with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

okay u need to know some more about folklore

avidly posted some conclusive folklore information on friday, but a surprise taylor swift album is the kind of major avidity event that often requires excess and dwelling beyond conclusions. so it is with pleasure that we offer you these further encounters with folklore. if embedded links aren’t centered it’s because it’s 2020. — ed. 


jeff insko: tay can sing

I was sold on Taylor’s new album from the opening lines of its first track “the 1,” “I’m doing good I’m on some new shit/been saying yes instead of no”—which manages to sound both nonchalant and like a mini-manifesto –Taylor’s just kinda been fucking around during lockdown and also Taylor is recusing herself from axe-grinding (as she tells us, drolly, on “invisible string”). But the song that made me fall in love with folklore, the best song on the album, in fact, is “seven.” Just one spare piano chord before Taylor’s voice glides into a dreamy melody at the top end of her vocal range. It’s beautiful and sweet and silvery and guileless and the song that reveals the real point of folklore, the only thing we really need to know about it: Taylor can sing.

This is the fact everyone seems to have forgotten about Taylor after 1989, the masterpiece that transformed precocious teenage songwriter Taylor into mega-popstar stadium performer Taylor. And really it’s the thing that has always gotten lost in the morass of boyfriends and breakups and country-or-pop and Max Martin synthesizers and snakes and boots and what-are-her-politics and all the other fodder that fuels the Taylor cultural commentary machine. I’m here for all that stuff, of course; this is that stuff. But what’s most welcoming about folklore is that, in the simplicity of the songs’ arrangements and the sparseness of its production, it reminds us, again, that Taylor is a great singer: restrained, inventive, a little breathy (but never twee), uninfected by melismatic bombast. This is why folklore already seems to be vying with Red for Taylor’s Greatest Album, because Red also features some of Taylor’s best vocal performances. Just go back and listen again, for example, to “State of Grace,” “All Too Well,” and “Holy Ground.” But don’t stay there too long. Come right back to folklore and for once, think no Big Thoughts; just relish for a while Taylor’s near-perfect winsome voicecraft. We can address What it All Means next month.

I give folklore a solid 9 out of 10, mainly because no album with a Bon Iver duet can beat the perfect 10 album of Motley Crue covers that, in my imagination at least, she is destined one day to create.

kade ivy: folkloreicism

One hill I’ll die on is that “All Too Well,” Taylor Swift’s best song, is about Taylor Swift’s relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, complete with a reference to leaving a scarf at Maggie’s house. Change my mind! With folklore, though, Swift invites her listeners to do something slightly different than decode the diary entries of her lyrics. Instead of acknowledging the songs as her experiences and hers alone, she invites us to take the songs up into ourselves and associate them with our memory, our sense of ourselves — our folklore. Swift posits that her loves, heartbreaks, and tragedies are, simultaneously, individually hers and collectively ours. Our lives’ specificities and trivialities to us individually make them universal and consequential to us all. Our remembered experiences work together to tell us who we are as much as any national myth does.  In both “the last great american dynasty” and “mad woman,” Swift explores the trope of the femme fatale, suggesting that our problematic myths are true perhaps only because we make them true. In “hoax,” the speaker describes a “faithless love” to which she keeps returning because “no other sadness in the world would do.” Years from now, Swift generally assures me, my heartbreaks will be as important to my sense of self as the COVID-19 pandemic. Swift knows that this is, strangely, a comfort.

In the album’s introductory note, Swift says of these songs that “now it’s up to you [listeners] to pass them down.” She suggests that these songs may indeed become folklore themselves, simultaneously concrete and mysterious as the forest she explores in awe on the album’s cover art. These songs represent the best songwriting of Swift’s career, but they will also become legendary in her oeuvre because they represent the first time she has taken up the mantle of universal storyteller. She is not only our international pop sensation but our millennial balladeer, cultural historian, and folklorist.

pam thurschwell: against autofiction

There was nothing, literally nothing in the world to look forward to, and then suddenly there was folklore. folklore is gorgeous; it’s a 9 out of 10 (one point subtracted for Bon Iver). Everyone is saying folklore is her best album since Red, but come on, Taylor Twitter. Have you all forgotten 1989? “Style”? “Out of the Woods”? “New Romantics”?

Oh thanks for mentioning “New Romantics,” Me! (little Swiftie song title joke there). 1989’s “New Romantics” shows why folklore gets everything right. “New Romantics” is a nearly perfect song lessened by the pouting autobiographical chorus. The song’s verses are for all of us: “We’re all bored/We’re all so tired of everything.” When Taylor successfully does “we” as she does in “New Romantics,” she is fantastic. She is the popular girls in high school AND the ones who are fed up with the banal and vicious stupidity of what it means to be a high school girl. She is Veronica in Heathers, and all the Heathers, and all the cheerleaders who were too nice to be Heathers: “we cry tears/of mascara in the bathroom/honey, life is just a classroom.”

Sadly this older song pivots out of its manifesto-like relatability when she starts complaining about how she could build a castle from all the bricks they threw at her. Taylor, forget they! Your life is one of plushness and privilege. You are thin and white and successful and still really young; you win most of your lawsuits. You are the best song-writer in America. It’s going to be ok. This is what’s great about folklore. The old Taylor baggage was a mono-myth, but folklore is plural; the whole exhausting project of being Taylor seems to have floated away. folklore knows that identity is important but Taylor’s is not.

