Critics and fans are calling Taylor Swift’s eighth full-length her “indie” album. It marks yet another metamorphosis for the artist, one that calls into to question Swift's motives, the wide reach of record label conglomerates, and the very definition of indie music.
The only piece of Taylor Swift merchandise I own is a coffee mug.
Taylor’s name wraps the cup in bold print, and pictured below are six iterations of the artist. There’s Taylor in cowboy boots, Taylor sporting the elegant evening gown seen on her Speak Now cover, a rebellious Taylor in all black and platform heels, Taylor in a puffy pink coat. Her latest album, folklore, is yet another iteration, the seventh look missing from the mug.
Taylor Swift’s career has been defined, and perhaps even marred, by reinvention. From sweetheart country to full-blown pop to the ill-advised hip hop pilfering on Reputation, she’s never been shy about shape shifting. When David Bowie did it, people called him a capricious visionary. But the age of fat cat record labels and strategic album rollouts calls into question Swift’s constant metamorphosis — is it true artistic expression or a shallow promotion tactic?
Critics and fans are calling Swift’s eighth full-length her “indie” album. It’s stripped-down, quiet, filled with subtle piano, acoustic guitar and atmospheric production from The National’s Aaron Dessner. The New York Times called folklore “the first attempt at a post-pop Swift,” and the music certainly feels less concerned with pop for popularity’s sake.
Contributions from other artists are strategically not-pop. Gone are features from Future and Panic at the Disco's Brendon Urie. Instead, Swift leans on long-established indie nobles. Dessner, an integral part of The National since the late ‘90s, brings a new indie-folk airiness to the album, and Swift even recruits Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame) for a duet on the album’s fourth track “exile.”
And so, folklore resurrects questions long debated but rarely resolved. If indie is a practice in independence, can a superstar like Taylor Swift write an indie record? If it’s a genre characterized by a certain sound, then why couldn’t she?
The Indie Sound
Whenever the word “indie” is used to describe an album, a struggle to define the term usually follows. Early DIY pundits will dogmatize indie as structure, an independent method of creating and distributing art that circumvents the corporate model. Less bullheaded listeners associate indie with a sound, one with less arena rock razzle-dazzle and more singer-songwriter camp.
Let’s first assume “indie” is a sonic, stylistic phenomenon. folklore certainly fits that bill. Critics have likened the album to the work of indie champs Lana Del Rey, Mazzy Star, Angel Olsen, and Phoebe Bridgers. Whether Swift intended to channel these artists is unclear, but her past work hasn’t drawn such comparisons. These women specialize in melancholic, introspective songs, music worlds away from Swift’s peppy, pastel-colored 2019 album Lover.
But folklore is worlds away from Lover, too, and an even further departure from 2017’s Reputation. Swift trades in larger-than-life choruses and snappy production for delicate, ethereal ballads, the shades of pink on Lover’s album art swapped for a moody, grayscale forest scene. Even the track titles on folklore are subdued, all in trendy lower case.
So, does the new album sound indie? In short, yes. It’s folksy, tranquil, and nearly devoid of the stadium-filling power pop that made Swift a radio mainstay in the 2010s. But, whether folklore deserves to be called independent in its anti-corporate definition is a different story.
The “Indie” Approach
Taylor’s “indie record” was released by Republic Records, which lives under the massive umbrella of Universal Music Group. It’s her first album on the label since penning a deal with UMG in November 2019, shortly after cutting ties with Big Machine. Obviously, Republic is no small fish — it’s a music megawhale that releases albums from huge artists like Post Malone, Ariana Grande, The Weekend and Jonas Brothers.
UMG jumped at the chance to nab a contract with Swift, and she is undoubtedly capitalizing on the label’s broad reach in the music industry. But unlike many major album launches, Swift only announced folklore a day before its arrival. She seems to have bypassed a traditional months-long promotion strategy in favor of the surprise drop, which is a tactic in itself designed to grab attention, as Vulture argues. A handful of artists have adopted this so-called “sneak attack” approach with varying degrees of success.
Perhaps Taylor evaluated risk versus reward and decided to take a gamble, hoping her new label, sonic shift and surprise announcement would cut through the noise. Or, perhaps she simply wanted to fend off tortuous press cycles and media attention, dropping folklore straightaway.
The COVID-19 environment adds another angle. With touring on hold for the foreseeable future, Swift probably isn’t worried about selling concert tickets. Maybe she’s purposely made the kind of quarantine album that’s suited for lonely, reflective listening. Maybe folklore is a natural byproduct of her own isolation, or inspired by her contemporaries’ quarantine albums. Regardless of her intention, it’s hard to call an album backed by Universal Music “indie” in the freethinking, do-it-yourself sense of the word.
The Indie Reality
Even the most ardent defenders of independent music must (reluctantly) admit the word “indie” no longer truly embodies the DIY movement.
Many of today’s popular indie bands are signed to major labels and their subsidiaries, but still produce music that possesses an agreed upon “indie” quality and sound (take the uber-popular Arcade Fire, for instance). In reality, plenty of big label artists have earned indie stamps of approval, and it seems Taylor Swift is the next in line.
As the boundary between independent and mega label continues to blur, we can only hope the industry’s encroachment on the term doesn’t corrupt the progress of truly independent artists. The rise of streaming and self-reliant online distribution means independent artists have more power than ever, power to make whatever music they want, and the power to share that music however they choose.
At the end of the day, major label or not, Taylor Swift has those same freedoms.