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by James Hawkridge

"We feel as she feels, we grow as she grows… and as she breaks, so do we."

“The first song I ever bought on iTunes was called ‘Love Story’. Curled up on my bed at a tender age, I’d watch the visuals (yes, I even bought the music video) on repeat before I went to sleep, enchanted by the theatrics of it all. That wistful allure, the idea anyone could have a fairytale-type love, resonated with me as a burgeoning little boy from a rural town; as someone on the cusp of something so much greater than himself, as little as he understood about what that was at the time”.

A relationship with a record exists between the artist and the listener. As my relationship with heartbreak progressed through puberty, it seemed, so did Taylors’- but isn’t that enticing promise in her human nature? We feel as she feels, we grow as she grows… and as she breaks, so do we.

Fearless spoke to me cover-to-cover. From shimmery the hope of ‘Love Story’ to the poignant symmetry between our lives in Fifteen, I was mesmerised. ‘White Horse’ mirrored my teen angst, as I ended a wilting relationship because the man I was seeing wasn’t ready to take the plunge to come out, as it were. ‘You Belong With Me’ & ‘Change’ fuelled my butterfly-inducing fantasies of university life, of dorm rooms and football games, with the ethereal sensation that one day these things will, well, change. The album would earn Taylor her first Album Of The Year Grammy, which she would later repeat with 1989.

Somehow even more spellbinding was Speak Now, as ‘The Story Of Us’ sparked concrete inspiration that a break-up novel is my primary goal in life. ‘Better Than Revenge’ became the confidence-booster I needed to put on my fake smile, and ultimately, was the catalyst for many-a bad decision in my youth. If someone like Taylor could be both the protagonist and antagonist, surely so could I? It was the first harkening of the reputation era, a promise that when the angel would inevitably fall, boy, would there be hell to pay. Still, in those solo moments under the starlight I’d press play on ‘Sparks Fly’, already picturing the day I could quit this horrid game and just be happy.

Red arrived and changed everything, my priorities changing with it. Although it took a while to adjust to ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, as I longed for the old Taylor – it was clear to me the beast within was rustling still, stirring with each fragmented breaking of the heart. With the rest of the world I mourned to ‘All Too Well’ (and cursed Jake Gyllenhaal), often attaching the lyrics to an Instagram photo I’d post. Daydreaming of what, way off into the future, would become my own version of the scarf – it’s a grey Adidas jumper by the way and you’ll be prying it out of my cold, dead hands.The resilient ‘Begin Again’… What is there to say that the song does not? “On a Wednesday, in a cafe, I watched it begin again”. Who could ever write more perfect yet simple lyrics? The juxtaposing admittance of defeat and new strength, an actualisation of the age-old “I lost the battle, but not the war”.

1989 coincided with a move to a big city. The new theatrical, snappy sound was difficult to adjust to from the orchards & pumpkin spice of Red, with ‘Out Of The Woods’ being perhaps the only release I engaged with easily. But once I heard the glitterball-melancholy of ‘Wildest Dreams’, rose-tinted blushing of ‘How You Get The Girl’, and disco-synth roar of ‘New Romantics’, the record soon became a staple and was up until folklore, what many considered to be her magnum opus. With Max Martin, Shellback, Jack Antonoff and Ryan Tedder at the helm, success was even more inevitable. As ‘Style’ soundtracked my evenings of recklessness ‘Clean’ would wash away the next morning; ‘All You Had To Do Was Stay’ pumped through my veins in perfect harmony with my blood on every daily run, inspiring just enough confidence to repeat the process over again. With 1989, Taylor had achieved legendary status, the pedestal reserved only for the greats, there was no higher she could go, which meant that it was time to fall.

We know this story all too well. As swift and assertive as her switch from country to pop was, the now-historic reputation era began to slither in. ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ exploded onto YouTube, a vicarious cocktail laced with warnings to enemies on all fronts. From pop stars to streaming companies, Swift was playing the big leagues, and cracks were inevitable. As deadly as it was catchy, the lead single and accompanying video quite literally ignited a re-birth of Taylor, one that included an entirely new direction of hostility, mystique, and revenge. It’s important to note that reputation contains some of her most progressive, and (subjectively) best work. From the volatile, gladiator-like intro of ‘…Ready For It?’ to the entirety of ‘I Did Something Bad’, a track of which only comes around once in a lifetime: a rising volcano threatening to blow at every line until the decimating rage of the chorus. Above all, reputation was a reclamation: of her voice, of her career, or her identity. It truly is the sonic embodiment of the phrase “If you’re going to go through Hell, you may as well reign over it, my dear”. Red has always been a colour she wore well, after all.

Which is, perhaps, what made Lover a little dull, through no fault of its own. Swift’s 7th studio album had the bad luck of the draw by following such a chaotic, lustrous and utterly tyrannous body of work. To contrast the vipers and lightning of reputation with the butterflies and hearts of Lover felt somewhat deflating. “We’ve come too far to return to just candyfloss and cake, surely?” Aside from the American Dream symbolism of ‘Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince’, a track surprisingly close to early works of Bon Jovi (‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, ‘Captain Crash & The Beauty Queen From Mars’), I haven’t found much to swing back to. The live version of ‘Cornelia Street’ haunts me, though, and I visit this frequently if only to reminisce of my own experience of lockdown. Thinking of Bond Street tucked away in Liverpool, U.K., of Cafe Tubac, and the best caramel latte you’ll ever have. I’ve spent a few nights teary-eyed in candlelight listening to ‘The Archers’’ rhetorical ‘who could ever leave me, darling, but who could stay?’, I’ll admit. Otherwise, there are days I forget that it exists.

