I’ve never really liked Taylor Swift. With a music taste such as mine – one which involves an eclectic mix of Hozier and Rufus Wainwright with the occasional dash of Tom Rosenthal, and is almost worryingly centred on good old emotional male vocals with acoustic backing – she’s never really appealed to me. Until folklore. And now, I’m unashamedly hooked.
So, since the majority of us seem to be unreasonably emotionally-attached to at least one of the songs on this tour-de-force of an album, I thought we could have a leisurely listen together. Your to-do list? Get a good pair of headphones, sit by a suitably gaze-out-able window, and be prepared to get a bit deep with me.
For each song, I’ve included a key lyric, my personal ranking, and the ranking of St Polldrews (a university Facebook group dedicated to polls).
‘But it would’ve been fun / If you would’ve been the one’
Polldrews Ranking: 6/16 (35 votes)
My Ranking: 3/16
Aaron Dessner, of The National fame, who co-wrote the majority of this album, has stated that this song, along with ‘hoax’, was one of the last to be put together, and that these two originally weren’t meant to be on the album. Luckily for us, though, ‘the 1’ did see the light of day, and it is truly a beautiful experience. The soundtrack of the possibilities of a love that wasn’t meant to be, we get the classic Swift staple of longing wrapped in a beautiful new package of strings and piano.
‘And when I felt like I was an old cardigan / Under someone’s bed / You put me on and said I was your favourite.’
Polldrews Ranking: 5/16 (35 votes)
My Ranking: 13/16
The first song written for the record, this song taps again into past regrets and relationships, but in a far more self-aware sense than I’ve ever experienced from Swift. Exploring her lower register, she delves into the experiences of one of three fictional characters in her trilogy within the album which she called the ‘Teenage Love Triangle’ (continued in august and betty), and again dabbles with the idea of ‘what-ifs’. As before, she seems concerned with what could have happened in our lives if just one thing, one person, was ever-so-slightly changed – something I think many of us have found ourselves exploring during prolonged isolation.
An Interlude: The Teenage Love Triangle
As a small break before we dive into more of this album, I feel it’s necessary to explain what Swift’s ‘Teenage Love Triangle’ is, exactly.
Within this album, we have the intertwined stories of three teenagers: James, Betty, and another girl. James and Betty were together, but James then cheated on Betty with the second girl. From this story arc, we have cardigan, written from Betty’s perspective; august, written from the second girl’s perspective, and the lovely betty, written from the perspective of James as a love song to his now ex-girlfriend.
Now, since Swift’s sexuality has been speculated about for years now, and many suspect that she came out as bisexual in her music video for You Need To Calm Down (there was a lot of pink, purple and blue), I will entertain the idea that has been circulating that James might be a girl, and, further, might be Taylor herself, since she was reportedly named after James Taylor. Take that as you will.
the last great american dynasty
‘Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / And then it was bought by me.’
Polldrews Ranking: 3/16 (50 votes)
My Ranking: 11/16
This song, more explicitly autobiographical than the others on the album, explores the life of Rebekah Harkness (known as Betty – perhaps another Easter Egg?). Married to the heir of the Standard Oil fortune, Betty was known for throwing outrageous parties and not quite fitting in, and her life centred around the house she bought on Rhode Island at the top of a cliff. Years after her death, Taylor Swift bought that house. With stripped-back vocals and instrumentalisation – far from the occasionally overproduced music we used to get from her – Taylor tears through boundaries to explore the transgressive woman in a fashion similar to that of Blank Space, capturing the element of hearsay that we tend to find in folklore – ‘they said’, ‘they said’, ‘they said’.
exile (feat. Bon Iver)
‘You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out.’
