Photo Courtesy Of Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift's Road To 'Folklore': How The Superstar Evolved From 'Diaristic' Country Tunes To Her Most Progressive Music Yet
For Women's History Month 2021, GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the women artists nominated at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show. Today, we honor Taylor Swift, who's currently nominated for six GRAMMYs.
When we met Taylor Swift in 2006, it was immediately apparent that her songwriting approach was like ripping a page out of her diary.
"Just a boy in a Chevy truck/ That had a tendency of gettin' stuck/ On backroads at night/ And I was right there beside him all summer long/ And then the time we woke up to find that summer gone," she lamented in the first verse of her debut single, "Tim McGraw." The way the then-16-year-old Swift could turn personal anecdotes into instantly memorable hooks mirrored the prowess of an industry veteran, appealing to more than just the teenage girls that could relate to a short-lived high school romance.
Now, nearly 15 years later, Swift has introduced another layer of intrigue with a foray into indie folk, unveiling a pair of albums, folklore and evermore, last year. Recorded entirely in isolation after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, folklore has been widely acclaimed as Swift's best album, touted for its intimate songwriting and cinematic dynamics; evermore has received similarly glowing reviews.
folklore was 2020's best-selling album and earned Swift five GRAMMY nominations at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show, including her fourth Album Of The Year nod. (evermore will be eligible for the 64th GRAMMY Awards in 2022.) As her 10 previous GRAMMY wins suggest, though, this new chapter isn't an abrupt departure for the star—it's a masterful continuation of her evolution as a singer/songwriter.
If there's one thing that Swift has proven throughout her career, it's that she refuses to be put in a box. Her ever-evolving sound took her from country darling to pop phenom to folk's newest raconteur—a transition that, on paper, seems arduous. But for Swift, it was seamless and resulted in perhaps her most defining work yet. And folklore’s radiance relies on three of Swift’s songwriting tools: heartfelt balladeering, autobiographical writing, and character-driven storytelling.
While there was always a crossover element to Swift's pop-leaning country tunes, her transition from country starlet to pop queen began with Red. The album’s lead single, the feisty breakup anthem "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," was Swift's first release to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and, ironically, scoffed "indie records much cooler than mine"). She declared a full pop makeover with 2014's 1989, but the response proved that her bold move was the right one: Along with spawning three more No. 1 hits, the project won Swift her second GRAMMY for Album of the Year.
From there, 2017’s Reputation, a response to media scrutiny, and 2019’s Lover, an often bubbly exploration of all facets of affection, followed. Although they shared similarly grandiose production, Lover featured a handful of poetic ballads, including "The Archer," a self-reflective love song that teased Swift's folk sensibilities through storybook lyrics and ambient textures.
Swift’s ballads are key in understanding the full essence of folklore. They’ve regularly marked standout moments on each of her albums, both thanks to her poignant vulnerability and rich tone. Fearless standout "White Horse" earned Swift two GRAMMYs in 2009; Red's painstaking "All Too Well" was an instant fan favorite; 1989's "This Love" and Reputation's "New Years Day" provided tenderness amid otherwise synth-heavy sounds.
The raw emotion she puts into her downtempo songs comes alive on folklore, introducing a new wave of neo-classical sonics that elevate her fanciful penmanship to an ethereal level. Whether or not Swifties saw a full indie-pop record coming—at least not yet—the shift isn't all that surprising. Folklore’s romanticized lyrics and relatively lo-fi production are arguably what many fans have been patiently waiting on.
Lyrically, the super-personal nature of Swift’s music has always captivated fans and naysayers alike; diehards and critics dissected each of her albums for its real-life subjects and hidden meanings. While she played into those conspiracies at the time—whether she was revealing names in titles like "Hey Stephen" and "Dear John" or scathing the other girl on "Better Than Revenge"—even Swift herself admits that her teenage method had an expiration date.
"There was a point that I got to as a writer who only wrote very diaristic songs that [it] felt unsustainable for my future moving forward," she told Apple Music's Zane Lowe in December of 2020. "It felt like too hot of a microscope ... On my bad days, I would feel like I was loading a cannon of clickbait when that's not what I want for my life."
That realization is what helped make folklore so memorable: Swift stripped away the drama to let her artful storytelling shine. Sure, there are occasional callbacks to personal happenings ("invisible string" references sending her exes baby gifts and "mad woman" alludes to her legal battle with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun). Still, she largely shies away from her autobiographical narratives to make way for her imagination.
