A few weeks ago, Taylor Swift stunned fans by announcing that within 24 hours she would be releasing a totally new album; an album that would include 16 songs entirely written and produced during the pandemic. “In isolation,” she wrote in her announcement, “my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness.” It is, quite fittingly, called Folklore, and it does not disappoint. Now, shortly after its release, it’s made Swift the first woman ever to debut at number 1 on both the Hot 100 and the Billboard 200 and is being heralded by some as her best work yet. Which is saying something for the wildly popular artist. But the fact is, it really is that good.
Folklore is a move away from her more recent pop-style, radio-friendly sound, and is an exploration of the indie folk scene that she has clearly loved and been influenced by. This album is saturated with breathy, honest vulnerability and loaded with detailed and evocative imagery. Taylor Swift has long been known for her narrative storytelling and talented songwriting. With Folklore, however, she takes that a step further and invites us into the stories of the lives of others. But more than that, in this raw album, she invites us to honestly and courageously view and even enter into our own stories as well.In writing fiction, Taylor Swift has somehow managed to ponder the deeper truths of love and loss and life.
If you’ve listened to the radio any time in the last fifteen years or so, you’ve probably heard Taylor Swift. She came on the scene back in 2004 when, at the age of 15, she became the youngest artist to sign with Sony/ATV music. Her debut album was the longest-charting album of the 2000s on Billboard 200; her second album won her three Grammys, and her fourth album earned her another. She now has eight albums out, is one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time, has sold over 50 million albums, won 10 Grammys, and her songs fill the radio waves. Her music has crossed from country to pop, and now, with the release of Folklore, to a more folk-like genre demonstrating just how versatile and talented she is.
What’s particularly interesting to note when thinking about Taylor Swift, is that she has, quite literally, grown up in the music spotlight. And that’s significant for a woman whose songs are known for being personal and filled with storytelling. In a very real way, Taylor Swift’s story has played out for us all to see. Not all of it, for sure; she has done her best to keep her private life private. But even with all her attempts, the tabloids and news outlets have feasted on the salacious gossip that has surrounded the young star. Her dating relationships and friendships have been front-page news as have her professional conflicts. Rather than run from that, however, she’s leaned into it and written these events into her albums. The result has been an increasing number of recent hits that focus on her personal story.
Folklore, however, is different. By her own admission, these songs are not just personal. Instead, they tell the stories of other people, both real and imaginary. They are filled with “fantasy, history, and memory.” The result is an album made up of songs that skillfully weave together multiple storylines from various points of view. Individually, each song tells a story; a lost chance, a jilted lover, a childhood romance, and so on. But combined, they work together to tell an even bigger narrative with time elapsed and characters intertwined. It’s filled with nods to older hits without being saturated with self-depreciation or personal angst. It’s bold even in its more subdued tones.
Folklore is fiction and yet somehow, it seems more honest than previous albums. It is more raw. More melancholy. And laced with lines that, while steeped in fiction, ring like truth. Lyrics like, “They told me all my cages were mental, so I got wasted like all my potential, and my words shoot to kill when I’m mad, I’ve got a lot of regrets about that.” Or, “In my defense, I have none, for never leaving well enough alone.” Or even, “I’m still a believer, but I don’t know why. I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try.” These lines feel jagged and rough. Not jagged lyrically—no, they fit perfectly into the songs for which they were written—but jagged in the sense of cutting to the quick. They get past the pithy one-liners of so many other songs and strike at the heart as if to say, “I’m sitting here in this emotion, won’t you join me?” And the thing is, for most of us listeners? The answer is an unequivocally, yes.
She wrote this album during the pandemic. During the lonely, fear-filled days that have, in a very real way, both separated and united us. We have, as a world, been driven farther apart by our physical separation but also by the gnawing fears and growing political and social discontent. But these days have brought many of us together as well. Relationships have become intentional, encouragement somewhat plentiful, and pain universal. While we have been struggling, Taylor Swift has written an album that invites us all in to struggle together.
In writing fiction, Swift has somehow managed to ponder the deeper truths of love and loss and life. And the beautiful thing is, that’s one of the greatest aspects of fiction. Fiction allows us the safety to think deeply about meaningful, but often difficult, aspects of life. It gives us the opportunity to consider things from a different perspective, ask hard questions. Fiction is not just a pleasant escape from reality, it is an absolutely necessary aspect of our development as people. Through fiction and through stories we can consider love and loss and life and purpose in ways that nonfiction just doesn’t allow.
So while it seems odd to say that Swift’s most fictional album is also her most authentic, it’s true. And in mingling moments of her life into those stories, she’s taken them deeper than before and invited us to do the same. And we need to. These days of uncertainty and upheaval have created a colossal amount of corporate trauma. Our lives have been thrown into upheaval, and we need a way to process that. To grieve what we’ve lost, to dream of our futures, to process through the emotions that have arisen in this time. In her songs, we’re invited to grieve. To remember. To hope. To think through our own mortality. We need that. And while this is something we all need to do, it’s especially important for those of us who call ourselves Christian.
All throughout the Bible, we see that, for the people of God, this world is not our home. We are sojourners (1 Chron. 29:15). Wanderers. Those who seek a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). We are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14–19). And we are citizens of heaven. The emphasis for the believer then is not on the present, but on the future; on the eternal. And to be clear, that is absolutely true and good and right. As Christians, we must keep our eyes on the fact that there really is more and that this life really isn’t the end. And yet even in the midst of this eternal mentality, we are also called to live our lives here. Now.
It’s not uncommon in some circles of Western Christianity, though, to hear people talking about living for eternity or not being mired down in the cares of this world. And while the point is important, it can easily shift into a mindset that ignores the world in which we have been placed. If we’re not careful, “let go and let God” can easily turn into a form of willful ignorance, and rather than loving our neighbors, we can pull away and choose to not care in favor of what we think are more eternal matters. The focus can land on being “not of the world” allowing us to forget that we are still called to be “in the world.” The Bible presents an astounding balance in which we are called to live in the present while keeping our eyes on the future. We were created to live lives here that bring flourishing to others and fill the world with the glory of God and to do those things in light of what’s to come.
Is it easier to check out and pull back? Yes, it really is. It’s hard work to invest in the care of our neighbors, to love the people around us, to work for justice and peace. It’s hard. And yet that is exactly what we are called to do. But to live in the world in the way in which we have been called, requires us to consider our own stories. We have to be cognizant of who we are and who God has called us to be. We have to consider our own pasts, struggles, hurts, and grief so that we might enter into those areas of other people’s lives as well. As a Christian, it can be easy to write off our own stories in favor of focusing on the future but we have been called to more than that.
That is where I think Folklore shines. In it, Taylor Swift enters into the stories of others and in doing so, seems to come face to face with her own. And what’s more, she invites us to do the same. Through the stories of Folklore we can think deeply about our own experiences of loss and love, our feelings of unworthiness and hope. We can consider our mortality and what we’ll leave behind one day. We can think about what it looks like to be angry and what it means to have gone through all the things we have gone through. We can give ourselves permission to simply grieve. Although it’s not a Christian album, it reminds us that we are indeed people of stories. In her raw look at simple moments that tell a larger tale, she invites us to something deeply profound: to consider how our past stories give us the freedom to live well in the present narrative.