Music is Poetry: Let’s Talk About “Folklore” (and Taylor Swift)
Music is poetry. Lyrics are poetry, that is. My musical tastes run the gambit, but tend to reflect this oft-forgotten fact.
Lyrical music is poetry. That’s the message I’d like you to remember, even if you take nothing else from this piece.
I listened to Taylor Swift’s new album “Folklore” when I heard it had come out and was pleasantly surprised by the indie folk sound she’d created. It felt to me like an album that could’ve come after her country material if she’d decided to move in the direction of folk instead of pop.
I wasn’t going to write anything about Taylor Swift or “Folklore” here on Voyage of the Mind, though, until I read a pretty scathing review of the album on The New York Times. A lot of the remarks the reviewer made struck me as rather unwarranted — and, overall, it seemed like picking a bone with the artist was more on his agenda than reviewing her work. You can read the review here if you feel so inclined. Anyway, after reading it, I thought I might as well come out in favor of “Folklore.”
The multi-genre artist in the digital age
It’s become increasingly difficult for artists to cross genres. A lot of this is due to pressure from production companies, who want to pin artists into comfortable genres where their fans belong. It’s similar in the literary world, where authors who want to publish seriously in multiple genres often use a different pen name for each genre, for the sake of the market. I thought that this discussion of multi-genre-ism in music was timely, given my piece on the evolution of writing projects and the multi-genre mind. Good art, in my opinion, evolves. That goes for literature and it goes for music and for visual art and everything in between. The fact that an artist can create in multiple genres for multiple audiences — or draw audiences across genres — is, for me, a credit to that artist’s versatility and intelligence. And I don’t think it’s worth saying that someone’s indie folk isn’t “indie folk enough.” It’s okay when music doesn’t fit into a clearly-defined genre, in my mind.
Indie folk and folk-rock are among my favorite genres. But like I said at the start, my taste really does run the gambit. I’ll listen to anything from Metallica to Enya to Beethoven to Michael Jackson to… So maybe I have bad taste. Or maybe I’m flexible. I’m picky about songs, though. I don’t listen to all of an artist’s music. Even if I like the artist, there are usually songs I don’t like on the album. I like a certain kind of sound and I like good lyrics. I need to connect to the melody. I like to sing along, too.
During my teenage years, I listened to a little bit of Taylor Swift — some of her old country stuff and some of her newer pop stuff, starting with the album “Red.” I liked some of her songs. Ones that stick out in my mind are “Begin Again,” “This Love,” and “Wildest Dreams.” From her most recent album (besides “Folklore”) I liked “Cornelia Street” and “Soon You’ll Get Better,” featuring the Chicks (who were back then still known as the Dixie Chicks). If you listen to all of those, you’ll realize that in terms of her music, I do prefer more atmospheric, folksy, country-inspired but not quite country numbers, which is perhaps why “Folklore” is the album for me, in terms of Taylor Swift.
I’ve always admired Taylor Swift’s lyrics.
Lyrics are tough. Music is poetry, remember? And, just like in many poems, there’s sometimes one line in a song that lets the whole thing down. Great music with words is about the conjunction of a great music and great lyrics. If a song has one or the other, I might listen to it a few times, but I’ll eventually relegate it to oblivion. On my Spotify “Liked Songs” list, I tend to collect the songs that have both great music and great lyrics. Those are the songs I can listen to over and over again. Of course, I may get tired of them and cut them from the list. That happens sometimes. For example, off the Taylor Swift album “Lover,” I initially liked the song “Paper Rings,” but ended up cutting it from the list. It happens in reverse, too. I initially didn’t like the title song, “Lover,” but ended up liking it in the end.
At the end of the day, I like a whole lot of Taylor Swift’s music because I like her lyrics. They’re poetic. They exemplify that statement: music is poetry. And she’s as much of a poet as any poet I know, myself included.
I find every song on “Folklore” listen-able, and I really like five of them.
They are, for the record:
1. “invisible string,” my personal favorite. I think it’s a song about serendipity. And it reminds me of finding out that my boyfriend’s family stops at the same restaurant on their way down to New York that my family stops at on their way down to New Jersey. Serendipity. Invisible string.
2. “epiphany.” A lot of people probably don’t like this one. But I’m a fan of Bon Iver, and this one is very Bon Iver-y — even more Bon Iver-y than “Exile,” which features Bon Iver himself!
3. “the 1.” It’s a nostalgic song. Thinking about what could’ve been. Who hasn’t been there?
4. “peace.” I relate to this one. It’s something like a poem I wrote, “The Dilemma.” The crux of the matter, in Taylor Swift’s lyrics: “would it be enough / if I can never give you peace?”
5. “illicit affairs.” I’ve never had an affair. But I imagine this is kind of what it would feel like to have one. “Raw” is one of the words that’s been used to describe this album, and that’s what this song is. Raw. I love the lyric “you taught me a secret language / I can’t speak with anyone else.”
Sixth place would go to “exile,” the song featuring Bon Iver. It’s a duet, and it may grow on me. I’m not sure yet. I also like the song “Betty,” which is reminiscent of the old Taylor Swift country songs, but tells a story from a perspective other than her own — something new for an artist whose songs have always felt very personal. Ditto to “the last great american dynasty.” Many of the songs on “Folklore” take on third-person narratives. Taylor Swift self-described the album as “a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness” during the COVID-19 quarantine. I totally get this. Some writers I know have complained about being unable to write during quarantine, but I’ve been more productive than ever, and it seems that I’ve found more sources of inspiration and reached outward during this time of inward-ness.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the other songs on this album. Most of the others are very atmospheric, with more emphasis on the background sound than the lyrics, which don’t feel fully-developed. But this is a quarantine album, produced during isolation, and it comes only eleven months after Taylor Swift’s last album. It’s okay, in my mind, that it has rough edges. Is real folklore clean? No. It’s kind of dirty and ragged sometimes, which is what makes it genuine. I like music like that. I like poetry like that. Music is poetry and poetry is music.
I hope you enjoyed this article! Thank you for giving it a read. This is the first time I’ve written in-depth about music. I grew up on a healthy diet of artists my parents enjoyed, from Weird Al Yankovic and They Might Be Giants to The Eagles and Simon and Garfunkel. I’ve also played the viola since the third grade. And I am, self-admittedly, an okay singer. At least I stay in tune! Let me know if you enjoyed reading what I have to say about music, and I’ll consider doing more.
And talk to me in the comments about why music is poetry and what songs you consider to be the most poetic of all time. I’d love to hear your voice!
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“Song for the Gallows,” a very short poem about crime and punishment.
“Like Butterflies,” a short philosophical poem exploring life and human mortality through a universal perspective.
“O Drums,” a lyrical poem in the form of a mantra featuring repetition and a message about love, self-reliance, and resilience.
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