"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," Swift wrote in a letter to fans on social media the day folklore arrived. "The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible."
folklore might be her first full project dedicated to creating characters and projecting storylines, but Swift has shown a knack for fantasy from the start. Tracks like "Mary's Song (Oh My My)" on her self-titled debut and "Starlight" on Red saw Swift craft stories for real-life muses ("Mary's Song" was inspired by an old couple who lived next door to Swift in her childhood; "Starlight" was sparked from seeing a picture of Ethel and Bobby Kennedy as teens). Even when songs did pertain to her real life, Swift often had a way of flipping memories into whimsical metaphors, like the clever clap-back to a critic on Speak Now's "Mean" or the rebound relationship in Reputation's "Getaway Car."
To think that we wouldn't have folklore without a pandemic is almost surreal; it's already become such a fundamental piece of Swift’s artistic puzzle. There was no telling what may have come after the glittering "love letter to love itself” that was Lover, but it seems isolation made the singer rethink any plans she may have had.
"I just thought there are no rules anymore because I used to put all these parameters on myself, like, 'How will this song sound in a stadium? How will this song sound on radio?' If you take away all the parameters, what do you make?" she told Paul McCartney in a November Rolling Stone interview. "And I guess the answer is folklore."
Even if she hasn’t been making indie music herself, Swift has shown an affinity for the genre over the years through curated digital playlists. Those included four songs by The National including "Dark Side of the Gym," which she references on folklore single "betty," and "8 (Circle)" by Bon Iver, Swift's collaborator on folklore's gut-wrenching "exile" as well as evermore’s title track. (“Exile” is one of folklore’s GRAMMY-nominated cuts, up for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.)
The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner co-wrote nine and produced 11 of folklore's 16 tracks, soundtracking Swift's imaginative tales with sweeping orchestration and delicate piano. Their partnership started with "cardigan," a melancholy take on teenage love that's up for Best Pop Solo Performance and the coveted Song of the Year. The team-up was a dream come true for Swift, a self-proclaimed National superfan and a career highlight for Dessner, who shared in an Instagram post about folklore that he's "rarely been so inspired by someone." He sees the album as a pivotal moment for both Swift's career and pop music.
"Taylor has opened the door for artists to not feel pressure to have 'the bop,'" Dessner shared with Billboard in September. "To make the record that she made, while running against what is programmed in radio at the highest levels of pop music—she has kind of made an anti-pop record. And to have it be one of the most, if not the most, successful commercial releases of the year that throws the playbook out.
"I hope it gives other artists, especially lesser-known or more independent artists, a chance at the mainstream," he continued. "Maybe radio will realize that music doesn't have to sound as pushed as it has. Nobody was trying to design anything to be a hit. Obviously, Taylor has the privilege of already having a very large and dedicated audience, but I do feel like it's having a resonance beyond that."
Swift's other primary folklore collaborator was Jack Antonoff. He has been her right-hand man since they first paired up on 2013's promotional single "Sweeter Than Fiction" (Swift referred to him as "musical family" in her folklore announcement). Even after years of creating stadium-ready pop smashes, Antonoff said in his own folklore Instagram post, "I've never heard Taylor sing better in my life / write better."
As Swift recognizes herself, folklore ushered in a new way of thinking for the superstar that not only brings out her best, but sets a promising precedent for what's to come. "What I felt after we put out folklore was, 'Oh wow, people are into this too, this thing that feels really good for my life and my creativity,'" Swift added in her interview with Lowe. "I saw a lane for my future that was a real breakthrough moment of excitement and happiness."
Her enthusiasm is tangible on both folklore and evermore. Dubbed folklore’s sister record, evermore further expands Swift’s newfound mystical atmosphere. Much to the delight of many Swifties, the follow-up also calls back to her country beginnings on tracks like the HAIM-assisted “no body, no crime,” as well as her pop expertise on more uptempo cuts like “long story short.”
Together, the albums are a momentous reminder that Swift is a singer/songwriter first. Her wordcraft is some of the most alluring of her generation, and that’s never been lost on her music, regardless of the genre she’s exploring. But now that Swift also feels she's at her best, it’s evident folklore was just the beginning of Taylor Swift in her finest form.