(July 27, 2020). As with any new Taylor Swift album release, critics and fans alike have been dissecting her new folklore album like an experimental frog in a high school biology class.
And, in this case, it seems appropriate as folklore is about the most experimental project T. Swizzle has released yet…arguably as much of a career stretch as when she left country music behind some six years and three albums ago, to go pop.
Now, an artist who was once country, then went pop-country, and later straight-up pop has turned pop-folk…or just downright folk (except for the use of some heavy drum machine and other non-folksy instruments in several of folklore’s sixteen tracks). Note: Joni Mitchell and Phoebe Snow – 1970s pop-folk artists to whom Taylor is now being compared, rightly or wrongly – never used drum machines in their songs.
Then again, they never had to record an album while quarantined during a deadly virus pandemic either, but I digress.
While some of the album’s most zealous critics disagree on folklore – the majority call it her best, most introspective and personal album yet containing the kind of detail and vivid imagery in storytelling that only Swift can create, while a bold minority (or one reviewer that this blog found) referred to it as dull and listless and a “monotonous lump” of soundalike songs that barely merit a pulse – one thing they all agree on is the notion that the album is decidedly non-radio friendly.
And there begins the slate of ironies associated with what will easily be the biggest-selling album of 2020, sans radio’s support – and it’ll probably attain that status by the time you’re done reading this!
Aside from the notion that an album full of songs that – according to the experts – warrant very little radio airplay will be the year’s best-seller, is the fact that folklore happens to be by the most successful singer/songwriter of the past decade – an artist whose new material once dominated terrestrial radio playlists.
Staying on the airplay theme for a moment, this irony becomes even greater when you compare Taylor’s new music to, say, the songs that are considered radio-friendly these days, including the current No. 1 Hot 100 tune by rappers DaBaby and Roddy Ricch, whose hip-hop anthem “ROCKSTAR” was the third-most heard song at non-subscription radio during the past week.
None of this means that people aren’t interested in the forlorn folklore or its sixteen tracks filled with pastoral musical arrangements and lyrics about love, loss, and, at times, neatly disguised anger. To the contrary, after the first full day of release, the sixteen songs on folklore were all listed among Spotify’s 23 most-streamed tracks, with the highest among them – first single “cardigan” – registering more than 7.7 million streams on that platform alone.
The lowest ranked, by the way, was the album’s closer, “hoax,” at No. 23 with just over three million first-day streams on Spotify. (Does anyone else also see the irony in the fact that a song called “hoax” is receiving the fewest streams on an album recorded during a pandemic that was initially labeled as such by this nation’s president? But I digress again).
In total, across all platforms, folklore reportedly registered a record-breaking 80.6 million first-day streams – the most for a female artist to date.
So much for radio’s acceptance.
While the streaming and traditional sales numbers bode extremely well for folklore’s debut week – it is guaranteed a spot at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 next week, becoming Taylor’s seventh – they also tell a different story and illustrate yet another notable irony.
The songs are streaming pretty much in the order in which they’re sequenced on the album, with the earliest tracks being streamed the most and the later ones being streamed the least. This may be typical of superstar releases – particularly surprise ones with no advance lead single to promote them – but it also lends itself to that one critic’s “monotonous lump” theory suggesting that there are no true standout tracks on folklore.
None of the songs deviated in their first-day Spotify rank by more than one position from their album sequence number. First single (and second track) “cardigan,” for which a video was released the same day as the album, naturally ranked first in streams (and still does after Day 3), but only led the song that precedes it on the album – opening track “the 1” – by just over 300,000 first-day Spotify streams.
Only “exile,” the stellar duet (and this blogger’s personal fave) with Bon Iver (i.e., Justin Vernon), shows any promise of becoming a runaway hit as it was streamed over a million times more than the track that immediately precedes it on the album, “the last great american dynasty.” This suggests that people tended to either skip over “dynasty” to go to “exile” or they played “exile” on repeat more than its predecessor. (Note: after three days, “exile” is now ranked second only to “cardigan” – the latter being a tune in which Taylor likens herself to a lover’s old favorite sweater pulled from under his bed, in case you’re a non-Swiftie who hasn’t yet been enlightened to Taylor’s penchant for very specific and metaphorical imagery).
