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When you’re one of the biggest pop stars in the world, the choice to surprise-release an album is ostensibly not one you take lightly. Yet that’s exactly the choice Taylor Swift made last week: With none of the traditional months-long marketing campaigns and abundant interviews that tend to precede album releases, the pop icon released her eighth album, Folklore, with less than 24 hours of advance notice. As surprising as the arrival of the album is the songs themselves, and fans and music critics have noticed all sorts of interesting things about the record.
The fan theory about a fictional affair
Swift has said that Folkore’s songs include three narrators: herself, other real people, and fictional characters. She has also said that the songs “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty” are each told from the perspective of one of three characters – James, Betty, and a nameless third person – in a love triangle. Fans have extrapolated these songs’ love triangle to apply to the whole album, and many think Folklore is about a devastating affair involving two love triangle characters.
The current theory is that Folklore fictionalizes the backstory of Rebekah Harness, aka Betty Harness, who used to own the home Swift now owns in Rhode Island. Fans think that Folklore is Swift’s comparison of her own romantic troubles to those of Betty. While Swift has only confirmed that “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty” are connected, fans remain convinced that all of Folklore details Betty’s heartbreak and suffering after James cheats on her.
The overwhelmingly positive critical response
Folklore is receiving by far the most positive contemporary critical response of any of Swift’s albums to date (though her fourth album, Red, has been retrospectively hailed as a milestone in pop music). Four days after the album’s release, Folklore’s Metacritic score stood a full 10 points above that of Swift’s previously most acclaimed release, last year’s Lover. Enthusiastic critical reception is notable for Swift, as it was not even three years ago that her sixth album, Reputation, resulted in some of the harshest critical rebukes any mainstream artist has received in recent memory.
The sonic left turn
Throughout her nearly 15-year musical career, Swift’s style has transformed from country to pop, and Folklore is a quieter record than Swift’s listeners have heard from her in years. It lacks obvious radio hits and soaring pop songs meant to be sung among big crowds. Instead, as its album artwork suggests, it is a product of isolation (as is common during the COVID-19 pandemic). However, Swift enlisted remote songwriting collaboration, primarily from The National’s Aaron Dessner. Jack Antonoff, with whom Swift has worked since her 2015 fifth album 1989, also contributes songwriting and production.
The minor merch controversy
Alongside Folklore’s surprise release came new Taylor Swift merch, including sweaters and hoodies with an embroidered logo that says “the Folklore album.” A fashion brand with a similar name and logo expressed alarm at the situation, and after journalists contacted Swift’s representatives, the merchandise in question was removed and altered slightly to display a slightly different logo. Swift has yet to comment on the matter.
What do you think of Folklore? Sound off in the comments!