On Authorship & the Creative Process: What 'folklore' is really about
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
The women of Taylor Swift’s latest album, folklore, are a handful. They “never leave well enough alone;” they “talk sh*t with [their] friends;” and they scream—a lot. In many ways, they defy the familiar tropes set forth for women. They are complicated, interesting, and have agency.
Yet from the outset—by titling the album folklore and a song “mad woman”—we must know that we are leaving the “real” world of complex women behind in order to confront the typical tropes created about women. We must grapple with them before we can defy them.
In the seminal book The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, authors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe the need to understand how women have been portrayed in literature through time in order to move forward with giving women the same complexity we afford men. The two authors show over and over again the ways that male authors have separated women into two categories: angels and monsters. Men, who used women characters as props in their stories to propel the male's maturity, did not see women as fully human as they.
Our understanding of gender is changing, and Gilbert and Gubar's defintions have been characterized as simplistic or outdated, but I believe these definitions stand because of the historical understanding of gender in the past, when these works were written. The book defined the now-ubiquitous idea of the madwoman in the attic, particularly as it pertains to literature. Gilbert and Gubar argue, “A woman writer must examine, assimilate, and transcend the extreme images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ which male authors have generated for her.”
While both angel and monster are limiting and harmful labels for women, Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that the angel was more harmful. The idea of a woman as perfect, silent, ideal—it keeps a woman from creating, because creation--of writing, of art--is necessarily a messy process.
The women of folklore, as I mentioned, tend toward monstrosity--toward loud and brash and unmannered. But first, we glimpse an angel, in the form of Betty. Betty is a character on the track "betty," and she is speculated to be the narrator of the song “cardigan,” one of the three songs Taylor called part of the “teenage love triangle.” Though Betty “felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed” and makes a brief reference to her “scars,” she is ultimately self-described as “Wendy” of the novel Peter Pan. Wendy is the angel, near-perfect--it’s Tinkerbell who is her foil, naughty and jealous.
Betty is also the innocent in the love triangle story, which describes a teenager named James who cheats on Betty all summer and then plans to return to her. In James’s narrative, the other girl was a temptation, but she didn’t mean anything. Betty is the good girl, the angel he truly wants.
Many people have pointed out that Betty was the nickname of Rebekah Harkness, who is referenced directly on the album through the song “the last great american dynasty.” The two, Rebekah and Betty, stand in contrast through these songs. Rebekah is the classic literary monster: she is loud, messy, and “mad,” “Pacing the rocks and staring out at the midnight sea.” She is casually accused of killing her husband. Taylor also tells us that she dyed the neighbor’s dog green (although, it turns out, in "real life" it was a cat, but that's what folklore does, is blends the line between fact and fiction).
There are two direct references to madness in “the last great american dynasty:” “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen,” and “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / Free of women with madness.” In case Rebekah’s behavior would lead us to believe otherwise, we can clearly see that she is deemed mad by the world. Madness, in this case, denotes erratic behavior (“hysteria”) and draws on the many historical uses of claims of “madness” to oppress women based on sex.
Based on that language, the track “mad woman” would seem to be a direct link to “last great american dynasty.” This is an all together different type of mad-ness—a seething anger—though there is a reference to wealth, “my cannons all firing at your yacht,” that serves as another link between Harkness’s story and the unnamed narrator of “mad woman.”
I do not want to assume that Taylor herself is the narrator of this song. Too often her artistic merit has been questioned on this basis. I accept Foucault’s explanation of “What Is an Author?” and still give Taylor the benefit of knowing that she does not always write autobiographically. Therefore, I won’t assume that “mad woman” is the perspective of Taylor herself, though it uses the first person.