I’m not arguing that Taylor should stop writing about her own life because she has nothing to complain about, or for that matter, that she should stop writing pop gems about heartbreak. I’m also not claiming that Taylor’s autofictions now seem fake because she is no longer Sad Taylor. Happy Taylor also hits some bum notes. The song “Lover” may be the catchiest pop song ever written about the world’s most boring relationship. There’s no there there, not an iota of specificity that would betray what it’s really like to be Tay in love. It appears to have been redacted by her lawyers.

By contrast with all the autofiction, the romantic triptych “Cardigan,” “Betty” and “August,” on folklore gives the listener so much more to work with. Its stories are fully inhabited; a novella from three different perspectives, all sympathetic, believably self-aware, and a bit lost: the betrayed girlfriend, the clueless cheating boyfriend, and the summer fling who hoped for more. The teenagers here know everything and nothing about love and lust; they know that sometimes you can love an old cardigan more than anything in the world and still shove it under the bed. This is the multiply voiced, intersubjective, high school epic summer love story we didn’t know we needed. It’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” for the #MeToo era.

If you watched Miss Americana, or have been following her surprisingly cute friendship with Billy Bragg, you know Taylor’s taken a timid liberal-feminist, anti-gun, remember-to-vote, stance in some of her recent songs. In Miss Americana you can see her thinking about whether it might be a feminist move, or good business strategy, or both, to try not to please all the people all the time. I love her for throwing me that bone. (See “The Man” and “Only the Young.” There’s no obvious politics on folklore, though; she is not aggrieved about anything. I’m relieved she’s not voting for Trump, but this album would be great even if she were. It’s got stories, characters, and tunes; she does the police in different voices (only thank God, not the police). In her great account, Jane Hu reminds us that Taylor is a manipulative genius, the apotheosis of middle class nostalgia, and late capitalist totality. All I can say is yes. But I’m so happy she’s taking a break from eating men like air to tell us some stories.  On the perfectly modulated album opener “The 1,” Taylor sings, “in my defence I have none.”  She doesn’t need one and neither do we.

sarah mesle: taylor goes authentic

Every Saturday when I was little, my dad mopped the floor. There were only two soundtracks: Carole King’s Tapestry and Carly Simon’s No Secrets. This weekend after listening to folklore about seventeen times in a row, each time cutting “exile” shorter, I put Tapestry on, and I felt better. “They’ll hurt you and desert you and take your soul if you let them – but don’t you let them,” Carole sings, in her just-okay voice.


Listen, I’m midwestern and roughly gen x; I spent most of Taylor’s early career chafing at her faux-humble popular girl schtick and debating who was at the top of my personal list of “people who really need to be taken down a notch,” Taylor or Tom Brady (all midwesterners have this list; they give you the form in kindergarten). So I’m not some deep Taylor fan, I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to Red. I just remember her in that one video with her fake-ugly glasses; I just know that as I was becoming a white woman, she was becoming a gravity well in the category of white girl, and that I was old enough to stay outside of her event horizon, but barely, and only with resentful effort.

I had never liked her, but 1989 was undeniable and I did not deny it. This felt like personal growth for us both. I defended every hair style on every video. There was something magical about having someone assert so boldly that being Our Major Poet of getting looked at in a pretty dress was — well, not serious, certainly, and not admirable really either. But it was a thing, and fuck serious. She had planted a stake, defined a place to be; it elicited a sophisticated aesthetic response best articulated by singing into a hairbrush not by writing a nice paragraph (which is what I am now doing). She made us all come to her, and that’s hard, in imitative pop culture if not life, for a woman to do. Men act; women appear, said John Berger; I’ve got that red lip, classic, thing that you like, sings Taylor, and it was a beautiful moment of liking a girlish thing and being hailed for liking it in a girlish way, which is to imagine yourself as it. This meant that your girlish liking of it could not be trumped by any more articulate version of liking, no matter how much like a natural white girl Taylor made your average sophisticated dude critic feel.

I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on why folklore makes me sad. Taylor owes me no debts, I begrudge her no territory, and the album is very beautiful; if she wants acknowledgement from the aging and be-sweatered indie rockers I have spent a lot of time lovingly pressed up against at shows, there is no reason she does not merit their (my) slouchy nods. But something feels lost. I don’t want to like her in the way this album seems to want to be liked, even as I admire the cross section of attention for which it reaches. folklore is not folk, but it seems like a demonstration of folk-like authenticity, and that means it submits itself to those who have authorized themselves to evaluate authenticity, and that authority is not found in a hairbrush, at least not in mine.

And that’s okay. She knows what she’s doing, as Jane says; she’s great, she’s a manipulative genius. But I would rather listen, if we’re doing folklore, to Carole King, who was, like Taylor is now, arguably the best songwriter of her moment, and who also had a complicated relation to the seriousness of her songs, her own voice. I would not say either of these women were more manipulative or more geniuses; I don’t want to pit them against each other; Taylor’s oversized forest coat is no less “natural” than Carole’s fuzzy sweater. I don’t think Taylor (or me) should ever fall into the lure of thinking authenticity is what, as white girls, we can go for: the whiteness we are made of is too cruel a lie. I guess what I miss is the feeling, that 1989 gave me, of having a friend.

Avidly: staring at the sunset. 


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