“Mad Women,” Legend, and Gossip: Folklore and Taylor Swift
July 28, 2020
Last Thursday, one of our colleagues posted this:
And no, it’s not something any folklorist ever thought they’d write, but darned if our ENTIRE THURSDAY wasn’t hijacked by the release of Taylor Swift’s brand new surprise album… folklore. #FolkloreThursday?
Frankly, our discipline may never be the same :P.
We responded via tweets:
We responded via memes:
We had to cancel #FolkloreThursday because the hashtag was inundated with Swifties thinking it was all about her.
So what do the two of us think? Well we have a few thoughts.
Our initial impression of the album was kinda “meh.” It’s fine, and it’s definitely growing on us, but it’s very quiet, and very… not what we typically like about Taylor Swift when we do like her. There seem to be heavy Lana Del Ray influences here. We LOVE us some Lana, but overall there’s only a hint of Lana’s bite. And it is, of course, quite “folksy,” as in folk-music-inspired, which doesn’t always necessarily equal “folklore.” Don’t get us wrong, we do really like some of the music that typically gets categorized as “folk” music. But though the genre itself may have been inspired by folk songs and ballads and such, it’s gone on to become its own thing, a thing that is personally very hit or miss for both of us.
Of the songs on the album, we both love “Mad Woman” the best. It’s lyrically brilliant, especially in how it plays with the word “mad.” “Mad,” after all, can mean angry, mentally atypical… or it can simply point to how being the former can inspire other people label you as the latter. This song also makes powerful use of witch-hunt imagery (folklore!) and has a lovely, haunting melody. Sara also admits she can’t get “Cardigan” out of her head, and Brittany really likes “Seven” too.
But why folklore? Well, we think Swift was probably mostly inspired by the folksy-music-vibe this album’s got going on, especially in comparison to her other albums. And, after all, the word is SUCH a “good Saxon compound.” But, interestingly, there is a bit of “actual” folkloric influence to think about here (in so much as anything can be “actual”/”authentic” folklore, but that’s a WHOLE other post.) We already mentioned the witches of “Mad Woman,” but we’d like to draw your attention to a few other things too (and no, not just the line “passed down like folk songs” of the song “Seven,” though we admit to smiling in a mildly bemused way when we heard that one!)
First, a major theme of folklore seems to be rumor and gossip. We see this again and again throughout, perhaps most explicitly in songs like “Betty.” Gossip and rumor fall squarely into the domain of folklore. They’re both unofficial modes of communication. They’re methods that people use to share information and to create stories outside of sanctioned channels. In other words: peak folklore. They’re also both intricately bound up with how people are perceived by their community…their reputation, as it were. (Taylor Swift’s 2017 album was, fittingly, called reputation.) Even if Taylor Swift doesn’t know about this connection between gossip, reputation, and folklore, we think it’s fair to say that these themes are connecting and sparking off of each other within the album. And, as we say in academia a lot, authorial intent isn’t the be-all, end-all: a work often has all kinds of layers that the author didn’t intend, making things complicated and weird and fascinating. (Also, on the off-chance Taylor Swift does know that gossip and rumor are part of folklore, kudos, girl!)
Second, we think Swift is playing a bit with legend here as well, particularly in the song “The Last Great American Dynasty.” The song is an ode to controversial socialite Rebekah Harkness, an heiress who used to live in Swift’s Rhode Island home. Harkness was said to be gleefully eccentric, and the song explores several of the legends that have grown up around her (that she filled her pool with champagne, that she dyed her neighbor’s dog green, etc.) If you want to know more, the Washington Post has a great write up. We love that Swift dedicated a song to this “mad,” “loud,” “shameless” woman, essentially cementing her as both a legend and an inspiration.
Lastly, Swift embraces the role of the storyteller on this album. As an artist famous (or infamous?) for writing songs about her own life, personal narratives you might say, it’s definitely fun to see her create stories about people that are decidedly NOT her. The Post article linked above points out that, in her liner notes, Swift says “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.” And telling stories, well, there’s not much more folklore-y than that.
So those are our thoughts! To all the Swifties we say…
… and we hope that you might be intrigued enough by this whole “folklore” thing to dig into it a little bit more. Might we recommend that you start here?
We’ll leave you with just a few more links we found especially interesting:
- Refinery 29: “Taylor Swift’s New Album Is Something Totally Different — But What Does folklore Mean?” (if you are confused about this, please see this post immediately.)
- Time: “Taylor Swift Follore Explained: New Album Analyzed”
- The Mary Sue: “Let’s Celebrate Taylor Swift with Some Fun Tidbits from #FolkloreThursday”
- NY Folklore: “Taylor Swift Asks Us to Reflect on the Meaning of Folklore”
EDIT: And a few more that went up after we originally posted!
- FoxyFolklorist: #FolkloreThursday – Taylor Swift’s Folklore (a fantastic article by our dear friend and colleague Jeana Jorgensen!)
- The American Folklore Society Review: “AFS Explains ‘What is Folklore?’ in Response to Taylor Swift’s New Album Release”
- The Daily Gazette: “Taylor Swift’s New Album Puts ‘Folklore’ in Spotlight”
- New Directions in Folklore: “Taylor Swift’s Album ‘Folklore’ and the Vernacular Response of Folklorists: Connecting Bangladesh to the Current Debate”
Did you notice anything particularly folklore-y about Taylor Swift’s new album? Let us know in the comments below!