In April, I defended my master’s thesis to a committee of four professors via Zoom. The main character in my paper was Taylor Swift, as I was writing down everything I knew about how pop stars incorporate political messages into their music. I spent most of my defense arguing that Swift faces a unique struggle when writing about politics: audiences expect her signature autobiographical songwriting on every track, but by writing about her own experiences, she tells stories from an extremely privileged position, which makes them fall flat politically. Swift knows that spilling her secrets in song has compelled us to listen to her writing. How can she represent other people’s more marginalized experiences without becoming a generic song-writing machine? Telling other people’s stories instead of her own, I believed, would make her albums insincere.
This was three months before Swift released folklore, her eighth studio album, on which she tells stories about her grandfather, about teenagers named James and Betty and the girl who came between them, about Rebekah, the woman who owned Swift’s house in Rhode Island before she moved in and then out again. There are mentions of cardigans and front porches and flesh wounds that aren’t Swift’s, and it is both lyrically and sonically different from all of her past work.
One of the PhDs on my MacBook screen, a man in his 40s whom I’d never met before, threw questions at me like he was keeping score. While he casually suggested that I technically don’t know for sure if Taylor Swift is wealthy because I’ve never seen her tax returns, I counted his facial features (eyebrows, one two; pupil, iris, sclera, three four five). These numbers, a symptom of OCD, were like bubbles rising to the top of a boiling pot, my nerves the gas flame beneath them.
I explained to my committee that Swift is distinct from her contemporaries because she is understood to be a songwriter first and foremost. Fans turn to her for her honesty, for her personal narratives, I said. Her songwriting is sincere because it's about her own life. The professor raised a single pointer finger, interrupting my train of thought. You write extensively about sincerity and the human pursuit of it, he alleged. Why do you think sincerity matters so much to people? And how do you know that Swift is truly being sincere?
I tried to answer his questions with the proper academic jargon I knew I should use to pass my defense, but talking about Taylor Swift’s songwriting — the words that have catalogued my adolescence and early adulthood, that I’ve cried to in every car I’ve ever driven, that I’ve considered tattooing on my skin forever — feels innately personal. I don’t know the psychology behind wanting sincerity, I admitted. But I know we all want to feel like other people have felt the exact same way we do. I thought of the last time I sang “All Too Well,” driving around last fall with my friend Iris, and how Providence’s autumn charm beckoned me to reminisce as we drove past the house where I attended a wedding with a man exactly one year earlier. Upon remembering this, my last shred of formality dropped like the red curtain at the end of a Broadway show. I mean, haven’t you ever felt that way? When you feel like a song was written just for you and the songwriter herself? I asked him. It’s the best feeling in the world, you know?
When folklore was released, I read the liner notes in my bed at midnight before pressing play. When a story becomes folklore, “the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible,” Swift wrote, letting me know that her muse was more than her own heart this time. Rather than turning exclusively inward for stories, Swift is a professional storyteller now, and the songs she passes on to us are no longer the diary entries she’s always insisted they were.
Upon reading this, I got a knot in my stomach. I worried an album that didn’t represent a linear chapter of Swift’s life would lack the sincerity I’ve come to expect from her as we’ve grown up together. A part of me was disappointed. It wasn’t the academic part of me, and it certainly wasn’t the part who writes creative nonfiction. But like millions of other teen girls in the 2000s, I first fell in love with Swift’s songs because of what has been named her “relatability.” The belief that she was a regular girl writing about her real feelings positioned her as an unparalleled artist and role model in my life. She is someone with whom I have a relationship that relies entirely on the narratives she chooses to share with me about her personal life every few years. As a kid, and even now, I relish the honesty in songs like “I Almost Do.” For thirteen years, Taylor Swift has reassured me that I am not alone, even during the months when my loneliness has tucked me into bed at night.
So I listened to the album, and I savored every second of my virgin listen, even as my eyelids started to droop. As the tracks progressed, I found myself thinking of Swift and her fictional characters far less than I thought about my friends and myself. I related our stories to folklore’s tracks because Taylor Swift is exceptional when it comes to writing songs about the human experience. (When we’re in pain, our experience feels unique and individualized, but isn’t heartbreak actually quite universal?) Much of folklore’s storytelling is different for Swift, but the album’s strengths are identical to those of Fearless, and Red, and even reputation: no delicate details are spared. Most importantly, Swift is still able to make us feel less alone, even without opening up her diary. This is perhaps the truest testament to her writing skills — she is sincere in her storytelling even when she isn’t exploiting her own pain, her own broken heart.
As a writer, I am embarrassed that I doubted the ability of good writing to comfort and console us despite how much it is or isn’t based in fact. The job of singer-songwriters, like memoirists and essayists, is to decide the best way for us to consume an important story. As I wrote this piece, I improvised the particular questions my professor asked me. I don’t really remember counting the colors in his eyes, but my OCD ensures I always do this when my mind is the slightest bit nervous or idle, so I’m sure I did. He didn’t interrupt me at that exact moment, but at another time, later on. And my friend Iris isn’t really named Iris. What matters in art isn’t the sequence of events, but the emotions evoked in the moment being described. To make a story sincere, a writer must thoughtfully choose which truths to lay bare and which to leave out. Even when the storylines are fictional, the feelings and the experiences are real. On folklore, all of Swift’s signature sadness — in the form of longing and reminiscing and insecurity — and her reveling — she dreams and philosophizes and basks in real, true love — are as sincere as they have ever been.
It’s ironic that I thought sincerity required Swift to be the center of the song when I’ve always felt sincere in my decision to insert myself as the center of her songs. As I’ve reached my mid-twenties and dedicated Taylor’s songs to a hundred different crushes and a dozen more enemies, my core relationships have become my closest friends, all of whom I thought about as I made my way through my first listen of folklore. Though the following claims aren’t technically true, they are entirely sincere: in the song “exile,” Swift is writing about Iris, who spent three years dating a very good man and broke his heart twice: once when she finally admitted to him what she knew deep down all along, and again when she met a new man who confirmed all of her doubts. The bridge of “mirrorball” tells the story of my friend Jonah, who so often sells himself short for just one more second with the man he loves. Listening to “invisible string” made me think immediately of my best friend Valerie, whose relationship with her boyfriend reminds me not to settle for love that isn’t wildly brave, who handles her past heartbreaks with more grace and gratitude than I have ever been able to. Around 2 am, I texted my childhood best friend saying I want to dance to “seven” with her at my wedding, a non sequitur request in honor of our own version of “sweet tea in the summer” (which was a dozen ice pops a day). “my tears ricochet” is for the boy I went to prom with, whose fierce and unconditional love is a fire that never goes out, even after it burns him. And the first track on the album, “the 1,” was carefully crafted just for me, for this month’s heartbreak, a slow but plummeting descent from the beautiful bedroom of my first love, who maybe, possibly, would have been my last love, if only distance and timing hadn’t become our sworn enemies.
We crave sincerity in songwriting not because we need to know the salacious details of a celebrity’s personal life, but because we need to hear our own stories told through the experiences of someone we trust. And folklore does exactly this — how ironic for an album written and released in isolation. My connection to Taylor Swift’s songwriting was never about the particular events of her very-true-and-accurate diary entries. It was always about her ability to write in a way that makes us feel less alone. In this respect, folklore is her strongest release yet.
This blogpost is dedicated to GN3.
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Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
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