Taylor Swift wants to live like common people. Her new album, Folklore, is her inevitable attempt at an “indie” album, and to help her capture that style, she enlisted critical darlings Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National to assist with the writing and production. I wrote about my rather unique hatred of Swift a couple years ago, and while the post wasn’t very good, I stand by my read on her psyche: she is a ruthless careerist whose music is marked by an insecurity and a desperation to be loved by all listeners. Folklore represents her final ambition: a chance to prove that she’s a “real artist” who is more than just a corporate pop star.
The target audience for Folklore is critics — not just the music writers, who will undoubtedly salivate over this tedious exercise like they do for Bon Iver and The National, but the remaining holdouts who dislike Swift’s music and don’t take her seriously as an artist. Swift wants people who hate her to hear this and think “you know, she’s actually pretty good.” And honestly, in some ways it succeeds at that, even with me: this album is not bad to listen to, and it’s free from the ego narratives that have previously made her music grate on me. They’re replaced by something that is far more insidious and repulsive.
The whole rollout and presentation of Folklore is meant to portray Swift as an honest, hard-working artist who isn’t motivated by money or status. She casually dropped it into the world on a day’s notice in an effort to show she doesn’t care about the typical P.R. hype cycle. The cover shows her alone in the woods, like Bon Iver was when he recorded his For Emma, Forever Ago album, which created the cliché “indie” playbook she’s working off of here. Most hilariously, the album and song titles are in all-lowercase, which is a common shortcut for people who want to seem emotionally sincere and profound but don’t know how to actually do that. Once they stop using the shift key, that’s when you know it’s something totally legit.
I realize I’m ascribing motivation to a lot of seemingly innocuous aspects of this album. My belief is that Swift is a cunning businesswoman who cares a lot about her brand, image, and career, and she doesn’t make any action that affects those things without thinking a lot about it. It might be happening on a more subconscious level, but she is trying to win over the “haters” she has obsessed over for years by doing her version of the music she thinks they like instead of her. And that is also how these songs sound to me: almost like an alien version of a certain style of “indie” music that has been run through a Swift filter. It’s a hollow facsimile of the real thing.
The tragic part of Folklore is hearing Swift aspire to something that will never be in her reach. She can assemble all the beloved songwriters and producers in the world, and market it in a way to make people think it’s authentic, but she can never capture the traits that make people actually love indie music: sincerity, flaws, lived experience, the feeling of hearing music that is made out of love or need and not just to make money or tick off another chapter in the artist’s calculated narrative. Most of all, those moments when you stumble upon a lesser-known artist who sounds like they make music just for you instead of for a mass audience. None of that can be manufactured.
Swift has always been good at pretending, and she puts in a decent effort with these songs, which check off various “indie” boxes with the stripped-down piano and guitar arrangements, less flashy production, and lyrics that are about like old oil heiresses instead of typical pop stuff. But it’s all an act that becomes increasingly transparent over the album’s egregiously long run time. There is nothing genuine about this; it’s Taylor Swift (net worth: 360 million dollars) cosplaying as an indie artist, presenting her shallow idea of what indie music is to an uncritical public who she knows will eat this up. What she seems to most associate with indie is a total absence of charisma or charm, which makes sense given the choice of Bon Iver and The National as contributors. At least with Swift’s old music, I didn’t like it, but I could understand the appeal of her personality. This is pleasant to listen to, but also very samey and dull, resembling the kind of white-bread Lilith Fair soft pop that everyone usually makes fun of. If Swift is going to go “indie,” she should be compared to other artists in that arena instead of graded on a pop star curve, and no one will convince me that Folklore holds up to the kind of music I typically listen to in terms of artistry, depth, or creativity.
I don’t want to completely paint a picture that every indie artist is legitimate and brave and all pop stars and rich artists have no insight. There is a lot of bad indie music out there and also plenty of good pop music. People would probably be disturbed if they learned how much I’ve listened to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia this year. The difference is Future Nostalgia knows what it is and doesn’t present itself as high art. The pretensions of Folklore are insufferable and the music can’t live up to its billing because Swift can never be what she purports herself to be. So what’s left is an album with a generic pseudo-indie sound, with the admirable values of such music replaced with a sense of calculated pandering.
Swift is co-opting indie values here, and also encroaching on spaces previously reserved for independent music, which makes this more offensive to me than a normal ignorable pop album. The Current is now playing her songs because Folklore appeals to that audience, which is all part of her strategy. Every independent music publication is going to gush over this album because it’s “cool” to loudly show your love for pop music now, and it’s specifically catered towards their tastes. In this way, Folklore is like a musical version of predatory capitalism. This is Wal-Mart moving into a neighborhood and putting mom and pop stores out of business; it’s Amazon bankrupting your cool local book store. Music isn’t quite that zero-sum (it’s not like Swift succeeding literally kills indie music or something), but this album is still going to take up a lot of space that could be spent on independent artists who rely on critical praise and word of mouth.
All of those insults are at least doubled during this pandemic, which has been brutal for independent artists who relied on touring to try to scrape by something resembling a living. It’s one thing to be less successful than a mega-talent like Beyonce who is crafting arena pop spectacles. How must it feel for those artists to see Swift get all the critical adulation for a mediocre copy of the music they make? What if all the energy that will go into hyping and discussing this album was dedicated to artists who weren’t already rich and could actually benefit from the exposure? Swift’s condescending take on indie isn’t just insincere and uninteresting as music, it’s a slap in the face to the artists who actually live the way Swift is pretending she does.