#FolkloreThursday: Taylor Swift’s Folklore

#FolkloreThursday: Taylor Swift’s Folklore July 30, 2020

This is a blog post I never thought I’d write, but last week Swift and her fans overwhelmed the #FolkloreThursday hashtag, and gave folklorists everywhere tons of discussion fodder.

Image of Taylor Swift with a definition of folklore by Simon J. Bronner typed out next to her: traditional knowledge put into, and drawing from, practice.
“Folklore” meme made by my colleague Ian Brodie.

One week ago, most folklorists were surprised to suddenly see our subject matter at the forefront of many internet discussions. You see, a lot of the time when people are talking about folklore, they don’t use the word “folklore”; this is because our academic discipline remains kinda niche, despite the fact that folklore is social glue that holds the world together. A lot of people continue to simply associate “folklore” with fairy tales and unicorns, not knowing that there are so many genres and types of folklore out there that we engage with on a daily basis. In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I share my fave definition of folklore and explain why it remains relevant.

Clearing up those kinds of misunderstandings is a large reason I wrote so many #FolkloreThursday blog posts: to expand on and illuminate the myriad of ways in which people engage with folklore in their daily lives, regardless of what they label it. But the way in which Swift has propelled the word “folklore” into public usage is pretty unprecedented.

Now, a week later, we’ve seen a bunch of “…but what is folklore?!” posts from media outlets that unfortunately did not think to interview a folklorist for the piece (this Refinery 29 piece is a decent example of what I’m talking about: well-intentioned but ill-informed).

Folklorists have rallied, and produced a number of tweets and posts and memes meant to help explain and engage. The American Folklore Society created whatisfolklore.org to help answer that very question, so it’s a great starting point. New Directions in Folklore hosted a guest post connecting the Swift album to the study of folklore in Bangladesh, exemplifying how the cultural framing of folklore makes certain topics more or less interesting to the scholars in that area.

My colleagues Dr. Sara Cleto and Dr. Brittany Warman, who run the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic, have an especially thorough and thought-provoking response here. They chronicle the popular and scholarly response (much as I’m doing here), and also include many of the delightfully funny and informative memes that folklorists created in response to the Swift album.

Significantly, Cleto and Warman also ask the question: how much of Swift’s album might be considered folklore, in the sense that it derives from or is about informally transmitted traditional culture, or folk arts/folkways, or artistic communication in small groups, or… take your pick of a definition. They argue, having listened to the album, that a major theme is gossip and rumor, and that some songs touch on local/historical legends. Further, Swift’s work in general is informed by personal narrative, or a story based on first-person experience that’s become traditional in the telling.

My own take on the album, having listened to it a few times through, is that it’s nice background music if nothing else, but I’m still a little baffled by the “Folklore” title. Given how we define folk music, it’s not that; nor is it comprised of ballads or narrative folk songs are both traditional in their nature and transmission and that tell a story along the way. Some of Swift’s songs definitely tell stories, though; “Cardigan” has been a bit of an earworm for me, and the imagery in the music video draws heavily on the magic of fairy tales. I also think there are folk ideas (a.k.a. traditional notions that make up people’s worldview) scattered throughout the album, like ideas about how people “should” respond to breakups, and that sort of thing.

(anecdotally, I’ve been hearing about how Swift often gets a lot of hate because so many of her fans are teenage girls, and we live in an androcentric culture that loves to disparage stuff that reeks of femininity, and this in turn reminds me of how women’s folklore is often seen as trivial precisely because it’s “stuff that women do” which is automatically looked down on in a patriarchal culture, as being less interesting/important than what men do… anyway, I’ll wrap this tangent up before it becomes a full-on rant!)

Should the album ultimately be titled “Folklore”? I dunno, I’m not the folklore police. And the whole point of folklore is that it’s communal; unlike literary texts which usually have a single author, or pop culture texts that often have a production team and are disseminated to the masses, folklore is created by and for the folk, no matter which group of people we’re talking about at the moment. If people want to draw on their association with the word folklore and create stuff with that title, then folklorists might consider it more folkloresque or fakelore or whatever depending on which paradigm is in vogue at the time, and we might write a zillion conference papers dissecting it and get snarky about it in back channels… but ultimately, no one owns the word folklore, because that’s the entire point of having a way to identify the very real and very human ways of collectively producing art and meaning (obviously I still want folklore scholarship to get more recognition because we do important work, and I hate it when our perspectives are clearly relevant but are ignored, but when people outside the discipline decide to start engaging with the word itself in creative ways, I can only get so upset about it before shrugging and moving onto something else).

This brings me to my final point, however: Twitter branded the hashtag #folklore with a little “T S” for Taylor Swift, and that is, I believe, a legitimate thing for us to be a bit riled up about, since again, no one owns folklore. When I put up a tweet about my research or teaching and use a bunch of hashtags intended to get my colleagues’ attention, and one of them is suddenly branded by a commercial phenomenon, it feels weird and icky. We’ve been complaining to Twitter but all to no avail… which is a good lesson in one of the differences between how institutional and non-institutional/folkloric cultures work, eh?

I’ll leave you with another of the memes created by my folklore colleague Ian Brodie (there are more on Twitter, check them out here). This one depicts my mentor, Alan Dundes, in his always-overcrowded office at UC Berkeley. He often analyzed folklore as driven by the anxieties and issues people have trouble consciously articulating (Dundes was a huge Freudian, surprise), so his characterization of folklore as “whims, dreams, fears, and musings” makes sense… and is also a reasonably good fit for Swift’s new album.

So muse on, folklore friends, and we’ll see what else comes of this social media shockwave!


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