Polldrews Ranking: 1/16 (66 votes)
My Ranking: 1/16
In this track, Swift goes back to what she is popularly known for – the break-up song – but she does so in such a beautiful and acoustic manner that it almost feels out-of-place in her discography, but perfectly positioned in this wonderful album. Bon Iver’s deep and warm voice compliments a new, darker lyric tone from Taylor, as they sing of the displacement that comes from the break-up of a long relationship in perfect metaphor. The equation of relationship breakdown with exile is absolute genius, and I’m glad to see that myself and Polldrews agree on this being the standout track of the album.
my tears ricochet
‘And I can go anywhere I want / Anywhere I want, just not home / And you can aim for my heart, go for blood / But you would still miss me in your bones.’
Polldrews Ranking: 11/16 (22 votes)
My Ranking: 9/16
On Instagram, Taylor shared that this song is about an ‘embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession’ – and many fans have been quick to point out that perhaps this means the song is about her old producers, Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun. The imagery of a funeral weaves in nicely with the marketing of Look What You Made Me Do, as Swift proclaims the old Taylor ‘dead’ – and the turning point that this album appears to present seems to illustrate this. In her typical style, she takes responsibility for her own failings – ‘I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace’ – in a beautiful and emotional tone, laying bare personal conflict through masterful lyrics and soft instrumental.
‘I want you to know / I’m a mirrorball / I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight.’
Polldrews Ranking: 14/16 (12 votes)
My Ranking: 8/16
Perfectly fitting Dessner’s description as a ‘hazy sort of beautiful’, Swift exposes deep insecurities rooted within her with this song. She compares herself to a disco ball, revealing herself as one who reflects others’ personalities, and entertains people, but shatters when her heart is broken. Perhaps this reflects a lack of connection to herself – perhaps she is exposing the pain of being a figure only meant to entertain, not allowed a personality that isn’t manufactured by those around her. And this song, although relatively underrated, holds an extremely important message – fame does not make you immune to imposter syndrome, or anxieties, or any of the things many of us battle on a daily basis. As in this whole album, there is no pretense here – we see Swift more human than I think we have ever seen her in her music.
‘And though I can’t recall your face / I still got love for you.’
Polldrews Ranking: 9/16 (26 votes)
My Ranking: 14/16
Another more autobiographical song, this song was written about one of Swift’s childhood friends with an unhappy home-life. With soft references to childhood rituals and dreams, she reflects in a simple style on her naivety as a child, illustrated by the thin quality to the long held notes we have in this song from the very start. This song has been criminally underrated, in my opinion – take another listen!
‘August sipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine.’
Polldrews Ranking: 4/16 (35 votes)
My Ranking: 15/16
august features as the second part of the ‘Teenage Love Triangle’, describing the failure of the summer romance / affair between James and the unnamed girl. Swift explores the often-unseen perspective of the ‘other woman’, showing a deep love for James still existent despite the circumstances of their fling. With beautiful interludes from strings, this feels like a slide back to Taylor’s old, pre-pop sound; a little bit of country, with the rise and fall that makes a successful pop record.
this is me trying
‘And it’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound / It’s hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you.’
Polldrews Ranking: 8/16 (26 votes)
My Ranking: 6/16
Here, we have Swift again accepting that she is partly to blame for various relationship issues that she has had and currently does have, and trying to repair them. This is a musical expression of humility and of the necessity to admit your own faults – and, again, is terribly underrated as a song. Taylor very much lays herself bare in the minimalistic vocals and instrumentation of this track, and it works undeniably well.
‘It’s born from just one single glance / But it dies and it dies and it dies / A million little times.’
Polldrews Ranking: 10/16 (25 votes)
My Ranking: 5/16
One thing that this album does is recognise the nuanced nature of human relationships and emotions – and this song does that with Swift’s view of infidelity. She has come of age from a blanket condemnation of cheating to a more sympathetic view, recognising that there is some form of love within these relationships as much as pain – and that pain is simply soul-shattering. Swift explores the love that would bring you to destroy everything about yourself for that one person, and this is perfectly summed up in her parting remarks in her soft, folk-style tone: ‘For you, I would ruin myself / A million little times.’
