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How Taylor Swift reset her image with Folklore

In her surprise quarantine album, Taylor Swift ignores the haters and embraces her crown as one of pop’s great storytellers.

Taylor Swift in the music video for “Cardigan,” Folklore’s lead single.
Taylor Swift
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Thursday at midnight, Taylor Swift dropped her surprise quarantine album, Folklore, with only 17 hours’ notice. It’s been greeted with rave critical reviews. The Guardian gave it five stars. “This one won’t require an album-length Ryan Adams remake to convince anyone that there’s songwriting there,” said Variety. Rolling Stone called it “headspinning,” “heart-smashing,” and Swift’s “greatest album — so far.”

The rapturous acclaim Folklore has amassed is a sign that the press is at last ready to make nice with Swift after years spent debating her pop culture villainy and/or victimhood. And it suggests that Swift, who declared in January’s Netflix documentary Miss Americana that she was done seeking public approval, has finally found it again.

Folklore announced itself as something different from the traditional Taylor Swift album before it ever arrived. Swift has the release hype cycle down to a science at this point: Her last album, 2019’s Lover, came after months of teases coded into her social media presence and a countdown clock ticking toward the official album announcement. In the months leading up to 2017’s Reputation, Swift’s team plastered her face on UPS trucks across the country. But Folklore — which Swift conceived and produced all while in quarantine as the Covid-19 pandemic forced lockdowns all over the world — made its way into the world less than 24 hours after Swift announced it. There were no Easter eggs embedded into Instagram posts, no national print ad campaigns.

Moreover, Folklore was not preceded by any singles, and contains no songs that sound like the classic Taylor Swift Top 40 hit. That’s a departure from Swift’s increasingly bifurcated album strategy. Her past few album releases have all been preceded by slick, radio-friendly pop tracks that sound as though they’ve been mathematically calibrated to play through the listener’s head on an endless loop. Singles like “Shake It Off” and “ME!” can become massive, ubiquitous earworms, and they show off Swift’s ability to craft an unsinkable pop hook, but they’re also simple, shallow, and often critically smeared.

Swift’s full albums, meanwhile, tend to contain songs richer and more contemplative than those early singles would suggest. And it’s those quieter songs — like “All Too Well” or last year’s “Cornelia Street” — that tend to become both critical and fan favorites, and to be cited as examples of what makes Swift one of pop’s great storytellers.

Folklore is an album full of Taylor Swift in “All Too Well” mode: intimate, lyrical, and vulnerable. None of its songs have that telltale Max Martin hard edge of precision pop engineering. Instead, they’re shaggy and rambling. They don’t drive themselves into your head. They steal their way in.

That subtle, gentle stealth is foundational to the way Swift is currently building her image. She doesn’t need to be the untouchable aspirational pop princess who is also your teenage best friend anymore. Right now, she’s a musical storyteller at the peak of her craft.

Taylor Swift has always struggled to combine intimacy with control. With Folklore, she succeeds in balancing the two.

In 2017, I took a deep dive into Taylor Swift’s star image from the early days of her fame onward. What I found is that the central tension that has defined her image, driving both its highs and its lows, is one between intimacy and control.

Swift is always building a sense of cozy best friendship with her fans — sending out care packages, having them over for cookies — but she is also obliged, as a major celebrity, to consider her image carefully, to calculate and craft the way she presents in public. When her calculation shows in public, as it seemed to during that Kanye West feud, the public reacts as though she’s betraying their trust. So many people seem unable to reconcile the sense of intimate friendship Swift encourages with the evidence of the control she brings to her career.

One of the ways this tension traditionally plays out with Swift is in the single-versus-album split in her songcraft. “Her music mixes an almost impersonal professionalism — it’s so rigorously crafted it sounds like it has been scientifically engineered in a hit factory — with confessions that are squirmingly intimate and true,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2008. Her mathematically exact pop hooks sound exquisitely controlled. Her confessional lyrics feel achingly intimate.

When the combination works, it’s what makes Taylor Swift great. But when it doesn’t, people start to feel like she’s lying to them. That’s part of why the press cycle of the Reputation era was so unfriendly to Swift.

With Folklore, Swift has found a way to make the split work again. She’s still a pop songsmith in control of her craft, and it would be both facile and insulting to say that Folklore is uncontrolled. But in moving away from radio-friendly Top 40 pop and toward the looser structures of indie pop, Swift is allowing the vulnerability and intimacy of her lyrics to take center stage. She’s drawn a veil over the rigorous control she brings to all of her work. For the first time in a long time, she’s making it look natural and easy.

Swift has also found a way to create intimacy with her audience without mining material directly from her own life. In Folklore, she plays with characters: She narrates “Betty” as a 17-year-old boy named James; in “The Last Great American Dynasty,” she tells the story of her house’s former owner in a tale that reflects only obliquely on Swift’s own time dating a Kennedy.

These songs still have the visceral emotional connection that Swift’s fans expect from her, but they no longer seem to be encouraging listeners to trawl through the details of Swift’s life to figure out who she’s subtweeting. The focus is on the storytelling rather than the gossip.

And that means the critical conversation about Swift’s work can shift away from outlining all her relationships — the petty feuds, the flings, the question of whether some of those flings were staged for publicity — and toward the craft. That shift is easier for the press to perform now that the infamous Kanye tape has been released in full, exonerating Swift in the scandal that briefly turned her into a pop culture villain. But a turn away from gossip seems to also be just what Swift wants for her image right now, and it’s a direction she’s been trending in for all of 2020, even before the tape became public.

There’s a scene at the beginning of Miss Americana that might double as a thesis statement for Swift’s career right now. It’s January 24, 2020, the day the Grammy nominations come out, and Swift is sitting tensely by her phone, waiting to hear how Reputation did. Then the news comes: It hasn’t earned a nod in any of the major categories.

For just a moment, Swift’s face falls. It looks as though her world has crumbled.

Then a look of steely reserve marches across her features. “It’s okay,” she says, like she’s trying to convince herself. “I’ll just make a better album.”

Folklore has critics ready and waiting to tell Swift she pulled it off.