Culture

Music

Yours truly: Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
The singer-songwriter explores fictional selves on her tender-hearted eighth album

Credit: Beth Garrabrant

“I’m, like, this close to overexposure,” Taylor Swift says to Kanye West during what might be the most infamous phone call of the 21st century.

The thing that still interests me about this 2016 phone call is not whether Taylor Swift set up Kanye West for failure, or vice versa. What interests me is the fascinating experience of eavesdropping on a candid conversation between two famous artists talking about the business of making music, money and the self without any fear that the public can hear them. That phone call had the quality that both musicians long to create, both in their music and their personas: realness.

In his 2011 track with Jay-Z, “N----s in Paris”, West raps: “Doctors say I’m the illest / ’cause I’m suffering from realness.” Like all true prophets or fake messiahs, West feels that he suffers for being the only one willing to tell the truth (“I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!”). He has been “cancelled” time and time again for this quality, but repeatedly this same quality makes him and his music impossible to turn away from.

Swift has been accused of being “too real” and “too fake” at the same time. The tired jokes (“Watch out, she might write a song about you”) might irk her, but they also reveal the power of her songwriting abilities. Such comments are only a genuine warning to potential male lovers because of the frightening specificity, razor-blade accuracy and ear-wormy ubiquity of Swift’s songs about lost love. On the other hand, her performances of idealised white femineity have led to accusations that she is a “fake”, a rich and powerful woman cosplaying at being a girl next door, a damsel in distress, a virgin, a feminist, a real person.

This is Taylor Swift: the modestly covered-up girl with the scandalously revealing lyrics. In a sexist world, where a woman’s appearance will always be parsed more closely than her words, Swift has used her attire to speak to the silent tensions about her image. Physically, Swift is tall and toffee-haired, yes, but there is also something vaguely kawaii about her bright eyes and tulip lips. Her fashion choices always position her as walking the tightrope between the big-sister role-model figure frosting cookies at home and a catwalk model stomping around New York in high heels. Many aspects of Swift’s fashion choices repeat themselves and, in doing so, draw attention to themselves: sequined dresses that make her look like both a knight in shining armour and a princess at a ball; nostalgia aesthetics that give her an air of timelessness.

But the clothing choice that has always interested me most is, at first glance, merely a functional one: the sheer nude panels that hold together so many of her red-carpet gowns and performance costumes. Swift bares her midriff at the 2014 American Music Awards in a green Michael Kors dress. But it’s not actually her midriff – it’s a nude-coloured sheer panel stretched over her midriff. Swift shows her cleavage during a Red tour performance, but all we see is a long nude strip on the lapel of her oxford shirt. Swift wears sparkly leotards on the Reputation tour that appear to show off her full legs but, in reality, her legs are covered in sparkling nude fishnet tights. Swift’s skin-baring, like her lyrical soul-baring are an optical illusion: she is showing skin but she’s also not. She projects sheer honesty but she also covers herself in an opaque second skin called “nude” or “flesh” when it’s anything but. This shade that Swift constantly wears also signifies her overwhelming whiteness; these tights are an invisible skin because of her invisible privilege. By contrast, her nemesis West is publicly chastised by his wife, Kim Kardashian, for complaining that he cannot get a bandaid that matches his skin tone (one of Peggy McIntosh’s examples of the invisible backpack of white privilege).

Swift has played many roles. Beginning her career as a country music sweetheart, she’s also come to embody, at different times, the Grammy darling, the pop princess and the singer-songwriter genius. Her sheer veneer of perfect femineity, of lyrical transparency, of invisible whiteness and what this means for her as an occupier of some of the whitest spaces in music, all collide on her newest release, folklore. On the surface, folklore is a stripped-back return to the acoustic, singer-songwriter genre her fans have long awaited, but with an indie-folk twist. The imagery around the album mirrors this: Swift did her make-up herself, press shots show her in the woods, wearing the whimsical cottagecore-inspired attire of a white war widow. But, again, to believe this would be to believe an illusion. There’s nothing inherently more authentic, truthful or serious about music when its bathed in wintery indie-folk reverb rather than a bright-eyed pop sound. But, but, but. But what? There is something undeniably untethered, tender-hearted and creatively new for Swift on this record.

On folklore, Swift is no longer starring as herself in a movie about her life. She is explicitly playing with fictional selves and multiple points of view. And, as it turns out, her best cosplays are the ones that are clearly disguises. This is particularly true in what she has called the “teenage love triangle” songs: “betty”, “august” and “cardigan”. On “betty”, she drawls, “Yeah, I showed up at your paaar-ty” with the lilt of a teenage boy admitting he has a heart beneath his irreverent façade. Her boyishness sounds like all the teenage boys we’ve ever known and been. Swift won the title of “poet laureate of puberty” with songs she wrote at age 18 for her second album, Fearless, but folklore shows that she’s best at writing teenagers’ stories as a 30-year-old woman. Compare the self-righteous proclamation of “She wears short skirts / I wear T-shirts” from “You Belong with Me” with the confessions in “august”: “Cancelled plans just in case you’d call / and say, ‘Meet me behind the mall’”. The pleasures of “You Belong with Me” are the pleasures of immediacy and immaturity, of hating another girl for dating the boy you like. The pleasures of “august” are the pleasures of maturity and the mellowness of memory: being unable to tell who is taking advantage of whom and basking in the sweet melancholy of this.

Swift is famous for her beautiful and sharp-toothed songs of the woman wronged, and she reaches the apex of this form in folklore, singing, “Don’t call me ‘kid’, don’t call me ‘baby’ / Look at this idiotic fool that you made me / You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else”. But she also complicates this narrative, and the results are stunning. In some ways, “august” and “illicit affairs” might be told from the point of view of the “other girl” wearing the short skirts from “You Belong with Me” or the actress “better known for the things she does on the mattress” in “Better than Revenge”. Her personal confessions feel harder won that before: “Please picture me in the weeds / before I learned civility,” she sings onseven”. The last time she wasn’t the model of perfect (white) femineity, she was seven years old, in the weeds, but this immensely privileged position is also a very confined space in which to live. In “this is me trying”, she makes the difficult admission that she isn’t a savant or a child prodigy but, like all successful people, is merely a workaholic: “I’ve never been a natural / All I do is try, try, try.”

Swift’s writing on folklore is much looser and more elliptical than before. In the past, she wrote extended metaphors and similes so tight-knit that they were both swanlike (“Loving him was like driving a Maserati down a dead-end street”) and suffocating (“Loving him was red, burning red”). Now, she writes lines that leave room for a newfound opacity: “I was so ahead of the curve / but the curve became a sphere.” Swift is no longer using her gifts of craftmanship and self-fashioning to merely control perceptions of her, she is embracing the obliqueness of writing in the first person, playfully creating personas that might or might not be her. In her pursuit of the translucence of the unreal, she finds something that finally approaches that mythical, much-sought-after sound: sincerity.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu is a writer of essays, poetry, fiction and scholarly work. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. 

Credit: Beth Garrabrant

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