CHASING SHADOWS: REVISITING TAYLOR SWIFT IN QUARANTINE
21st August, 2020
Words by Sarah Jacobs · Artwork by Beyza Durmuş
Taylor Swift's new album is uniquely suited to this historical moment
When I was texting friends earlier this summer to recommend the new Taylor Swift album, I included the caveat “I don’t blame you if it doesn’t hit the same as when we were 19!” For me and a small group of friends, the peak of her career took place in our tiny college apartment in the fall of 2009. My best friend and a boy I was about to fall in love with would play “Call Of Duty” with the sound off and “Fearless” on repeat in the background. When I think back on it, it feels like that's how we spent the whole year, but really that was probably just November. I remember feeling “Hey Stephen” with my whole entire 18-year-old heart, sitting next to my crush on the couch, heart pounding as I pretended to read for class.
Swift’s quarantine album “folklore” came out in late July, normally an ideal time to hear her songs on the radio in a friend’s car, with the windows down for best results. Though this summer hasn’t offered any of the usual opportunities for the shared experience of listening to a pop song, it has turned out to be a perfect moment for a new Taylor Swift album to come into my life, and this is her first album in a long time that I’ve connected with in that same full-hearted, teenage way. I haven’t spent this much time listening to music alone since I discovered Death Cab For Cutie when I was fourteen. So much of this spring and summer has felt just like that era: being stuck at home, conducting relationships largely over the internet, spending two whole days having feelings about an errant text from a crush just because I had nothing better to do. In Swift’s recently released song “august,” the narrator touches on these same feelings when she refers to her teen years as a time when “wanting was enough,” when romances were just as much about time spent alone thinking about someone, “living for the hope of it all.”
Many reviewers have focused on the fact that Aaron Dessner of The National was Swift’s main producer on this record. Their secret long-distance collaboration certainly makes a great story, with the two artists sending sound files back and forth from their home studios. It probably also helps that he’s been available for interviews, while Swift has not been doing press. A Pitchfork favorite like The National has a very different relationship to media coverage than the echelon of high pop producers Swift has historically worked with: the band has always done its own press, while a collaborator like Max Martin would typically remain behind the scenes, with the pop star acting as the face of the project.
The shift from big-budget pop producers to critically-acclaimed indie rock darlings has been framed as though it was a PR move and not an artistic choice, and not enough has been said about the legacy of The National, which is perhaps the most quarantine-appropriate band of our generation. Helena Fitzgerald, a devoted chronicler of the band, described them last year as “a band playing desultory, exhausted, self-pitying songs about experiences in interior rooms.” The influence of Dessner’s composition on “folklore” is immediately recognizable to listeners of The National. The instrumentation on this record is subtle, sometimes minimal, the opposite of the EDM excesses of “reputation.” Dessner spoke to the different choices he and Swift made in a Rolling Stone interview: “We really wanted to keep her voice as human, and kind of the opposite of plastic, as possible. That was a bit of a battle. Because everything in pop music tends to be very carved out, a smiley face, and as pushed as possible so that it translates to the radio or wherever you hear it.” But this album was specifically crafted to be heard indoors, in solitude.
Throughout the album, Swift’s vocals tend to hover in her lower register, without the force and dramatic range typical of the style of pop she’s known for (one of few qualities “Fearless” shares with “reputation”). Instead of belted-out choruses best appreciated by yelling along, Swift’s vocal deliveries on this most recent album are reminiscent of singing quietly to oneself at home. The nature of her collaboration with Dessner reflects this change, too: Swift’s other recent collaborators, Jack Antonoff and Max Martin, are nightlife producers. Antonoff has more range, but his work still resonates best in a dark, crowded room. The National’s work has always been more or less about being alone.
The opening tracks of “folklore” refer repeatedly to the experience of almost seeing an old lover - “I thought I saw you at the bus stop, I didn’t though” and “chasing shadows in the grocery line” - an experience kind of like relistening to the love songs of one’s youth. Not long ago, in the Before Times, I walked into a cafe and stopped short at the sight of a blond man with broad shoulders. I have never felt so literally like my heart had stopped beating. He turned his head a little and of course it was a stranger, so I laughed at myself and walked on, wondering what I had thought was going to happen. The opening notes of some early Swift songs still do something similar to me, as did the extremely vivid dreams I had this spring about every person I’ve ever dated. The twee thrill of “Hey Stephen” certainly does not hit the same a decade later, but it does make me remember that college apartment every time, even if I’m embarrassed about it now.
