Taylor Swift’s 'folklore': A Boisterous Narrative Told in Whispers

The last thing the world was expecting while everyone was scrolling through Instagram on a Friday night, waiting out this mess of a year, was Taylor Swift’s album announcement. It’s been a month since Taylor Swift’s new album was released, and the momentum hasn’t stopped—people have been posting their reactions online, sharing conspiracies, and even creating their own folklore-inspired photoshoots. In the cover image, Swift herself stands in the middle of a forest, looking up toward the sky with an intrigue that almost beckons listeners to join her and fall into her own kind of Narnia.

Swift’s folklore-fantasy album is the product of a stylistic evolution into an enigmatic, melancholy diary of nostalgia. Remember the lyrics “you’ll hide away and find your peace of mind / With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine” in her 2012 hit “We Are Never Getting Back Together”? Eight years later and on her eighth studio album, Swift has her own indie record—and needless to say, it's pretty cool. Recorded in Swift’s home in Los Angeles, folklore is a homemade mosaic of hard truths and unspoken thoughts, of happy memories and bitter words, of regrets and release.

folklore came unexpectedly on July 24, with its release being announced about an hour and a half before it dropped—a rare shock to the long-time Swift fans that agonize over the long-anticipated lead-ups to her albums. The album is arguably her most cryptic; along with co-writers and producers Aaron Dressner and Jack Antonoff, she credits the unidentified William Bowery as a co-writer. Some have claimed this could be a pseudonym for her boyfriend Joe Alwyn, or even for Swift herself. And just as it is mysterious, folklore is also vulnerable, undiluted, and plain—the melodies, lyrics, and tone fit together so easily it’s almost hypnotic. It is quiet and profound, speaking volumes in the most understated way. 

Many people scoff at Swift’s lyric that declares, “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now / Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!” But in a way, this line from her 2017 hit “Look What You Made Me Do” almost foreshadowed folklore—not with death, but with rebirth. Swift has always been able to shape-shift, molding her style to fit the taste of the current time, and even more, to fit the mood of her listeners. Now, with the indie genre trending and more artists following in the footsteps of Bon Iver (who co-wrote and sang in “exile”), Swift has found a way to embrace a new genre different from her country roots and make it her own. 

Of course, it’s still the same girl and her guitar, with a slight southern twang, a gift of lyricism, and a soft harmonica accompaniment, but there’s something more complex and mature. Swift’s sound has become more sophisticated and she seems wiser, now at age 30 and 14 years older than when her first album was created. And though the album might not be anything too out of the ordinary from what is trending today, it is different for Swift, and she makes that count.

She has always given a sense of magic to her work—songs like “Love Story,” “Today Was a Fairytale,” and “Enchanted” evoke a sort of dreamy, lovestruck naiveté. Even in the albums that followed, Swift proved that the magic of life is just living it: breakups, birthdays, borrowed time. But in folklore, the spell she casts is neither one of hopeless romance nor of disillusionment, but is instead powered by raw emotion and a quest for honesty—letting go and continuing forward. It is storytelling at its finest: a book set to music, illustrated with myths, tragedies, rumors, and of course, love. In its simplest form, it’s a novel filled with folklore. 

folklore weaves Taylor’s fears, heartaches, and joy into a brilliant story of confrontation and a desperation to escape. Swift is not putting on a front or fabricating a person she thinks the world wants. She wasn’t concerned with waiting for the right moment to release the album. In fact, she stated in the caption of an Instagram photo announcing the folklore release, “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed. My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world.” 

Although Swift’s music is known to be strikingly autobiographical, she emphasized that the album really is a take on folklore, meant to follow the storylines of several characters. In her most recent Instagram post, she added that certain songs on the album fit together in thematic chapters, which she’ll be grouping into playlists. The first one is entitled “folklore: the escapism chapter,” and includes the folklore Deluxe Edition bonus track “the lakes,” which was released last week, as well as five other songs from the original album. In a note to her fans, Swift admits, “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.” She continues, “A tale that becomes folklore is one that is passed down and whispered around...Sometimes even sung about. The lines between fantasy and reality blur...Speculation, over time, becomes fact...Someone’s secret written in the sky for all to behold.” 

