Folkdays: Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

On Thursday 23 July, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift unexpectedly released a new studio album. This is not the kind of content I’d usually cover on this blog, least of all on a Folkdays post. Yet the album’s title – folklore – suggests something worth a closer look here.

I’m not a music critic: this post is not going to review Swift’s new songs, or even take a look into the lyrics. What I want to focus on is the introductory note posted by the musician, explaining the inspirations behind folklore. Taking a closer look, we’ll see that this note reveals Swift to have a deeper understanding of folklore than some might expect.

Taylor Swift’s new album caused a little stir in the circles I follow on Twitter because of its title, folklore. Some folklorists appeared disgruntled: either because the album had brought a swathe of ‘Swifties’ to their doorstep (on a Thursday, no less, when the hashtag #folklorethursday is shared); or out of concern that the term ‘folklore’ was and would be used inappropriately.

folklore has been praised as Swift’s finest work yet. Treating social isolation almost as a writing retreat, the album release sees Swift coming back to the world, as if after a few months spent in a cabin in the wilderness. The album itself is that precious, tender, marvellous thing that any writer hopes to return with after such a retreat. A work of ‘love, wonder, and whimsy’, as Swift herself calls it.

Some might see Swift’s title choice as a means of glossing her music with a sense of tradition, evoking the timelessness of folklore for mere aesthetics. Especially at a time when many people are becoming drawn to witchcraft or neo-paganism, it may be read as simply a way to cash in on this trend.

Yet in her introductory note, published on Twitter alongside the announcement of the album release, Swift appears to have a sensitivity to, if not a conscious understanding of, the kind of tradition in which folklore sits.

This note opens in a similar way to a folktale. While not using the exact words ‘once upon a time’, Swift takes us back to the very beginning of her creative process, when ‘it started’. As with most folktales, this story is introduced as being set in the past, in that undefined realm from where fantasy springs. The strong visual imagery that started Swift’s imaginative journey is also a important feature of folktale openings – for a tale to be memorable, both to the taleteller and to an audience (the next custodians of the story), it is helpful to have clear images which are both relatable and fanciful. Catherine Belsey writes that the power of folktale tradition lies in ‘an interplay of what we bring and what we find’: some of Swift’s images we connect with on a personal level, while others appeal to our imagination. These images ‘pique our curiosity’, as they did for Swift – again, an important feature for folktales, which rely on curiosity and interest to keep them in circulation.

Another aspect of folklore that Swift accurately pinpoints is the way in which it straddles the notions of what is true and what is imagined. ‘The lines between fantasy and reality blur’ she writes, ‘and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.’ This is also something that is evident in the types of folklore that she lists: ‘Myths, ghost stories, and fables. Fairytales and parables. Gossip and legend.’ While sometimes used interchangeably, these terms have subtle differences: when the tale was believed to take place; the characters involved (fables using animals, whereas parables have human characters); the inclusion of supernatural figures or events. As folklorist Stith Thompson writes: ”fairy tale’ is applied to stories filled with incredible marvels, in contrast to legends, which are presumably based upon fact’. By grouping these varying terms together, Swift blurs the line between truth and fiction even further. We don’t know which songs are based on gossip, which are inspired by myths or fairy tales, but Swift encourages us to realise that this doesn’t matter. In folklore, the magic lies in the not knowing where fantasy ends and reality begins.

The final observation I wish to make about Swift’s note, is the way it ends in much the same way as a folktale. In the final lines, the focus turns away from the story of her creative process, and turns instead to the audience: the first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘my’ become the second person ‘you’. This serves to bring a reader out of the blurred fantasy/reality of the songs’ subject matter, and back into the present: a present where we might open up our Spotify app and begin listening to the album. Fascinatingly, Swift touches upon one of the most defining features of folktale tradition: its oral transmission, and the importance of tales being ‘passed down’. Many folktales end with a request to be retold, or passed along to new audiences or down to the next generation. Even though her songs will exist in permanent record, Swift acknowledges the importance of way art is carried around by people – connected with, shared, and enjoyed.

This is a slight tangent for my usual Folkdays posts, but I found it interesting and a little heartwarming to see how this mainstream pop artist tapped into folklore tradition, and thought it worth sharing.

For my previous Folkdays post on folktale openings, click here, and folktale closings, click here.

Catherine Belsey, Why Shakespeare? (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007), p. 6.

Stith Thompson, The Folktale (California: University of California Press, 1977), p. 21.

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