinary, but fans speculate it’s either Joe Alwyn, Lorde, or even Taylor’s brother.

My Tears Ricochet

Track number 5 is a sacred place in Swift’s discography so when it rolls around, you know you can start to get excited.  My Tears Ricochet doesn’t break that pattern and has some of the best writing on the record as she tells the tragic story of how Scooter Braun and her previous label screwed her out of 6 albums of work.  This is also the first appearance of pop’s golden boy Jack Antonoff, and boy did we miss him.

Mirrorball

This is where Antonoff’s presence is the clearest on the album as Taylor talks about being a disco ball that will show every side of herself in her career.  It’s one of the best songs on the album and one of the more personal songs she’s written about how she wishes she didn’t have to change every part of herself to please her audience and no longer wants to.  While Taylor uses Mirrorball to tell the media she won’t reinvent herself every album anymore, her fans can take this song and apply it to any relationship they felt they weren’t being their authentic self in, which makes this a deeply personal song to many (especially all the sad Swifties on Twitter).

Seven

Seven is probably the most forgettable song on the album, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.  On the contrary, each verse begins with her offhandedly singing “sweet tea in the summer,” which is my favorite bar on the album.  Apart from the reference to “chosen family” on the 1, this is also the first song with heavy queer signaling.  The entire story is about Taylor telling her “friend” she should come live with her because her dad is mean, but it literally says “you don’t have hide in the closet,” which is about as subtle as a gunshot.  Apart from that line, however, this story is also a very queer experience about finding out your old childhood best friend was probably your first same sex crush and while you don’t remember them personally, as Taylor remarks in the line “even though I don’t remember your face, I still got love for you,” you fondly remember that relationship because it was your first queer feeling.

August

The 8th song is named after the 8th month, see what she did there?   This is the second song in the teenage love triangle from the perspective of Inez.  Inez is the girl James, the boy in the triangle, who Taylor Swift is literally named after (James Taylor), cheated with.  It’s a really sad song when placed in the context of the trio, and after the first verse implies that James and this girl lost their virginities together, he leaves her hanging despite her real feelings towards him.  “Him” being Taylor because, once again, sporadically hooking up with someone outside of your small hometown in secret is a very queer experience not just a teenage experience.


This is me trying

The Cruel Summer of the album in that it is very relaxed and will get criminally under-hyped.  It’s another song with a double meaning about trying to salvage a broken relationship with her man (someone check on Joe) and her fans.  Additionally, it has the line “they told me all my cages were mental so I got wasted like all my potential,” which is spectacular.

Illicit Affairs

Everyone wants to talk about Betty, and we’ll get there, but in my opinion, this is Taylor’s coming out song.  The predominant school of thought concerning this song is that it’s about the early days of Taylor and Joe’s relationship and their attempts to keep it secret.  Even if that’s true, Joe should be worried because this song doesn’t describe a good relationship.  Taylor sings about a fight she clearly had with him, or whomever this song is written to about, wanting to be public (“out” some might say) with their relationship and Taylor’s refusal.  Coming out is hard for everyone, but especially so if you’re a megastar.

Invisible String

Invisible String is the best handoff between Antonoff and Dressner on the album.  It’s hard at this point to tell when they trade roles.  Let me move on to the next pushpin connected by yarn to say this song is definitely about Joe Alwyn.  The song revolves around the line “how pretty to think…there was an invisible string tying you to me,” which seems hopeful after the first verse telling how they met, but seems to mock the naïveté of her hopefulness in the next chorus.  She describes their relationship as “their three-year trip” and don’t trip normally come to an end?  It’s a full-blown conspiracy at this point.

Mad Woman

This is a landmark song in Taylor Swift’s catalog.  Not in terms of song-writing or musicality, but for the sheer fact that America’s princess finally used the F word.  I audibly gasped and clutched at the pearls I’m always wearing just in case profanity strikes my virgin ears.  The song itself is another callout to Scooter Braun and the rampant sexism she sees in the industry, but it’s so hard to understand having been so shocked by her vulgarity.

Epiphany

The one and only COVID-19 song on the album.  When you record an entire album in your living room, you’re going to have to do a song explaining why.  It sounds like a church hymn and uses parallel verses to compare soldiers to healthcare professionals who are ill-equipped to handle an unprecedented pandemic.  It’s a lovely song that I think bestows the right amount of reverence to these people and draws on the same imagery she used in Soon You’ll Get Better about her mom’s cancer.

Betty

This is it.  The whole reason for the album, right here; it’s the only song using all three producers and co-written by the mysterious William Bowery.  Why is this song so important?  It’s a love song written to a girl on Taylor’s gayest album yet.  Madison Malone Kircher wrote an amazing piece about this in Vulture, and just how much this song calls out to gay women everywhere.  It’s “James’” perspective in the teenage love triangle and describes the moment James lost hope with Betty as she was dancing with not only another person but a man and provoked him to cheat.  He misses secluded garden they used to sneak off to her to hide from any prying eyes that might disapprove of their behavior.  The song closes with James’ hope that when they make amends, Betty will kiss “him” in front of all her friends, which I couldn’t write a more heavy-handed metaphor for coming out if I tried.

Peace

The final two songs on the album feel like they’re just coming down off the wild ride that was Betty and honestly we need it.  Peace is about how Taylor guilt that no matter who she dates, they’ll never know peace because of her fame.  Which sounds odd, because that sounds like something you say to someone before you get in a relationship with them, but I’m sure her and Joe are getting along swimmingly.

Hoax

Like in Lover before it, I felt like Folklore went one song too long.  Not because Hoax is a bad song, but because it’s just such a strange note to end on.  It tells the story of wanting to salvage a broken relationship, which is probably towards the guy she’s been breaking up with over and over on the album, but I thought Peace would’ve made much more sense as a finale.

Folklore is the next stage of Taylor’s career and it’s the one I wish she would’ve taken before, but for better or for worse, we got there.  The album was completely unlike her previous work as she forwent her conventional formula and opted to tell her story through a series of vignettes sometimes directly about her, sometimes not.  This style comes directly out of folklore, which is why I believe she named the album as such rather than wanting to break into the folk genre like it was teased before.  I loved this album and I think it will help a lot of young queer people see that they’re struggles are universal and to see them recognized in their favorite musician is a saving grace.  We Swifties will love our queen regardless of her sexual orientation, and even more now that she’s a bad girl that uses four-letter words.

Meme of the week

I, unfortunately, can’t look at every meme that dominates the internet every week, so if you see a meme and think it should be the meme of the week please send it to: SumnerCultureCow@gmail.com

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