Taylor Swift’s music is made for cars.
My earliest images of her are images of me in the backseat of my friend’s family SUV, hearing “Teardrops on My Guitar” for the first time. A couple years later, my mom and I exchanged grimaces in her minivan as a Brownie in my sister’s Girl Scout troop sang “Love Story” off-key while we drove an hour to visit a museum.
A few years later, I was riding around in a Land Rover with my high school friend, listening to Red’s title track with the windows down, scream-singing the lyrics about painful, passionate love without acknowledging that we were singing so loudly because we were feeling a different pain over the same boy.
And a few years later, on my first trip to my hometown since the coronavirus pandemic began, I glided down I-40 West in my Volkswagen Beetle, listening to folklore, thinking about how Taylor and I have both grown since we met at the trailhead of my adolescence.
When she came into my life, she was curly-haired, cowgirl-booted, ballgown-wearing 16-year-old Taylor Swift. I was long-eyebrowed, bug-eyed, T-shirt wearing nine-year-old Sara, fascinated by her teenage stories of heartbreak and heartbreakers offset by banjos and soft guitars. Taylor was like a friend’s older sister, explaining to me and the other rural Southern girls how things were and how things hurt and how to move on from that hurt.
This isn’t to say Taylor and I have always been on good terms. She was everyone’s older sister; even the girls that seemed to have it all loved her. So I succumbed to my desire to be different, even if it meant putting other women down. I wanted people, especially boys, to think I was different. I sang U2 songs and bought Mumford & Sons vinyls and fully immersed myself into the ultra-masculine “alternative rock” FM radio station that broadcasted from Greensboro.
But Taylor kept popping back in. She was still the default choice of my friends, who bought her albums and played her music in the car and recommended songs of hers for whatever ache or angst I was going through. Sometimes she and I fell in step, too. She sneered at the girls in short skirts and high heels on “You Belong With Me” and wrote a song about Joe Jonas’s former girlfriend Camilla Belle that mouthed “whore” from across the airwaves. Even when she was the popular girl I resented, she hated those girls too.
Taylor and I absorbed the misogyny we were placed in, where other women were our enemy and heterosexual relationships were the summit and the valley we had to trek. We both began to resent our upbringings on country lore and craved the things that represented what lay beyond in the cityscapes. While she opened 1989 with “Welcome to New York,” I accepted my admission to UNC and vowed that I would leave rural North Carolina behind.
But as time went on, I realized my veins extended into the Blue Ridge Mountains, and my teenage angst didn’t account for the ways the rural has been disenfranchised. On folklore, Taylor seems to be realizing that too.
In the music video for “You Need to Calm Down,” the second single from her 2019 record Lover, a kitschy-clad Taylor sings in a trailer park with recognizable LGBTQ names: the Queer Eye cast, Laverne Cox, RuPaul, etc. In the background, typical archetypes of rednecks hold misspelled signs and wear flannel and denim cutoffs and flash their missing teeth as they yell about the visibly queer people existing in their space.
The video was criticized for its depiction of “the enemy” as poor rural folk. The video did not talk about the lawmakers that were fueling hate and creating legislature that actively harms LGBTQ kids, especially in the South and Midwest.
Folklore, in a way, mends Taylor’s relationship with the rural.
Aside from the obvious album title, folklore’s lyrics and instrumentals are the closest she’s gotten to “country” since Red. In “cardigan,” she reminisces on a past that could be in any town, anywhere: “I knew you, dancing in your Levi’s, drunk under a streetlight.” Her duet with Bon Iver draws from the idea of “homeland,” a diversion from the larger-than-lifestyle she sang about on Reputation. Instead of the mainstream pop sound she’s been wading in since 1989, the production is focused on her voice and lyricism—something that plays to her strengths, but can make the album drag if you’re preoccupied on your first listen.
“Betty I won’t make assumptions about why you switched your homeroom, but I think it’s ‘cause of me,” she sings on Betty, written from the point of view of a 17-year-old boy who lost his love after cheating. For longtime listeners, it has a similar storyline to 2006’s “Should’ve Said No,” where an angry Swift tells the cheating boy she’s seeing that he should have thought about his actions before his “moment of weakness.” If that’s the case, it feels like the apology is finally accepted, now that time has allowed her to heal. (It’s also very easily a sapphic love story with the thin veil of a male name, but that is different discourse for a different day).
In “seven,” one of my personal favorites, her lyrics are strong in sound and content as she paints her childhood: “Feet in the swing over the creek, I was too scared to jump in. But I, I was high in the sky with Pennsylvania under me.”
She encapsulates a childhood friendship whose love won’t fade, even as the details do. She describes their time together with nature and whimsy, tying the two together with the phrase, “passed down like folk songs, our love lasts so long.”
The album feels like the first time Taylor and I have been in step in years. Both of us are done hating the world we grew up in. Instead of a tireless mission to reject the rural and the people who live there, we both are learning that completely rejecting your old life ignores the beauty there. Folklore takes Swift’s songs about love and brings them back to the world they were created in, a world lost in the woods and safe from the pain of our day-to-day.
Taylor Swift is a friend’s older sister, driving you around the backroads you’ve both broken in. And as we’ve gone through our separate lives, the things we’ve learned seem to always be the same.
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