The larger American monoculture was dying before COVID, make no mistake about that. Sure, several old world fixtures were holding it together: event television shows like the final season of GAME OF THRONES or STRANGER THINGS, sports moments like the Super Bowl, every subsequent Marvel release, each existing as largely accessible water cooler talking points amidst a disparate landscape of pop culture niches. By the end of 2019, sports and politics had slowly become seemingly the only universal language of any kind. And then COVID struck. Bernie dropped out, sports shut down, movie theaters boarded up, and the pandemic became the monoculture. And for a moment that was okay… in fact, it felt like a renaissance: FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS, ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS, TIGER KING, and THE LAST DANCE. But after the murder of George Floyd, each felt like distant relics of a pop culture moment that are hard to conceive now. Black Lives Matter, the federal occupation of Portland, and a long overdue larger social uprising in this country, coupled with a frustratingly uncontrolled virus, have become the only things that matter.
The Taylor Swift of today doesn’t have the power to change the desensitized, angry, disinterested masses—that she isn’t fueling them is what we could chalk up to a win for the up-until-recently notoriously apolitical artist. In the coming weeks, we’ll apparently see Kanye West and Beyoncé attempt to throw their own pop cultural weight around, each perhaps better equipped than Swift to actually land (good or bad) as a target of larger viral conversations. Even after the album dropped, Twitter was at far less of a fever pitch than it was this time last year when LOVER came around. As many a Tweet will tell you, the current moment has outgrown the need for celebrity, and what is Taylor Swift if not a celebrity first and an artist second? She proved that full well with the bloated, misguided REPUTATION and for all the good will that was earned back by LOVER (“Me!”, one of the worst songs of recent memory aside), the idea of a Taylor Swift album being released in the middle of 2020 rightfully gave a lot of people pause.
I’m not here to say the idea of Taylor Swift sucking up a lot of cultural energy isn’t bad, and certainly that’s going to be argued in the weeks to come (ignore that, the world has far more pressing things to focus on). It’s still a valid argument. But as it pertains to the album itself, FOLKLORE and its intentional ducking of traditional mainstream pop cultural ties make it a release worth investing in—no long album rollout, nothing resembling any kind of radio single, and who amongst us would have thought Aaron Dresser and Justin Vernon would be helping to produce a bona fide, isolated-in-the-woods pop album over a decade after their mainstay groups popularized the sound. Sure, the case will be made that Taylor Swift leaving her house is news, so the announcement of an album is something that will inevitably be moving the monoculture needle. But listening to FOLKLORE, it’s surprisingly straightforward; that the incredibly loose thesis of “Taylor Swift, The National, and Bon Iver walk into a (virtual) recording studio” makes consistent sonic sense when listening to it is kind of amazing given how often the music media loves blowing up, say, Father John Misty getting a writing credit for Beyoncé despite the lack of musical evidence.
From a pop culture sense, the music of FOLKLORE is remarkable because of its unremarkableness. Certainly this is the most consistently exciting production Swift has chosen to engage with in her career (the dream pop hum of “mirrorball,” The Cranberries’ slow-motion gallop on “august,” that harmonica on “betty,” everything about that Bon Iver collaboration), but there isn’t anything markedly showy about this music other than its notable indie leanings. The songs land because the collaborations are focused and tight. Jack Antonoff is at his most subtle and subdued, the mellow orchestration brings out a richness to Swift that behooves her often wordy pop stylings, and the album as a whole doesn’t have any moments to overthink its own premise, a feat which is kind of miraculous. It features consistent call backs, compelling instrumentation, and tracks that at moments defy any preconceived notions about Swift. It’s long, like most pop albums are these days, but arguably it gets away with its own bloat because the songs radiate a laxer vibe rather than her previous obvious pop filler. In short: It’s very good, and I say that as a fan of Swift and as someone who understands the larger criticisms of her.
And for all the things that make FOLKLORE utterly compelling, and there are a lot of things, they never quite feel like they amount to much more than cult status appreciation. This isn’t better than RED—although the Indieheads will perhaps argue that it is. And even if it is her second best album right now (which even after a few listens I feel like is a valid argument), it doesn’t cut to the Id of what makes Taylor Swift a pop cultural phenomenon at all; thus, there’s really little to make me think it will be held in that kind of esteem years down the line. It’s Neil Young’s TRANS. It’s Bob Dylan in the early ‘80s. It’s an experimental project by a massive star, a quarantine record that was bound to come out at some point. And that it feels like it can’t hold up to the inevitable weight of forces far larger than it (and rightfully so) make it all the better. Something is going to come and refocus our pop culture monolith, we’ve been in our houses and protesting in the streets too long to not feel unified Online by something. But it’s not Taylor Swift, and that’s a blessing for FOLKLORE.