It’s been an amazing journey for singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. She was just 16 when her first album was released in 2006. That self-titled album was Country, and a huge success. Two years later, her Fearless album was an even bigger breakthrough with songs crossing over to the Pop charts. Swift won four Grammys, including album of the year. Her impressive string of successes and awards continued into 2019 with the albums Speak Now, Red, 1989, Reputation, and Lover. That’s seven multi-platinum albums, with six-in-a-row debuting at #1 on Billboard’s album chart.
Over those 13 years, Taylor Swift became the most consistently successful Pop Star in the world, and had some of the highest-grossing tours. Then in early 2020 the pandemic hit. Swift and other artists were forced to cancel major tours, costing them millions of dollars. What was Taylor Swift to do?
On July 23rd, Taylor surprised the world by announcing she had completed a new album in less than three months, and was releasing it the next day!
As surprising as the announcement was, the album itself was even more surprising. Folklore was not a highly produced Pop album, rather it was a much more minimalistic recording with an Indie vibe. Critics are calling it Taylor Swift’s best album.
You might also wonder why an old Classic Rock guy like me is even paying attention to music by Taylor Swift. My wife and I only had four of Swift’s songs in our collection, but during this pandemic, we decided to watch a Taylor Swift concert from her Reputation tour that was available on Netflix.
We were pretty well blown away. Those adoring Taylor Swift fans got a huge production that took hundreds of people to pull off. Swift could sing while doing group dance numbers, and then intimately sing by herself while playing acoustic guitar or piano. It was obvious she is extremely talented, and gave the fans their money’s worth. Then we watched a Netflix documentary on Taylor Swift, Miss Americana, that was also very impressive.
With any popular artist, there will always be people who react negatively to them. So, there are some people who don’t like Taylor Swift. I remember one Rolling Stone magazine reader survey in the 1970’s when Elton John topped both the “Favorite Artist” and “Least Favorite Artist” categories.
Having been convinced of Taylor Swift‘s musicianship and songwriting ability, I decided to get Folklore. Swift is now 30 years old. Most artists deliver their best work in the first 5 years of their popularity, and then trail off from there. Taylor Swift has given fans her best album after 14 years of staggering success. Folklore is her 7th straight album to debut at #1. In just one week, it became the most popular album of 2020, with the biggest first week since her own Lover album came out less than a year earlier.
Billboard’s album ranking combines actual sales with streaming, but if you look at sales alone, Folklore sold more that week than the other top 50 albums combined!
Update: Folklore spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. That’s the longest at #1 for an album in four years.
Credit for the album’s success also goes to Aaron Dessner of the Indie Rock band The National. Dessner co-wrote eleven of the songs, and assisted with production. He started working with Taylor Swift at the end of April. That’s when he sent her several instrumental tracks as song starters. He says a few hours later, about 3 A.M., Swift sent back the completed song “Cardigan”. They spent almost three months working remotely back-and-forth to finish the project.
Another Indie favorite, Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver, contributed vocals and songwriting to the track “Exile”.
On Folklore, Taylor Swift sings many of the songs in third-person as a storyteller, rather than the autobiographical style she has often used. For example, three songs introduce characters that form a love triangle. “Betty” tells the story from the perspective of 17-year-old James. He lost Betty by impulsively cheating on her with another girl. “Cardigan” tells the same story from the perspective of a grown up Betty looking back on her early lost love. Usually the “other woman” is ignored, but here she gets her own song, “August”, as she relates the feelings she experienced in the love triangle. The album is filled with quality songs like these with good melodies and very clever and insightful lyrics. If you take the time to get to know the album’s songs, you’ll be rewarded.
Taylor Swift is named after James Taylor, and was thrilled when she performed with him. She says her biggest musical idol is Paul McCartney. Plus, she cites Kris Kristofferson for his excellent lyrics, and expresses admiration for the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Emmylou Harris.
With Folklore and her career, Taylor Swift reflects many of her influences, but in her own unique ways.
Maybe the pandemic was a great excuse for Swift to do an album with much less production. By getting away from the pressure of putting out another album with big arena-ready Pop songs, she has freed herself to do Indie/Alternative or whatever style works for the “adult” portion of her career. It may or may not have been a calculated move, but it was brilliant.
Extra: Taylor Swift returned to her Country roots at the ACM awards in Nashville in September, 2020.