“Folklore” and the Impact of Taylor Swift’s Musical Storytelling During the Pandemic

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Illustration by Felix Dong

Thao-Vy Duong

Staff Writer

On July 24, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift released her album “Folklore” just hours after its announcement. The album quickly reigned in fanfare and has charted at the top of Billboard 200 for the past 10 weeks since its release. Though Swift is no stranger to critical acclaim, the prevailing success of “Folklore” begs to question what makes the album so popular, especially among Gen Z fans who declared the album one of the best releases of 2020.

The answer is simple enough: in a time where many of us are stuck at home, grappling with isolation and doubt, “Folklore” is an album that resonates with our nostalgia for the past and mourning for what could have been.

As Gen Z, we have a special relationship with nostalgia. We grew up in the age of the Internet and the cellphone — an age where the world moves at a breakneck speed and information sits ready at our fingertips. 

Perhaps more than ever, we have the ability to look to the past with streaming sites and search engines that can fill the gaps between old photo albums sitting on our parents’ bookshelves. What results is a hunger for the vintage and the retro, marked by our endless fascination with aesthetic trends of past decades.

Then comes the pandemic. Unlike any other generation before us, we now live out a chunk of our formative years confined in our childhood bedrooms, watching the world spin itself down a rabbit hole of chaos. The plans we’ve made now eclipsed, flung to the hazy horizon for “when this is all over.” It’s a paradox like no other: to be stuck in a place we had intended to grow past, haunted by the four walls of our adolescence, yet also wishing for simpler times.

“Folklore” speaks to that paradox.

The indie-inspired album kicks off with “The 1,” a song that reminisces on lost love and dashed opportunities. Though the song is peppered with feelings of regret, a particularly striking moment comes during the bridge when Swift asks, “If one thing had been different, would everything be different today?” The question aptly crystallizes the dilemma that festers in our minds as we watch the world teeter on unsteady feet in the months of the pandemic.

Swift’s long career in the spotlight can be seen in the varied balance of songs on “Folklore.” Among a fair share of mid-tempo tracks, Swift also delivers heavy-handed angst in ballads such as “Exile” (featuring Bon Iver) and “My Tears Ricochet.” These slower songs feature stripped instrumentals, building into great emotional crescendos that sweep listeners in.

Another hallmark of Swift’s music is storytelling. In “Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift leans into the history element of her album by detailing the life of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of the Holiday House mansion that Swift had bought in Rhode Island and a wealthy philanthropist whose life in the public eye parallels Swift’s own.

For Gen Z fans of Taylor Swift, “Folklore” is an ode to nostalgia, one that we will continue to seek as the world balances on a precipice of great uncertainty.

Above all, “Folklore” is glued together by Swift’s lyrical penchant for impermanence. Framed by acoustic sounds, this theme shines in “Seven,” a whimsical snapshot of childhood love, and “Betty,” an apologetic recount of teenage mistakes. These tracks are rounded out by the idealism most apparent in “Invisible String,” where Swift sings, “And isn’t it just so pretty to think all along, there was some invisible string tying you to me?”

Swift’s lyrics, entrenched in romance, in hope and regret, strikes a particular chord with Gen Z. Faced with difficult circumstances, we can’t help but idealize the past, daydream of the future, and be anywhere but here and now.

Swift stated in a letter to her fans about “Folklore” that “picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.” Despite the criticism that has been lauded at Swift for venturing into “indie” sounds, the album has served as a form of escapism for its listeners over the past few trying months. For Gen Z fans of Taylor Swift, “Folklore” is an ode to nostalgia, one that we will continue to seek as the world balances on a precipice of great uncertainty.

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