For so long, Taylor Swift has been the girl who sang her heart out about her string of celebrity boyfriends, seemingly to their eventual detriment. (As if a teenage girl writing award-winning songs about her feelings was unworthy of consideration as if it meant she had nothing else on her mind.)
But what happens when her love life is finally taken out of the spotlight, and her artistry stands alone, as on July’s folklore and December’s evermore? Will people (read: music snobs) finally be able to admit that she’s an incredible songwriter when they aren’t scoffing at the specter of tabloid fodder? (Still, looking at you, Pitchfork, for only deigning to review the Ryan Adams cover of 1989 rather than the original? Do we require Swift to excise the personal and turn to the explicitly fictional, to consider her craft as mature and sophisticated? Folkore eases us into this new world of narrative, of historical and make-believe alike, each rendered with the detail and emotional honesty that Swift consistently has delivered. “The last great American dynasty”, as has been discussed, tells the story of a real-life woman who married into old money, while the trio of “cardigan”, “august”, and “betty” drew us into a high school love triangle across three musical genres and varying moods in shades of pensive, wistful, and rueful.
Indeed, until July’s folklore, it was arguably a rarity for Taylor Swift songs not to be rooted in her own experiences. It was news when she shared that Lover‘s “Death By a Thousand Cuts” was based on the romantic comedy Something Great and not one of her past relationships. Indeed, you can trace—as people certainly have in exhausting detail—milestones of her romantic travails, mapping them onto specific songs and albums with arrow-straight lines.
Often Swift has made these linkages obvious; on other occasions, she’s made them participatory Easter eggs for her fans to parse through and investigate, facilitating the parasocial bond with her listeners that continues to exist. I personally (jokingly) refer to Red (2012) as the “Jake Gyllenhaal, how dare you” album, remembering the supermarket checkout aisle tabloid frenzy of that A-list, age-gap relationship. We know Fearless‘ “Forever and Always” is about Joe Jonas. Speak Now contains the devastating and specific rejoinder to John Mayer, “Dear John”, along with more oblique references to Joe Jonas (again) on songs like “Better Than Revenge”, the kismet encounter with Owl City’s Adam Young on “Enchanted”, and the haunting regret of breaking Taylor Lautner’s heart on “Back to December”.
We know that 1989 draws upon her relationship with Harry Styles on multiple occasions—the paper airplane necklaces in the “Out of the Woods” video, the title of “Style;” 1989 also contains the brutal and sharp “Blank Space”, which winks at the mutually-reinforcing nature of Swift’s persona and her habits in her relationships. Reputation (2017) tracks the dramatic (short-lived) self-immolation of Swift’s positive, sparkling celebrity status. In terms of love affairs, she leads fans on a connect-the-dots adventure from Calvin Harris to, infamously, Tom Hiddleston on “Getaway Car”, before settling in the comfortable place she’s inhabited with her current boyfriend Joe Alwyn for the past several years on songs like “King of My Heart” and “Call it What You Want”. That contentment with Alwyn morphs into the bubbly, aggressively giddy front half of Lover, where Swift, in her late 20s, turns to teenage emotion as a metaphor.
That’s not even going in-depth into the non-romantic autobiographical aspects to Swift’s catalogue—the feuds with Kanye (Reputation‘s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, Speak Now‘s “Innocent” at the very least) and Katy (1989‘s “Bad Blood”) and that one critic who inspired Speak Now‘s “Mean”. Even more recently, songs like Lover‘s “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” and one-off single “Only the Young” feature Swift exploring and accepting her inevitable role as a political figure, and her acknowledgment of her responsibility in parlaying those politics for good.
And even going back to the Song That Started the Kayne-Taylor Beef, “You Belong With Me”, Taylor has told stories not adapted from her diary pages. Again, she’s no stranger to invention—after all, she didn’t actually break up a wedding to run off with the groom, as in the title song on Speak Now. It’s somehow both a disservice to her maturing craft as well as an appreciation of her songwriting to say that the emotions she conjures up feel so real, they have to be based on this boy or that one, rather than admitting that they’re increasingly the product of imagination and empathy. Her ability to make us believe in experiences that aren’t hers is another reason Emily VanDerWerff’s article compared her to Bruce Springsteen, who was never a factory worker in a Rust Belt Town, was so prescient.