Nor can we reasonably assume that the narrator is Rebekah Harkness. Likely, there is blending here, especially given the literary allusions evoked by the use of the word “madness.” Madness—both in terms of anger and in terms of mental illness—are linked in feminist theory and through literature. The primary example of the “mad woman” is the madwoman in the attic referenced by Gilbert and Gubar: Bertha of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Listeners have seen echoes of Jane Eyre in the song “seven” where the narrator encourages her friend to “pack your dolls and a sweater / we’ll move to India forever,” perhaps a nod to Jane’s (ultimately refused) invitation to go to India as a missionary.
In Jane Eyre, Jane is a complex character, though she is ultimately good. Bertha, however, is—without doubt—the story's monster. Gilbert and Gubar argue that with few examples of complex women in literature, women authors of the nineteenth century still relied on the tropes of monster and angel set forth by men for their own stories. Bertha sets fire to Rochester’s home, attempting to kill him. Interpretations of Bertha’s role in the story are numerous, but she has often been seen as the irrepressible drive to create, the very real woman that will simply not transform into the angel at her husband’s will.
On this side of the ocean, the seminal madwoman is the unnamed narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman. In this short story, a woman who has recently given birth is locked in the nursery with her new baby when her husband believes she is having a nervous breakdown. She expresses that writing would help her recover, and he denies her the tools to create. She comes to believe there is a woman living in the yellow wallpaper of the room, and eventually that she has released and become this woman, who crawls on all fours. Her descent into madness is a direct result of her confinement and her inability to write.
We are, of course, in a period of confinement. folklore was born of confinement, and so it bears these marks. The marks of a woman prowling around in a house in a patriarchal world. But there is something else, here, I want to explore: ideas about authorship and writing, both in the song “mad woman” and in folklore as a whole.
folklore extensively deals with treachery and adultery. “illicit affairs,” the teenage love triangle, and “mad woman” all discuss the negative effects of treacherous behavior. This theme, of course, can be taken at face value: Taylor writes often about relationships and the side effects of cheating from all sides. Yet in the past year she experienced a treachery perhaps deeper than any in a romance, when her songs were sold to Scooter Braun explicitly against her wishes. He holds hostage the music she spent most of her life making.
Others have pointed out that “my tears ricochet” seems to describe this treachery, and I embrace this theory. Though it could be interpreted as a relationship song, it seems to echo in tone the song "Breathe," written by Taylor and Colbie Caillat on the Fearless album, in that it describes a loss that sounds romantic though it was actually about a musical relationship and friendship.
"my tears ricochet" still seems to fit perfectly to Taylor’s relationship with leaving the team at Big Machine, whom she had worked with since she was a teenager and with whom the ties are now broken, though they still reap the benefits of her success. The song takes place at a wake, where the object of the song, "you," seems to simultaneously want her dead and to rise from the ashes. Some stones to throw at her and others to turn into diamonds. These metaphors relate to how the people who own her discography both wish her personal failure and financial success (they cannot have both--Taylor's brand is her very own self).
“If I’m dead to you then why are you at the wake? / Cursing my name / Wishing I’d stayed,” she sings, implying that they continue to wish for her success in music for their own gain, at her personal detriment. Taylor lost a large body of work, some of her most important work, in this transaction. The lyrics, "I can go anywhere I want / anywhere I want just not home," speak to her newfound musical freedom--and what she lost to get it.
As I said, I don’t want to get granular in the details of Taylor’s life. This is not about her personal experiences but rather to think about the greater metaphors about the creative process and the artist’s relationship to their work. Just as the works of Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, have been described as meta-commentaries about the acts of reading and writing, folklore has something to say about the acts of authorship, and its limitations under restraints, such as the ‘confinement’ of her work under a team that did not support her own artistic-becoming.
This brings me back to “mad woman.” The narrator of Perkins-Gilman’s story went mad when she was denied the tools to write. The mad woman who narrates the song on folklore asks, “What do you sing on your drive home?” a reference to music-making that seems to wonder if the object might even be listening this song.