Swift has always written about fantasy, and infatuation, and the mundane disappointments of real relationships, but in announcing this album, she clarified that this body of work would be less autobiographical than usual: “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met… In isolation my imagination has run wild,” she wrote, reminding us that even though she has included a few love stories in “folklore”, she isn’t exclusively mining her own experience anymore. This feels like a natural progression, not just for a collection written during a period of literal isolation, but also for a woman of 30 now in a stable relationship. The fact that most of these songs have a relatively muted emotional intensity also feels appropriate; it’s impossible not to see relationship drama in perspective during a global pandemic.
This is the third album Swift has released while in the same, very closely guarded relationship. The first song on “folklore,” “the 1”, addresses Swift’s reputation for writing about her own relationships with the gently winking line “in my defense I have none/for never leaving well enough alone” while genuinely indulging in a good-natured reminiscence. The lines “we were something, don’t you think so?… It would have been fun/if you would have been the one” don’t carry the pathos of her earlier breakup songs, just a fond memory. There’s a detachment implied in the conditional “would have been” as well as the limited range of her vocal performance that shows a new ability to reflect on the past without being gutted by it. One of the biggest differences in the writing on this record is this perspective, exemplified by “cardigan”: “when you are young they assume you know nothing/but I knew you.” These songs aren’t about breakups, they’re about exes as a concept: not individuals who broke your heart, but a part of your life that moved on without you.
“You know the greatest loves of all time are over now,” she sings on “the 1,” but I was reminded recently that when Swift and I were teenagers, we thought of “great love” as “The Way I Loved You”—that true love should be an emotional rollercoaster of bad behavior, defined mostly by intensity of emotion, whether healthy or not. The “screaming and crying and kissing in the rain” confrontation is an evergreen trope in pop culture, typical of romantic plot lines that use the beginning of a relationship as their narrative endpoint. During a big Taylor Swift relisten this week, one thing that has hit me hard is the progression from “It’s 2a.m. and I’m cursing your name,” in “The Way I Loved You” on “Fearless,” to “I love you, ain’t that the worst thing that you’ve ever heard?” in “Cruel Summer” on “Lover,” more than ten years later. Hearing this theme repeated throughout Swift’s career makes the quiet abdication of “I’m leaving out the side door” in “exile” on “folklore” feel like hard-won maturity. As with the mellow, self-aware nostalgia of “the 1,” and the refrain “would it be enough if I could never give you peace”, growing up and staying in love demands the ability to let go of the drama of our youth.
Swift has been writing songs about her public image since she was literally a teenager, and that journey appears on this record as well. “The Lucky One,” a deep cut from “Red,” opens with a wistful vocal to introduce what should be a success story: the low-range delivery of “everybody loves pretty” speaks volumes about how jaded Swift already was in 2012, and rhymes like “name goes up in lights/…make it out alive” build suspense until the final “oh oh oh” on a descending arpeggio, delivered flatly with a sense of resignation. This was the first time Swift explicitly confronted the idea that fame has a dark side. That narrative is mirrored in “the last great american dynasty,” but with a decidedly upbeat and carefree vibe declaring, “I had a marvelous time ruining everything.” The track opens with a somber piano note, then adds instrumentation that picks up the tempo and brightens the mood, saying more about Swift’s evolving relationship with the media than anything on “reputation” did. The nostalgic reverie “seven” includes the claim, “I hit my peak at seven.” It has always been clear that Swift possesses a ruthless ambition, so even this subtle dismissal of her adult career is a huge shift, suggesting that she may be letting go of her need for approval from the public.
Swift has made it clear that the strange circumstances prompted her to release “folklore” as soon as it was done, rather than waiting for next year to keep it on her usual schedule. It also seems to have disrupted her usual pattern of releasing questionable lead singles. The admittedly fun, but shallow, dance tracks Swift released as lead singles from her last four albums don’t feel relevant to this moment; all I want from music these days is to wallow in emotions that my actual life isn’t inspiring. Another record about tabloid conflicts or even the thrill and spark of a new relationship wouldn’t have done it for me in 2020, when those things are starting to feel like part of a different historical era. Dessner spoke to the unusual creative freedom afforded by the circumstances: “You know how it can be with someone in her position, with all the speculation, and she’s always under a lot of pressure like that. So it was really important to the creative freedom she was feeling that this remained a secret, so she could just do what we were doing.“ The cohesiveness of this album suggests a clarity of artistic vision that was especially lacking from “reputation” and “Lover”. An artist of Swift’s strengths, already eight albums into her career, will hopefully never stop experimenting. This particular turn was so successful not because there is anything more “authentic” about Dessner’s style of composing, but because this collaboration produced an album uniquely suited to its historical moment.
Beyza Durmuş is an illustrator from Turkey. She is fascinated by faces, women and struggles in life. She believes that a “style” can be restrictive, which is why she draws like she has over a hundred personalities. You can follow her @silkmauve