All of this to say: we don’t know what to do when Taylor Swift isn’t singing about her own life anymore when we can’t match up her catalogue to something concrete and specific that we, the consumers of her public life and image, know must have happened. Not every song has as clear a moment as “Getaway Car”, which references the 2016 Met Gala where Swift and Hiddleston met. Does Maggie Gyllenhaal still have her scarf in the drawer? I ask, thinking of Red‘s “All Too Well” as I watch Jake dive into a truly unhinged metier as Mr. Music in John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch.
Folklore primed us for the turn into the imagined and storybook worlds of evermore—and now it’s hard to pick out which songs on evermore could possibly be based on Swift’s real life. “tolerate it”, a quietly lethal ballad about a dismissive partner, lead us to hope that Swift and Alwyn’s relationship certainly isn’t reflected in these words: “If it’s all in my head tell me now / Tell me I’ve got it wrong somehow / I know my love should be celebrated / But you tolerate it.”
Similarly, “champagne problems”, which describes a relationship dashed by the narrator rejecting a proposal, likely had Swifties clutching their pearls even as Swift explicitly described evermore as a set of “tales”—to be taken seriously but not literally. “no body, no crime”, a Chicks/Carrie Underwood-esque revenge-fueled jaunt featuring Haim, is (hopefully) certainly fictional. Once we accept that murder is on the table, our need to interpret everything as Based on a True Story of Taylor Alison Swift’s life is wiped away.
While not quite as replete with certified cottagecore stunners as folklore, evermore certainly has its fair share of strong tracks, all with varying levels of immersive realism. The layered, lyrical “ivy” uses the simple metaphor of ivy growing and covering stones to describe the narrator’s deep-seated and unforgettable attachment to her lover, although she has “been promised to another”. Several songs on evermore have that unmistakable T. Bone Burnett-esque musty, country, atmospheric vibe that Swift harnesses in the title track of Lover, with the melancholy, picaresque “cowboy like me” feeling like it’s being sung to an empty, slightly smoky room.
“Tis the damn season” is a thoughtful (and catchy) exploration of returning home for Christmas and rekindling an old fling, as the narrator thinks back on their life surrounded by prestige and the life she left behind. “I’m stayin’ at my parents’ house / And the road not taken looks real good now / And it always leads to you and my hometown.” “Tis the damn season”, much like folklore‘s multi-song “high school love triangle”, finds its reflection in the plaintive album standout “dorothea”, an aching, tender message from the lover left behind. With its simple folksy vibe, it’s an immediate classic and even a tear-jerker. Swift uses her lower register as if she’s fighting to keep her voice from quavering on lines like “it’s never too late to come back to my side / The stars in your eyes shined brighter in Tupelo / And if you’re ever tired of bеing known for who you know / You know, you’ll always know me.”
“dorothea”, despite Selena Gomez’s friendship with Swift and love for The Wizard of Oz, doesn’t need to be about Gomez specifically in order to be one of the best songs on the album. But it’s natural to want to be able to put together what feel like clues. We’ve lived in Taylor Swift’s head for so long that the purposeful distance of folklore and evermore feels a little cold—a separation that we perhaps weren’t anticipating and have to adjust to. So it’s a gift when Swift does decide to return to telling confessional stories on evermore, as in “marjorie”, which unpacks her memories and relationship with her long-departed grandmother Marjorie Finlay. Reverential, rousing, and moving, “marjorie” functions as a pendant piece to “epiphany” on folklore, which told the story of her grandfather’s rushing the beaches of Normandy in World War 2.
As Swift sings in evermore‘s “gold rush”, “My mind turns your life into folklore.” On folklore and evermore, she, and her listeners, have turned her life into folklore, a blend of reality and fiction, lost in those deep woods of quarantine where she sits and writes arguably the best music of her career.