“Do you see my face on the neighbor’s lawn? Does she smile? / Or does she mouth ‘f*ck you forever’?” she asks. The image of seeing someone’s face in the neighbor’s lawn would lead us to believe that the mad woman is either capable of some witchcraft or that this person’s conscience is eating them alive. Also, it’s creepy as hell.
The mad woman of the song is pure monstrosity: she has claws; she stings like a scorpion; she even breathes fire. But she is this way because she has been provoked. I am reminded here of Marmee's famous line in Little Women: "I am angry nearly every day of my life." Taylor was compared often to Jo March when the new Little Women film was released, based on the idea that both Jo and Taylor fought for ownership of their own work against a patriarchal system.
Further, in "mad woman," Taylor describes the acts of misogyny that are worse when brought on women by other women: “women like hunting witches too / doing your dirtiest work for you / it’s obvious that wanting me dead / has really brought you two together.” This woman-on-woman act is its own form of unique, dark treachery, a deepening of its central theme.
This is echoed in the final lines of the song, when she describes, “The master of spin / has a couple side flings / Good wives always know / she should be mad / should be scathing like me / but no one likes a mad woman.” Treachery again rears its head, and though the narrator cannot abide it, she also sympathizes with the "good" (angel, though a false one) wife who sees no other choice.
I could quote every line in this song, but I won’t—I will end here: “They say move on, but you know I won’t,” she says, because she cannot let anything go, like so many of the narrators on this album and in Taylor's discography in general-- "I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put 'em" is just one example among many, though I won't harken back to her revenge tracks like "Picture to Burn" or "Better Than Revenge."
In “ME!,” released April 2019, Taylor told us, “I know that I’m a handful, baby,” and “I never leave well enough alone.” It was impossible not to hear the echoes of this turn of phrase in the first track of the album, “the 1,” where the narrator says, “In my defense I have none / for never leaving well enough alone,” and “In my defense I have none / for digging up the grave another time.”
This person is clearly a grudge-holder (“cold was the steel of my ax to grind for the men who broke my heart” in “invisible string”) and so, based on Taylor’s past work, we could easily see this narrator as a Taylor-type, at insofar as Taylor has created this persona for herself in songwriting. Also, in “the 1,” she uses the political language “persist and resist,” which to me seems to imply a “nasty woman” and “still she persisted,” both political ideas about difficult women in the recent past.
Similarly, in “my tears ricochet,” the narrator (who is name- and genderless, but if we accept the interpretation of this song as about her loss of her music, then is Taylor-esque), “didn’t have it in myself to go with grace.” She simply could not keep quiet about the loss of something so important. Many, many other artists might have let their work slip away without a fight, but Taylor was outspoken and brazen on this point. This was a quality the other person had once admired in her: “Cause when I’d fight / you used to tell me I was brave,” she says. She contrasts her own graceless reactions with the calmness of others: in “my tears ricochet,” this is embodied in the line: “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace / and you’re the hero flying around saving face.”
“peace” is another example of this contrast: “Your integrity makes me seem small / You paint dreamscapes on the wall / I talk shit with my friends / It’s like I’m wasting your honor,” she writes, making the narrator flawed compared to some perfect person. In many ways, I see “peace” as the quintessential song on the album to deal with Taylor’s fame. The “robbers to the east / clowns to the West,” (credits to my cousin, Megan Long, who pointed out the capitalization of West in the lyric music video, which of course has its connotations, and we are still investigating) lyric is a clear reference to "Stuck in the Middle with You" ("Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right"), a song about the dismissiveness of a record executive at a cocktail party, reinforcing the idea that this album is about Taylor's difficulties in music. Further, “I could never give you peace,” suggest the turmoil of her life and evoke the hunting metaphor of “I Know Places.”
I do see “peace” as being a love song about her relationship with Joe, especially with the references to “ocean wave blues come” and “painting” and “give you a child.” That interpretation aside, the narrator tells us plainly that all the danger is not coming from the paparazzi or outside of the couple's control, it is within, and specifically, within her: “As long as danger is near / and it’s just around the corner, darling / ‘cause it lives in me,” and “the rain is always gonna come / if you’re standing with me.” She implies that the difficulty is her own fault and her own doing.
