Photo: Beth Garrabrant / Courtesy of Republic Records

Taylor Swift’s Pandemic Redemption

Taylor Swift responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with an album uniquely suited for it: contemplative, low-fi, acoustic songs perfect for isolation.

A lot has been said about narratives during Taylor Swift’s career. In her response to Kim Kardashian leaking a recorded phone call between Swift and Kanye West in 2016, Swift wrote, “I would like to be excluded from this narrative.” She later parodied that pointed response in her “Look What You Made Me Do” music video. However, self-parody aside, Swift’s utterance about narratives predicted how she would rise from the ashes of this public relations debacle. 

Every successful artist has a peak of cultural relevancy. Usually, an album encapsulates this peak because it represents what an artist offers our culture. Some albums have artistic, but not cultural, merit. Swift has made some albums that have both, and some that only have one or the other. With folklore (2020) and evermore (2020), she has achieved both.

Grammy nominations generally serve as a barometer for mainstream cultural relevancy. Although the Recording Academy occasionally gives the nod to a critically acclaimed record, most of the time, commercial success is a prerequisite for nomination. That’s why Lana Del Rey’s Paradise (2012), a deluxe edition of her bestselling debut Born to Die (2011), was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album, while her acclaimed follow-up, Ultraviolence (2014), was snubbed.  

The Recording Academy has nominated four of Taylor Swift’s albums for Album of the Year (Fearless in 2010, Red in 2014, 1989 in 2016, and folklore in 2021). This nod signifies the cultural relevancy of these records (Fearless, 1989, and folklore both won). However, it’s worth asking if the cultural relevancy of these albums determined their commercial success, or did their predisposition for commercial success (because of their pop tendencies) destine them for Grammy nomination?

On folklore, however, Swift departed from pop. The pandemic enabled this. By creating an album in response to the pandemic, Swift made something uniquely suited for it: contemplative, low-fi, acoustic songs perfect for isolation. Although many club-ready albums still succeeded during the pandemic, such as Dua Lipa‘s Future Nostalgia (2020) and Lady Gaga‘s Chromatica (2020), they yielded some of the spotlights to Swift. Swift’s flexibility as an artist enabled her to dominate the conversation in an unconventional year.

Many critics argue that folklore and evermore represent Swift’s truest artistic incarnation. Both albums feature acoustic arrangements in quantity not seen since her country albums, alongside the heightened, detailed-oriented storytelling she strayed from with 1989. The question is: would Swift have achieved the cultural relevancy of 1989 again had she stayed a pop artist in a non-pandemic world? 

The answer: possibly. reputation (2017) and Lover (2019) succeeded commercially but failed to dominate the cultural conversation. Was it because of residual fallout from Swift’s 2016 debacle? Either way, Swift was not going to stop making music. It was only a matter of time before she would find a way to become relevant again. 

To become culturally relevant over time, you have to reinvent yourself. You have to offer something new. A compelling statement does not involve taking a new angle on an existing persona. It’s about taking a new angle on a culture that hopefully relates to your persona.

Celebrities are bodies onto whom we as a culture project our fantasies, our fears, and our dreams. Taylor Swift is famous because she is good at letting us project different ideas onto her.

Constance Grady, Vox

In other words, fans don’t like or hate celebrities as people. They like or hate them as cultural stand-ins, meaning they really like or hate their culture or themselves. There’s no way fans could hate celebrities as people — they don’t know them. When Swift realized this, she could manipulate fans all the better, because she stopped taking what they say personally. Hey- didn’t she write a song about that?

When Taylor Swift was “canceled” in 2016, she reached the real peak of her cultural relevancy. She gave people the juiciest gossip of all: not celebrity gossip in the form of confessional songs, but her own downfall. 

When Swift rebelled against the Nashville establishment and went full pop with 1989, she chased something that men traditionally pursued (money, power, glory) and transcended what the patriarchy expected her to be content with (emotional validation). There was an element of How dare she? to her pop transition. But country music had been so good to her! 

If 1989 had flopped, people would have moved on. That’ll show her. But when the album succeeded, as it inevitably would, fans had to contend with the fact that a girl had shown she could not only want but achieve, the things men traditionally want and achieve. So, of course, it was time to cancel her.

Swift was canceled for a host of reasons: clear racial bias, cultural insensitivity…but sexism played a role as well. Aside from her music’s suitability to the present moment, Swift is compelling in 2021 because she is post-sexist. She has embraced the disillusionment and cynicism of living in a patriarchal society as a non-male. (Following the example of peer Lana Del Rey.) 

Swift has amended what people criticized about her — she’s not a “good girl” anymore. Swift curses in her music now, although I suppose that’s the not biggest change. But it represents how she no longer strives for the pretense of perfection.

Being a good girl was a privilege, but also a role society expected Swift to fill. By attempting to live up to that expectation, Swift faced backlash because society didn’t want to face the conformist, high-achieving monster it had created. She got punished for playing by the rules. If you come back from that, you will surely be folklore one day.

Works Cited

Ahlgrim, Callie, and Courteney Larocca. “Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore‘ Might Be the Best Album of Her Entire Career”. Insider. 30 October 2020.

Bell, Caroline. “Taylor Swift Just Got Vulnerable About Being ‘Canceled’ After The Kim Kardashian Feud”. StyleCaster. 6 Octobet 2019.

Breihan, Tom. “Arcade Fire Win the Album of the Year Grammy”. Pitchfork. 2 June 2017.

Caramanica, Jon. “Taylor Swift, a Pop Star Done With Pop.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/26/arts/music/taylor-swift-folklore-review.html

Geffen, Sasha. “Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence: Album Review”. Consequence. 7 November 2019.

Grady, Constance. “How the Taylor Swift-Kanye West VMAs Scandal Became a Perfect American Morality Tale”. Vox. 26 August 2019.

Kornhaber, Spencer. “The Importance of Partying Alone.” The Atlantic. 1 April 2020.

Nugent, Annabel. “Taylor Swift Says It Felt ‘f***Ing Fantastic’ to Use Explicit Lyrics on Folklore.. The Independent. 9 December 2020.

Ramirez, Erika. “Earl Sweatshirt: Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ Video Is ‘Inherently Offensive and Ultimately Harmful’”. Billboard. 19 August 2014.

Rolli, Bryan. “Why Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover‘ Will Outsell ‘Reputation’ In The End”. Forbes. Forbes Magazine. 29 August 2019.

Sheffield, Rob. “Taylor Swift Leaves Her Comfort Zones Behind on the Head-Spinning, Heartbreaking ‘Folklore’”. Rolling Stone. 24 July 2020.

Zimmerman, Amy. “Taylor Swift’s Spineless Feminism”. The Daily Beast. 23 January 2017.