Is Swift referring to the gossip she’s endured, spread like wildfire through relentless tabloids? Is she using the characters as symbolism to address how people's lives continue after they’re gone, spun into stories told for generations? She leaves it up to the listener with the hope that these tales are told, as she writes in her note, with the “love, wonder, and whimsy” they deserve. 

It’s easy to pluck a song from one of Swift’s previous albums and upon a Google search, conclude (whether proven or not) the source of inspiration for a particular song. folklore is different, shrouded by her careful words. This is not to say that the album doesn’t come with its own fan-formed theories. A track off the album, “the last american dynasty,” is about the house in Rhode Island that Swift now owns, aptly called “Holiday House.” It was once owned by Rebekah Harkness, an eccentric widow, oil heiress, and hostess of outrageous, decadent parties. It could also very well have hints of autobiographical elements within it, as Swift identifies with Harkness, who was judged for her fanciful life. The same goes for “mad woman,” in which Swift writes, “And there’s nothing like a mad woman / What a shame she went mad / No one likes a mad woman / You made her like that,” which seems connected to her 2014 song “Blank Space,” in which she puts a satirical spin on the public's scrutinizing eye. 

Swift has said that three of the tracks form a love triangle. Many guess that this includes “betty,” “cardigan,” and “august,” and perhaps “illicit affairs” is about a cheating scandal linked to the trio. Fans have even noticed the most minuscule of details: in “peace,” Swift writes, “But there’s robbers to the east / Clowns to the West,” and many have speculated that this is either a metaphor for the current presidential administration or more simply, a jab at Kanye West, who infamously stole the microphone from Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Interestingly, West had announced that he would be releasing his new album, Donda: With Child, on the same day that folklore dropped, but it still remains unreleased. 

In all of this chaos is the softness that defines the album’s style. Songs like “invisible string,” a silvery lovesong that is curiously reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, or “epiphany,” a beautiful and solemn ode to Swift’s grandfather, are at the heart of this collection. 

Whether or not a song’s meaning is clear, listening to folklore is something special. It’s like opening an antique chest in the attic, blowing off the dust, and realizing that stored inside are memories that were once forgotten. Yet here they are: rusted, worn, and somehow even more magical. Swift explains in her note, “in isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result.” It is a mature reckoning with herself and her experiences. With her 2017 album Reputation and 2019 album Lover, she seemed to want to create a persona and unique sound that would resonate with her listeners—a comeback that was unforgettable, and a “new Taylor” who was back and better than ever, bulletproof and unbreakable. But her abandonment of the past seemed a little too forced; after all, who is Swift without the mystifying self-reflection she pours into her music? With folklore, she regains her balance and finds herself.

Taylor Swift herself is something of folklore, and her music therefore a compilation of folk songs, preserved through the current generation to be faithfully passed to the next. Swift is a figure whose art is shared by the masses, an invisible presence whose songs have been the soundtrack to so many people's lives—talent shows, high school dances, late-night drives—she’s always there. 

It’s been a long road since Swift released her first song “Tim McGraw” in 2006. Now, folklore is climbing the charts fast. According to Republic Records, more than 1.3 million copies sold globally in just 24 hours. After being streamed 80.6 million times on Spotify during this period, Swift's latest has broken the record—literally—for the most day-one streams of an album on the platform.

“Time, wondrous time / Gave me the blues and then purple-pink skies,” Swift sings in “invisible string.” Could this be a reference to Lover, released only a year ago with cover art of cotton candy-pink and violet clouds? It did earn Swift Artist of the Decade at the American Music Awards—a milestone that proves she’s not slowing down anytime soon. “Time, curious time / Cutting me open, then healing me fine,” Swift sings again. Once more, it seems that Swift’s album, though unforeseen and sudden, is right on time.

Can either be found making road trip playlists and planning her escape to a national park or face-timing with her dogs. There is no in-between.