Creation of art is, by definition, a messy and difficult process. It requires a type of madness. Eons ago, in 2010, John Mayer said this of Taylor Swift: “You and me, we’re sort of like black swans. We’re so rare, and there’s not really any reasoning for it. There’s no therapy for songwriters. Songwriters go to therapy, and the therapist says, you got me, I’ve never heard of that. We go into rooms and we see things that aren’t there, and we balance that somehow with also being a normal person. Something I like to call, ‘Dear God, make me crazy enough to keep on dreaming, and normal enough to sleep once in a while.’”
As she tells us in the documentary Miss Americana, Taylor, for years, tried to be the angel. But songwriters cannot be angels. By definition, women who write are mad women—monstrosities. She steps into that, finally, without the tongue-in-cheek of “Blank Space” or the defiant ironies of reputation, on folklore.
The music video for “cardigan,” for example, shows Taylor playing at the piano. I agree with the interpretations of “cardigan” as one of the teenage love triangle songs, from Betty’s perspective, years later. Yet as Taylor crawls in and out of the piano, we come to understand that music is an entryway into magical places, places you could not otherwise visit, least of all in quarantine.
But creation is not always a walk in the lush forest. It forsakes her. She climbs through the piano and ends up in a rocky sea, in the rain—nearly lost. Still, what saves her? Coming back to the music. Returning to the piano. Putting her fingers back to the keys.
This is why, I believe, “hoax” is the final track on the album, as it sums up the theme of creation and authorship. Shortly after the album’s release, a friend noted that he thought “hoax” would speak directly to the ideas of conspiracy that are currently plaguing the country around the coronavirus. He was even disappointed that she did not address political issues head-on, that it seemed counterproductive to the persona she has been working to build as a politically-conscious artist.
Yet I think “hoax” is absolutely politically-conscious. We live in a country that puts a premium on art, that absorbs art and has relied on it more than ever during the pandemic. We’ve put pressure on artists to respond to the current moment, especially regarding politics and social justice. Yet we do not compensate artists fairly, least of all musicians, who are enchained to their music labels, as Taylor was, for so long. She was trapped in the attic, so to speak, with no way out.
For the past several years, Taylor has made it clear that she is working toward a singular goal in her musical legacy: to fight for artist's rights around ownership of their music. Taylor leaves nothing to chance, and she has been planting these seeds for as long as it was possible without risking her career. Yet, we have not, so far, seen this theme coming through in her songs--until now.
Music is Taylor’s life, her “only one,” her “best-laid plan.” “hoax” explores the way that the process forsakes her, over and over again. It’s a “winless fight,” driving her to the cliffs (the same cliffs that we see in “the last great american dynasty,” perhaps), to scream, “Give me a reason.” But in the end there is nothing more important than an artist’s relationship to the artistic process. Creativity is a thankless work, yet if you are undeniably an artist, it is all you have.
I am not assuming Taylor’s intention here. I want to be clear: I do not think/know/care if Taylor embedded this purposefully into the song. But I believe that it’s there, regardless of author intention. The creation of art is so often thankless. Return to the page, to the piano, to the canvas. No one will ever read it, hear it, see it. You’ve been burned again and again, and yet, the work is somehow all that remains, even after the madwoman has burned the house to the ground. She has come to find, with the creation of eight superb albums, that no amount of fame can fill you up, that no single song will take away the feeling that something is missing--yet the illusion that it can or will remains.“Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in,” she sings.
When all is stripped away and pared down, without the soaring choruses and key-change bridges of Taylor’s pop anthems, here is what we are left with: a mad woman, pacing the inside of her fancy house in quarantine, a woman who goes into rooms and sees things that aren’t there, an artist who cannot deny her desire to create: a songwriter.