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Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore,’ one year later: Seeking escape and accepting the present

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A year ago, Taylor Swift unexpectedly announced the arrival of her eighth studio album in a series of social media posts. The news that it would be released that very night was even more surprising to fans. Titled “Folklore,” the album became one of the most critically acclaimed of Swift’s career. Listed as one of the best albums of 2020, it won Album of the Year at the Grammy Award and numerous other accolades.

Written and produced during the first four months of pandemic lockdown, “Folklore” was the product of unprecedented circumstances. Swift scrapped her routine release of numerous singles and buildup in favor of a surprise drop, opting for a calming indie-pop in contrast to the upbeat pop of her previous album “Lover.” Her usual diary-like songwriting was exchanged for intricate storytelling of characters both real and fictional. Collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner’s toned-down production allow her masterful lyricism to shine.

Perhaps even more significant than the music is the personal meaning for fans behind the album, which continues to resonate with supporters and students one year later.

For some, listening to “Folklore” was a journey into their past.

Jennifer Fung ’24 said the lyrics from the album reminded her of a past relationship. “It’s emotional, vulnerable and intimate,” she said.

As people restricted their activities, many found comfort in nostalgia and former interests — they took to watching their favorite childhood shows, playing board games or drawing in coloring books to cope; Swift expresses such sentimental feelings throughout “Folklore.” Themes of youth and love draw listeners out from the chaos of the world and into the past. The song “Seven” depicts innocence through childhood memories, showing the flawed thought processes one has as an adolescent. “Before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously anytime I wanted,” Swift sang breathily.

“That song, along with many others, reminds me a lot of my childhood, as well as people I’ve lost touch with now that I’m in college,” said Lillian Towe ’24. “They bring back good memories.”

For others, “Folklore” represents an acceptance of the present.

“It felt as if the album that I needed for the time of my life that I was in,” said Daily news staffer Elena Shao ’21. 

With lives stripped of normalcy, one thing remained consistent: everyone was experiencing the same catastrophe. “With you I serve, with you I fall down,” Swift sings in “Epiphany,” as she draws similarities between frontline workers and troops in battle. 

“Her music helps to put feelings into words, and to establish that you’re not alone,” Fung said. “We were, and continue to be, all in this together.”

Amid lockdown, “Folklore” is tangible proof that we can, despite all odds, make the best of our situation and create. “In isolation my imagination has run wild, and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness,” Swift wrote in her album-release statement. There were no deadlines or predetermined expectations for Swift to meet; she simply chose to develop the stories in her mind into 17 impactful songs — because it felt right.

“‘Folklore’ made me appreciate that not everything has to be so calculated, scheduled and planned,” Shao said. “It truly seems like a passion project where she explored something that she had never done before because lockdown gave her the chance to do so.”

In the concluding track, “The Lakes,” Swift sings, “A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground, with no one around to tweet it.” This lyric is a direct metaphor for “Folklore” itself — it is the rose, developed in a time when everything seemed to stop. It shows that, sometimes, the greatest things can come at the worst of times.

For me, “Folklore” is an escape. 

I replayed this album from start to finish, memorizing all the lyrics, melody and inflection for months. I painted scenes in my mind using Swift’s words. The instrumentals’ bright, lush ambiance transported me to an alternate universe, giving me the chance to block out the noise of the world. It was a distraction from what was real, a calming mechanism to which I could consistently turn for peace of mind.

I recognized pieces of myself in “Mirrorball,” which perfectly captures how I feed off the attention and approval of others. I found inspiration for what I wanted to be in “Invisible String,” which describes the love that I hope to soon have. “Folklore” allowed me to reflect, but more importantly, dream.

“Folklore” taught me that the pandemic does not have to be filled with fear and uncertainty. One year later, the album remains relevant as we enter another rise in COVID-19 cases. I am taking heed of its message: to dive into the past, present and fantasy to find comfort and peace. 

We can make the prolonged hours we have worthwhile. Like Towe said, “Everybody can have their own ‘Folklore.’”

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Maya Wong is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.