And now, we come to folklore. A long road it’s been but my, has it paid off. Every ounce of courage, hurt, and recoil has been snared and drained from Taylor’s veins into a lengthy sixteen-track indie record that will always be much cooler than yours. A gift to fans old and new is my interpretation of the record. You can find whatever you’re looking for in folklore, be it the provocative longing of ‘betty’, or ‘this is me trying’’s lump-in-your-throat, arrow-to-your-heart honesty.

There was ample reason for Taylor to, again, disappear for a few months, quietly focus on other issues, or take well-needed time to chill amongst a global pandemic. But there exists the true tranquility experienced when you listen to folklore. It isn’t born of label execs fighting for power, forced record contract timelines, or fear of losing any kind of relevance; it’s a body of work crafted with love, out of pure passion, for those that need it. It exists to exist: because it should have, because it was always destined to. In a world of false gods, it’s nice to have a friend. And Taylor Swift will always be your best friend.

When an artist opens with “I’m doing good / I’m on some new shit”, you know you’re about to be changed forever. Opening track ‘the 1’ is the morning after ‘I Wish You Would’’s raging night; a love letter of endurance to ‘I Almost Do’’s struggle. Lead single ‘cardigan’ reads with impressive imagery to the masculine nostalgia of ‘All Too Well’’s late nights and running red lights in little town streets with lyrics such as “dancing in your Levis’, drunk under a streetlight”. The latter half of the song nods to earlier works full of hope: compare lines such as “and you’d be standing in my front porch light” to How You Get The Girl’s entire first verse, and ‘Stay, Stay Stay’’s “but you carry my groceries and now I’m always laughing” to “chasin’ shadows in the grocery line”. With ‘cardigan’, we start to realise that we’re coming full circle.

The stellar line “a friend to all is a friend to none” should be etched onto every billboard it can find, giving a harsh but necessary life lesson. It’s a touching lesson to a younger self, a message from someone who was there all along, if just a little hopeful and too full of belief for a world that at times can be so cruel, so unkind.

‘The last great american dynasty’ is a stand out from the first ten seconds. The story of Rebekah Harkness is one you’ll find told more consistently elsewhere on the internet; a good place to go once you’re finished here. What’s even more fascinating, though, is the embodiment of these qualities Taylor notes she has found, or rather noticed within herself after buying Holiday House, as the narrative switches from third to first-person. Not only a touching tribute and incredibly fitting posthumous gift for a lady who rests within an urn crafted by none other than Salvador Dali, the track harks back to the wistful determination of truest love amongst the loudest adversity. Critique from neighbours, class boundaries, etc are all distant memories for both ladies. While Rebekah’s journey may have come to an end in one way, essentially so has Taylor’s; with folklore, gone are the days of cheerleaders and classroom rivalry, and even much stronger, wealthier, and more recent enemies (who shall not be named here). All things come to pass, and sometimes our only option to make our peace is to hold the hands of our demons, to strip them of their power with acceptance of their existence that they might shrivel into a manageable size, or move on from us entirely.

‘Betty’ splashes back to the age of Fearless and of longing youth under a mature and developed lens. By entertaining one last dance with chapters of her life gone by, Swift self-actualises, and proves to us all (not that she by any means needed to) that she is ready for all that is next to come. Peace proves this further, admitting vulnerability in the one thing she is known for being such a voice of sapience on, love. By opening all of the doors and putting down all of the snakes, guns and armour, her last battle is not with outward enemies but those constructs within; the fragments of doubt, and the memories of the ones who put them there. “Robbers to the east, clowns to the west” strikes back to the fragile admittance of defeat within reputation’s ‘Call It What You Want’, wherein tyrants have seemingly won. That warrior-Taylor can still rise one more time, side-stepping any battlegrounds or petty fights, and leave an album full of breadcrumbs proving one ultimate truth – that she has truly found peace – is legendary. ‘Change’, ‘Long Live’ and ‘Blank Space’ all culminate here, at the end of all things where the fork in the road reunites, at the beginning of everything anew.

As I delve into the record time and time again in the immediate days and weeks after release, I’m drawn back to the tracks that are fast becoming favourites. But still, I know I’m within the realms of someday soon discovering that one track I overlooked has become the one I needed all along. With the ethereal, stripped-back, almost-nursery-rhyme loops of invisible string I wander with Taylor, lost, and yet simultaneously, dare I say it, finally out of the woods. ‘Mad woman’; clenches with docile ferocity, a scarlet-lettered admittance of wickedness that at the same time turns the mirror back; it’s a dictionary definition of gaslighting (“you poke that bear ‘till the claws come out, then you find something to wrap your noose around”), and a giant middle finger delivered in a most classy manner. It’s sheer admittance of defeat by being cheated by the rules resonates with anybody who has had a narrative forced upon them against their will; anyone who has been portrayed by someone as something, and then forced to live with the consequences of this newfound reality.

Folklore shattered streaming records, becoming the biggest first-day female debut of all time. For a ten times Grammy winner, you’d think this is just another notch on the achievement belt, but if you still think that outward accolades mean everything, you haven’t been paying attention. Folklore surpasses Red’s sublime songwriting, 1989’s sheer power and even reputation’s shock factor. All of Taylor’s life has led up until this release, and somehow, she has managed to use everything she has learnt, taught and undergone to emerge with perfect unison between her humanity and her artistry. The lessons she has taught us will echo through eternity, with her most accoladed days to come, I’m sure. As for what’s next, there’s only one question to be asked…are you ready for it?

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