Music

A Declaration of the Folklore Wars

Taylor Swift performs at Madison Square Garden in 2019. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)
Taylor Swift rallies youth against conservatism, while the media sing along.

You don’t have to know about Taylor Swift’s political statements; the petulance is right there in her latest product, Folklore. Likewise, you may not know that she has singlehandedly changed the meaning of the term “folklore.” The proof is in her statistics: Within four days of release, Swift’s Folklore racked up a record-breaking 80.6 million streams on Spotify, 25.5 million streams within 24 hours on Apple Music, and 1.3 million physical copies sold so far. These figures are too instantaneous to represent the traditional dictionary definition of “folklore” as the expression of everyday, communal rituals; instead, they confirm how Swift’s influence changes meaning by fiat.

Not only does Swift’s predictable tween market base fall for it, but, as usual, so do our consensus media, which dutifully follow marketplace trends to establish their values and assert their control of what used to be called the culture wars. Swift forces us to recognize another new term: the Folklore Wars.

Anyone who takes Swift to be merely insipid misses the proven fact that she is a pop-star demagogue selling an imbecilic moral message to a generation. And anyone puzzled by all the white kids heading the Black Lives/Antifa riots can find an explanation for it in this right-now phenomenon. Swift’s bubble-gum pop (CDB variety?) and simple-minded platitudes echo the same bland self-righteousness we hear from journalists who broadcast the latest PC buzzwords, bleating about “justice” and “peaceful protests” as if these were neutral terms.

A Taylor Swift love song such as “Invisible String” is not neutral but bratty in its bland self-glorification and self-pity. (“Bold was the waitress who told me I looked like an American singer.”) Her lyrics on this 16-track album are evidence of an education system that has dulled performers and their audiences. Swift chirps, “Isn’t it just so pretty to think there are some invisible strings tying you to me?” “Pretty,” a petty measure, voices self-satisfied inanity that is childish (formerly girlish). She marvels at the phenomena of love, existence, providence but just can’t find the right words. Such inarticulateness, not empathy, is what’s behind the nonwhite chanting by Black Lives/Antifa. Folklore is not a great personal album like Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses, but this substitution of facile emotion — shared by a mass demographic — for genuine thought represents a sea change.

This becomes clear in the dissent and disenchantment of Swift’s “Exile,” a duet with Bon Iver:

You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?
You were my town
Now I’m in exile, seein’ you out
So I’m leaving out the side door.

There’s no resolve in their girl-to-boy, youth-to-America argument, only peevishness; the political message confuses personal relationship with civil responsibility. Both are poorly stated. The song’s metaphor is scandalous for a former country performer, but it summarizes a vapid pop star’s limousine-socialist reasoning.

The old culture wars were fought by flattering one side against another, but the Folklore War is waged by one side’s ignoring the other — through the sense of superiority that the Left deploys against the Right, a superiority that Hollywood is really good at disguising. A Bob Dole conservative might be surprised that anodyne romanticism can be so threatening, but conservatives today had better beware of the dangers presented by the Folklore War and its deceptive consensus. Consider Folklore the 1619 Project of pop music.

In “Cardigan,” Swift writes a fan-base manifesto:

When you are young, they assume you know nothing
Sequin smile
Black lipstick
Sensual politics.

This incoherent nonsense isn’t exactly racial or erotic, merely the result of Lady Gaga distorting Warhol, William Burroughs, and Madonna. At age 30, Swift already sounds silly and tired. Yet she retreats into childishness like a diary entry where the small “i” is dotted with a heart or a flower.

Puerility is now the cultural standard. Swift’s canny career switch from countrified ambition to wealthy pop leaves her incapable of experiential songs such as Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ with Loving on Your Mind,” “Fist City,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man),” “As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone,” Swift lacks Lynn’s piquant vocal ability but offers a surfeit of smugness — another unreliable perversion of folklore.

Scholar William T. Lhamon has examined how “folklore” turned into “poplore,” but this was before the media machine (Swift’s production outfit is called Big Machine) warped the process. Swift’s disconnect from true folkloric tradition doesn’t take her audience into self-examination. Her success and relentless promotion by the media are part of Baby Boomer selfishness that produced a generation of overly pampered subliterate brats, the kind who use $600 iPhones at protest rallies and ride $2,000 bicycles and surfwheel-skateboards.

Swift is the ultimate example of what a critic back in the days of Village Voice riot-grrl pop criticism objected to as “the whiny white girl of song.” Every Taylor Swift release is celebrated as a national occasion, and when mainstream media celebrate her, they celebrate themselves and the bad taste, complacency, and absolute conformity that Swift would have you believe is our new folklore. A generation that no longer knows what civil rights or civil disobedience means is proof of the gap between self-regard and self-awareness. Folklore gives folklore a bad name.

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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