THE HOT TAKE
with MK Burnell
folklore/Taylor Swift (Republic)
Well guys, it’s been almost exactly a month since Tay Tay surprise-dropped her 8th studio album folklore. I may not work in radio anymore but I still saw you all on my social media, freaking out over it in various directions. Some of you were stoked that Tswift made a Triple A record. Others were mildly perturbed, but open minded. The cynics were outraged, screaming “this is absurd!”*
Myself? I loved it immediately. But I went in ready to love it, because I love me some Taylor Alison Swift.
I didn’t always. Falling for Taylor and her music was a slow, strange process. Once upon a time I thought of her music as mediocre, uncreative, lowest-common-denominator. I thought of her as a Pop star, a brand, and of myself as someone who didn’t really care for Pop music or Top 40 artists. In my very early 20s (which incidentally were also Tay’s very early 20s - we’re both 1989 babies) I encouraged the young girls under my care during a summer job at Girl Scout camp to seek other female artists, because Taylor Swift only sang about boys, and there was more to life than boys.
All this to say - I get it. I do.
One night in late 2014, I was driving home from band practice and happened to turn on K104. This was something I used to do ironically. I didn’t really listen to Pop radio, I told myself. I just liked to know what the masses were listening to. Out of curiosity.
Icy synthesizers filled my Subaru. A tight, sharp little beat. A sweet, breathless voice: “Nice to meet you. Where you been?”
It was Blank Space. It was an absolute bop. And it was the first time I really listened to a Taylor Swift song.
Once the barrier broke, I slowly became fascinated by her. It was ironic at first. Yeah, my favorite bands are of Montreal, Steely Dan, and Vampire Weekend… but like, I also low-key dig Taylor Swift, lol. She was a guilty pleasure. Sure, it was corny, but who could deny the appeal of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together?”
By the time Lover came out in 2019, I was a bona fide fan.
The thing about Taylor Swift is, her music rewards multiple listens. It rewards careful examination and a dedication to understanding her mythology. Being a Taylor Swift fan is like watching a brilliant TV show, where not a single detail is ever forgotten and not a word is ever wasted. If you watch season 7 without having seen season 3 you might still enjoy the craftsmanship, but you won’t be seeing the whole picture.
Ok. So let’s talk folklore, the record where Country/Pop princess Taylor Swift had the audacity to dip her mainstream toes into the sacred waters of indie music. It’s a sharp left turn for her, but folklore might be Taylor Swift's strongest album to date.
As we all know, she worked with Aaron Dessner of The National, and it shows. But the critics who think she’s somehow cheating, that she just took some unused National ideas and added a few words and melodies, are demonstrating their bias. There’s Taylor stank all over this record, and Dessner’s collaboration brings out the beauty and sincerity in her songwriting in a way that pure Pop production often does not.
Taylor has often expressed in interviews that she’s particularly proud of her storytelling ability as a songwriter, and it’s stronger than ever here. Listen to tracks like “Betty” (I was genuinely invested in the outcome of that surprise party drop-in) and “Last Great American Dynasty (I felt personally called out for my reaction years ago when I heard she was buying a house in Watch Hill, where my family traditionally vacationed. Glad to hear she had a marvelous time ruining everything). On these examples she’s writing mainly about other people, historical or fictional characters, but there’s plenty of the autobiographical work her fans have come to appreciate as well. “Seven,” “Invisible String,” “Peace,” “Mirrorball,” “This Is Me Trying”… if you’ve been watching the Taylor Swift show since Season 1, they’re all fascinating additions to the canon.
The way she expresses anger has grown so much. I’ll be the first to admit that not every song Taylor has written has been great, and her angry songs have often been the weakest. “Bad Blood” and “Look What You Made Me Do” were the lowest points on 1989 and Reputation respectively (and yet both, inexplicably, were singles), and in my opinion it’s because she didn't understand yet how to effectively channel her anger into her music. The songs had a performative edginess to them that didn’t quite land. Listen to “Mad Woman.” She's got a handle on it now.
It's also dope as hell to hear 31-year old Taylor finally say “fuck” in a couple songs.
I have to discuss Taylor’s vocal exploration on this record, too.
She’s a stronger vocalist than a lot of casual listeners give her credit for, but until folklore she’s stuck to two main modes of singing: Country Taylor, with a gentle twang, a youthful brightness and a little more vibrato, and Pop Taylor: slick, cool, and straightforward. folklore Taylor is, at times, quite a different animal.
On “Seven,” she channels Joni Mitchell or maybe Joan Baez - a high, prayerful sound imploring you to “please picture me, in the trees” and relating the tale of long lost, half-forgotten childhood friendship and freedom. She transforms again on “Epiphany,” with traces of Kate Bush in the droning delivery of a song at once about her grandfather in the war and doctors in a pandemic. “Some things you just can’t speak about.” And then the Taylor on “Peace,” a Taylor who, I think made her first appearance on my favorite Lover track, “False God.” Jazz Taylor, perhaps. Slam Poetry Taylor. I love this Taylor most of all and would love to hear more from her.
I have plenty of friends who do not particularly care for Taylor Swift. This does not bother me. Music is art, art is subjective, and what resonates with me may not resonate with you. What does bother me is the (often insidiously misogynistic) derision with which her catalog is treated by certain music snobs. It bothers me, in part, because I identify with it. I too once wrote her off as an insincere purveyor of shallow music for basic bitches. In the process of realizing her music moved me, I was forced to examine my own internalized misogyny. Why were all my other favorite artists male? Why did I reject songs by women about the joy and pain of being women? Why would I ever assume that another human being with a full, rich, complicated inner life of which I comprehend nothing, could possibly be described as “basic?”
Taylor Swift is an unstoppable songwriting machine. She is an idealistic, romantic, ambitious woman and a constantly evolving artist, striving to reach new heights in her craft and explore new facets of her persona. Play her record or don’t, but do not make the mistake of writing her off as just a product.
My name is MK, and my favorite artists are of Montreal, Steely Dan, Vampire Weekend, and Taylor Swift.
*“this is absurd!” is a deep cut Taylor reference, for all my non-Swiftie readers 😉
ABOUT: MaryKate "MK" Burnell is a 31 year old podcast host and freelance voiceover artist who lives outside of Kingston, NY with her partner and dogs. After being let go from her position as MD and afternoon host at WDST in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, MK set up a home recording studio and started a podcast called More Music Please: Quarantine Beat, where she interviews professionals from all areas of the music industry about life in lockdown and whatever else they want to talk about. In non-pandemic times, MK also performs with bands Locofreeq, Uncledad, Trailer Swift and Cold Flavor Repair.