St. Louisans may remember a brand of beer that came out of the Busch family a decade ago called Kräftig. A younger Busch upstart saw the writing on the wall of the craft brewing revolution that was reaching its height around that time, and endeavored to release a beer sold under a new name that not so subtly included the word “craft” in the title.
This wasn’t anything new in the marketing world, it was just good-ole prestige branding. Though it was part of a newer lineage—a relatively new kind of DIY-flavored “rustic-prestige” that has blossomed over the past 20 years. The sheer volume of buzzwords that have proliferated since (boutique, bespoke, hand-crafted, small batch, provisions) to confer a homespun legitimacy upon consumer goods have popped up faster than you can say “beard-wax.” If reviving the old “slow” ways was meant as a direct challenge to the manufacturing and advertising monsters of the ‘90s, like all economic rebellions, the old ways have been assimilated by degrees into the regular vocabulary of popular advertisement. This is simply their lifecycle.
Enter Taylor Swift’s Folklore.
Released in late July 2020, Folklore’s popularity has grown over the past several months to inescapable magnitude. It has appeared on most of the best albums lists, even topping Rolling Stone’s best albums of 2020. I listened to it. Much of it. I had to know. I’m not much of a Taylor Swift fan. Big surprise, right? Her status as a blockbuster artist isn’t surprising. Her appeal to many critics, a little more so. But Folklore’s critical allure isn’t quite the poptimism that has sustained her thus far into the death-cycle of the record industry and print journalism. Folklore is rebranding for an arenas-to-bedrooms year.
Critics have described the album as indie folk, alternative rock, chamber pop, electro-folk, rustic, woodsy, homey, personal. To my ear, these songs are closer to the pop-country where Taylor got her start, more reminiscent of the story-songs of ‘90s country stars like Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood (though not nearly as memorable) than anything I would describe as Indie-folk—a genre that includes the work of one of Folklore’s high-profile producers: Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver.
Bon Iver is a major touchstone of rustic-prestige. While his breakout album For Emma, Forever Ago has stood the test of time, like Folklore, its popularity was initially a feat of marketing. Along with the music was the story of how Justin had a bad breakup, spent a winter in a cabin in snowy Wisconsin writing about it, and emerged with the melancholy goods. A mythological yarn that was more magical then, but has since become commonplace—an artist retreating into the woods to work their emotional state through solitude and communion with the elements. A tale old as time.
Justin lends that origin-story mythology to Folklore along with his producing chops and those of a member of indie-rock darlings The National. If this doesn’t sell you on Folklore’s indie-folk cred then the presentation should. Taylor appears on the just-washed-out-enough-to-look-analog black and white cover dwarfed by a stand of ancient redwoods in a so-big-its-cute peacoat. The typography of the album mirrors that of old and worn movable type. A Disney-produced concert video called the Long Pond Sessions accompanied the album’s release with black and white photography sweeping views of a cabin in the woods where TS lounges in a big flannel shirt, made-down among wood-paneled walls and picture windows. But these images are just spontaneous “sessions” and these artists are getting right down to something resembling Thoreau’s “fronting only the essential facts of life.” Long Pond might as well be Walden Pond.
The mythology of Folklore’s creation hinges on Taylor’s cancelled world tour and her subsequent quarantine due to the covid-19 pandemic. That’s a powerfully relatable story, as most folks have had to take their social lives back a notch. And perhaps she has succeeded in making something more intimate and personal than her previous recordings. While her pretense to Walden-chic isn’t unforgivable in itself, Folklore feels like a kind of genre-tourism. It’s a posture of home-spun art in a year that already has great examples of DIY artistic exile—notably, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and more pointedly Adrianne Lenker’s Songs and Instrumentals; the former a hard-won letter of self-possession from an artist that’s spent over a decade trying to extricate herself from the consequences of fame, and the latter perhaps the most stunningly spare work of an artist who has spent much of her career exploring solitude and nature in specific.
Against these works, Taylor’s music sounds like what it is, an essentially commercial enterprise with a woodsy veneer. (Somber narrators and melancholy pianos sold a lot of things last year.) If you want to see Taylor’s talents in action pared down to the minimal, you need look no further than her visit to NPR’s tiny desk concert series. When fronting only the essentials, it’s easy to tell here that Taylor struggles to adapt her music to an intimate setting. That’s just not the kind of artist she is.
If I appear to be missing that TS plays to an entirely different gallery than these other artists, the point isn’t lost on me. It’s not Taylor’s popularity I find vexing, but her critical appeal. That commercial tail has long wagged the critical dog. Now that TS and Co seem to be throwing the critics a credibility bone, they’re lunging for it a little too eagerly. Down boy.
Swift isn’t a craft brew, she’s a Budweiser, and that’s fine. Folklore is her Kräftig, her rustic-prestige brand, her premium mediocre. In 2020 more people wanted that homey experience, and she gave it to them. The label, the bottle, it all looks right. Just don’t tell me it’s not the same old swill. | Mike McCubbins