‘And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?’
Polldrews Ranking: 7/16 (35 votes)
My Ranking: 2/16
This song is quite possibly one of the most beautiful love songs that Taylor Swift has ever written – in my opinion, but that’s really what you’re here for, isn’t it? Referencing a Japanese myth about red thread tying soulmates together, she sings of how all of her past mistakes in love and life have led up to her now (hopefully) permanent relationship with Joe Alwyn, and expresses her thanks for them (as she says, ‘Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven’). The imagery is perfect, the colours are beautiful, and the sentiment is simply gorgeous – and Swift’s voice wraps it all up in a pretty package.
‘What a shame she went mad / You made her like that.’
Polldrews Ranking: 13/16 (14 votes)
My Ranking: 12/16
As in the last great american dynasty, Swift here explores the transgressive woman, and how she is demonised to suit societal narratives. The first time I heard this song, I found myself thinking of Medea – because, of course, I’m a typical classicist – but this really can be applied to any transgressive women in the whole of history and literature. Of course, Swift has suffered from this kind of labelling herself, with various content creators on platforms such as YouTube labelling her the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ for much of her career due to her multiple break-up songs. The gentle nature of the instrumentation imbues the song with a new kind of power in softness – because we don’t need a punchy backing track and snappy vocals to get back at those who wrong us.
‘Just one single glimpse of relief / To make some sense of what you’ve seen.’
Polldrews Ranking: 16/16 (7 votes)
My Ranking: 16/16
Swift has explained that this song looks at her grandfather’s military experience, and there is certainly a vein of militaristic imagery throughout the lyrics, but a much wider reading suits our current context. In epiphany, we have an exploration of the search for peace within a world of pain and chaos, and the simplicity of the lyricism and instrumentation only provides that. In our world, devastated by Covid-19, militarism, violence and division, there needs to be something to help us find our quiet – and this is exactly what Swift seeks.
‘I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you.’
Polldrews Ranking: 2/16 (57 votes)
My Ranking: 4/16
In the final part of the ‘Teenage Love Triangle’, we finally have a resolution – James’ apology to Betty. While it harks back to Taylor’s earlier music such as Fearless, there is a marked change here, as a more feminist vein lies beneath the text. James is a person who quite simply refuses to realise his or her (James’ gender is never stated) mistakes, while Betty is shown to be recognising that she is better off alone. Swift gives her old sound a new feeling behind it, and it works remarkably well, making this a fan favourite.
‘All these people think love’s for show / But I would die for you in secret.’
Polldrews Ranking: 12/16 (15 votes)
My Ranking: 7/16
Within this song, we are again shown a more mature version of Taylor Swift, where as in this is me trying she comes to admit her own flaws in terms of relationships, but hopes that, despite them her partner will stay with her. The soft guitar backing intertwines beautifully with Swift’s vocals, creating a piece reminiscent of the peace that comes with a relationship where the two truly understand each other. Again, criminally underrated by Polldrews.
‘Don’t want no other shade of blue but you / No other sadness in the world would do.’
Polldrews Ranking: 15/16 (8 votes)
My Ranking: 10/16
Describing a toxic relationship, hoax tells of the struggle to let go of a loved one who is ultimately a damaging influence upon yourself. Swift’s vocals, imbued with deep emotional feeling, serve as a fitting end to this album. To think that it wasn’t originally included!
And here we are, at the end of the album. It really is an emotional whirlwind, don’t you think?
So, to finish us off, I present to you the overall rankings of this article – a mixture of both Polldrews’ opinions and my own.
- exile (feat. Bon Iver)
- betty & invisible string (joint)
- the 1
- illicit affairs
- the last great american dynasty
- this is me trying
- peace & my tears ricochet (joint)
- august & mirrorball (joint)
- seven & mad woman (joint)
Now, how about another listen?