In other words, if Taylor’s folklore were metaphorically likened to the three phases of a typical house party – people came for the “awkward entrance” that is “the 1,” “cardigan” and “the last great american dynasty”; most stayed through the “drunken conversation” that includes the album’s middle tracks from “exile” through “mad woman”; but many listeners left before the “clumsy exit” that would have been “peace” and “hoax.”
Speaking of the songs themselves, any new Taylor Swift album is always a news event, and nowhere is that shown more to be true than in the fact that many of the album’s tracks have had whole articles written about them, with journalists analyzing and speculating about their subject matter, their inspiration and/or their origin and production.
Among many others, writers have devoted whole article reviews to “exile” and to “mad woman,” the latter containing the latest shots fired at Taylor’s former manager and current holder of her first six albums‘ masters, Scooter Braun (this is becoming a recurring theme for Taylor that perhaps lacks any irony or nuance).
Writers have also analyzed “cardigan” (where Taylor weaves her experiences with feminist politics into the song but, more importantly, she‘s reportedly given away several cardigan sweaters, including one to Natalia Bryant – the late Kobe Bryant’s daughter).
Another interesting track is “betty,” the song receiving perhaps the most fan and writer speculation about its part in a three-song love trilogy with “cardigan” and eighth track “august,” as well as its connection to Taylor pals Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ 1-year-old child whose name has been undisclosed, but is presumably Betty.
There are even articles breaking down all the historical references in “the last great american dynasty,” the album’s third track where Taylor sings about Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harness (it may also be the only time you ever hear the word “gauche” used in a pop song).
It’s this kind of interest in the songs on folklore that bring up another irony and likelihood: Grammy love.
I know it’s too early to speculate (actually, it’s not), but Taylor’s so-called “indie album” is an instant Album of the Year candidate for the next Grammys, one which probably lays waste to any hopes that some of 2020’s earlier commercial successes by Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, Harry Styles, Dua Lipa or Juice WRLD had of actually winning the award.
The irony here is that folklore is a decidedly “non-commercial” album that will likely return Taylor to the biggest album category field, a place she hasn’t been since 2014’s 1989, the pop genre debut for which she last won the award.
But a Best Album Grammy win for folklore, especially in a field that includes albums by top-of-their-game hip-hop stars like Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch and the late Juice WRLD (and maybe even Drake if rumors of a new one by him are true), would raise yet another irony: Taylor, who’s made her unequivocal support for Black Lives Matter very clear, would be unwittingly reigniting the claims of racial bias at the Grammys (made by P. Diddy and others earlier this year) by winning against a field of hip-hop albums by black artists. Diddy claimed in February that hip-hop albums and black artists in general get very little Grammy love in the categories that matter.
If all of this plays out, and it likely will (I’m already calling it), folklore would be Taylor’s third Album of the Year Grammy, which would be one more win than hip-hop as a genre has had in its entire existence (Lauryn Hill and OutKast are the only two rap acts to win the award). If ever there was a year that another hip-hop album had a chance at the top Grammy honor, it might have been this one.
And this brings me to the penultimate irony covered here, one involving Taylor’s musical arch-nemesis Kanye West, the superstar rapper-turned-politician whose disdain with Taylor’s earlier award-winning ways has forever linked the two artists.
It’s ironic that a week in which West made his greatest announcement – that of his U.S. presidential bid, where he gave an emotional speech about abortion at a rally and later raised speculation and awareness about his struggles with bipolar disorder – culminated with Taylor Swift’s own (arguably) greatest release, an album of understated folk tunes that quietly but assuredly placed her right back atop the entertainment news cycle and, ultimately, the charts.
It’s an irony (and a slap down, intentional or not) cemented in the fact that folklore reportedly sold more than 1.3 million equivalent album units globally in its first day alone – numbers not seen at all in 2020.
And all of this is happening just eleven months after the release of Lover, Taylor’s ambitiously pop-oriented seventh album whose underperforming singles contributed to it being the lowest-selling album of her career so far.
After the fizzled-out performance of that album’s last single and video (“The Man”) just a few months ago, plus a tour that never materialized due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Taylor smartly pulled the plug on the Lover era before its time would have naturally ended and went back to the drawing board.
Then, while in reported isolation amid the backdrop of a deadly health crisis caused by that unrelenting pandemic, she went and created what may be her greatest artistic accomplishment yet.
Oh, and this blog hasn’t lost sight of the fact that, with just four more albums, which at the current rate could happen as early as spring 2024, Taylor would have as many albums post-Big Machine and Scooter Braun as she did with them.
Oh, the irony.
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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