With the surprise midsummer release of Folklore, it seems that Taylor Swift has finally put out an indie record much cooler than her others, one that even a Pitchfork editor could love. The critically acclaimed, aptly named Folklore feels like a cozy, autumnal, cardigan-wearing kind of album, homing in on the telling and retelling of stories of heartbreak and longing through the lyricism of language at the heart of Swift’s songwriting.
It appears to be a tentative new step toward a more subdued, contemplative form of music, in the decade-long, genre-bending career of one of the most successful—yet also much criticized—artists of this era. Despite the awards and fan adoration, Taylor Swift is also an artist who has been beset with a mess of contradictory criticisms, at once derided for revealing too much about her personal life in her music, and at the same time dismissed as nothing more than a manufactured, blank space of an inauthentic pop star.
Until recently, in fact, even her supporters sometimes drew attention not to her creative skill in songwriting but to her work ethic or marketing savvy, as if to damn with faint praise. If the new sounds of Folklore are part of a struggle for musical legitimacy, the album’s success might shine a light on why it has taken so long for critics to take Swift seriously. Why is it that some of them can never accept that Taylor Swift might have something worthy to say?
Perhaps the answer lies in how the disparate threads of language, accent, and the public image of authenticity and identity all get tangled up in that particularly confessional genre that gave Taylor Swift her start at the tender age of fifteen: country music.
Although it seems obvious that musicians, like the rest of us, likely enjoy a variety of genres, it still comes as a surprise when they successfully cross over to a different kind of music. Switching styles, whether in music or the way you speak, can be viewed with suspicion, and stepping outside the norm can be stigmatized.
The accent on singing
Taylor Swift, by some accounts a music nerd herself, famously made the move from country to pop, and took many of country’s songwriting and stylistic traditions with her. This naturally has played a part in how she and her music have been received by a wider audience, but it hasn’t always been positive. She first established a strong public persona as a real, relatable girl with a growing and evolving sense of self who just happened to be a country star. But country’s complex relationship with the ideas of realness, authenticity, and identity through personal storytelling was perhaps hard to translate to modern pop, a seemingly artificial genre. What’s more, the lived experience that’s grist for Swift’s songwriting now includes success, wealth, and privilege. Though her personal storytelling can seem far removed from what many of us may experience, there’s clearly something at the heart of those stories that we can still relate to.
Linguistically, this contradiction is evident in Swift’s code switching from one musical genre to another. Code switching occurs when a speaker straddling different speech communities changes from standard or expected languages, dialects, or even accents in some contexts to more marked ones in the same language in other contexts. Since many regional or class-based accents can be stigmatized for such unknowable things as education level and intelligence (or even the potential to be a supervillain), it might seem strange that people switch from standard to nonstandard ways of speaking, even unconsciously. But it’s exceptionally common, and most curiously so when it comes to music.
The reasons for doing this, and the choices of code switching that speakers make, are almost always socially motivated, according to linguist Carol Myers-Scotton. Code switching is “a creative act, part of the negotiation of a public face.” It’s a way to signal which cultural group you identify with—where you want to belong. It can also signal a disruption of what’s seen as acceptable and normal—which, for instance, is what some musical genres, like rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop, are all about.
Many linguists, such as Peter Trudgill, have long noted how the accent of modern pop music is generally American, no matter where a music artist hails from. So Adele’s natural Cockney accent when speaking melts into fluid, American tones when singing, which is largely regarded by most people as unremarkable and normal. In “Prestige Dialect and the Pop Singer,” linguist S. J. Sackett notes that a kind of pseudo-southern American accent has become the standard “prestige” pop music accent, perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, its anti-establishment, working-class associations.
Meanwhile, indie rock groups like the Arctic Monkeys, singing in their own native Sheffield accents, might seem more marked. Yet choosing to sing against the musical tide, in a nonstandard accent, can signal independence and authenticity.
The genre of country music, in differentiating itself from pop, abounds in the stronger regional accents of the American South, not just from natives such as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn but even a Canadian like Shania Twain or the Swedish Americana group First Aid Kit.
Swift follows in a long line of singing like you belong. The southern accent is clearly evident in her early singles, such as “Our Song,” written when she was fourteen, where you can hear marked phonetic features of Southern American English from the very first word. The diphthong in the pronoun “I” [aɪ], in “I was riding shotgun,” sounds more like the monophthong “ah” [a:]. There’s also the lack of rhotic “r” in words like “car” and “heart,” and grammatical variation such as the lack of verb agreement in “your mama don’t know.” In the penultimate line, “I grabbed a pen and an old napkin,” the famous southern “pin-pen” merger reveals itself, as “pen” and “napkin” are rhymed.
In Swift’s crossover single “22,” the genre is pure pop, but the southern accent is still a force to be reckoned with: The “e” of “twenty” sounds more like “twinny” and the “two” sounds more like “tew.” However, whether Swift code-switches because of the musical genre in which she’s singing, or because she may have only acquired her accent after moving to the South as a young teen, she largely loses the more marked linguistic elements in transitioning into a pop artist, with an appropriately general American accent.
In fact, Swift ironically refers to the oddity of the accent change in the bewildering lineup of her personas in the music video “Look What You Made Me Do.” Her upbeat country music persona exclaims only a brief “y’all!” “Oh, stop acting like you’re so nice, you are so fake,” answers yet another version of herself.
Fake it to make it?
Taylor Swift isn’t alone in being accused of faking an accent. American pop-punk bands like Green Day have been accused of faking British accents in imitation of the Sex Pistols, just as non-American groups (such as the French band Phoenix) put on their best-dressed American accents during performances. Code switching in genres is not uncommon and generally passes unnoticed, especially if listeners never get a chance to hear an artist’s normal speaking voice—unless that voice sings in a new genre where a different accent might be the norm.
An accent is seen as such an integral part of a speaker’s identity that when it changes, it can open up accusations of being fake and inauthentic, even though artists need to evolve and create in new ways. Although this might be a desirable trait in an actor, who conveys other people’s stories through their own body, for an artist who purports to tell their own lived experience through narrative songwriting, it can call into question their integrity or intentions in terms of the grubby necessities of making a living.
This is a complicating factor particularly when it comes to country music.
Aaron A. Fox opens up his essay on the discourse of country music by asking: “Is country music for real?” […] A unique, if elusive core of ‘authenticity’ tantalises country’s supporters and infuriates its critics”; yet to quote Simon Frith, “music can not be true or false, it can only refer to conventions of truth or falsity.” The only way we can talk about the time we spend in our lives is really through narrative, and these stories about our lives are constructed and shaped by our culture and language—never the absolute truth, but a continually evolving retelling of our past, present, and futures.
In lay terms, country music is obsessed with the idea of authenticity, perhaps more so than other genres, not only because of its musicality (the skill involved in playing acoustic instruments, for example) but also because of its storytelling: Artists are supposed to write and perform songs about their own life experiences. Country songs are ideally biographical, “the real lives of real people.” The kind of language they use is therefore crucial.
As Fox notes, the thematic concerns of country music, of loss and desire, of heartbreak and heartache, are intensely private experiences, but they are laid starkly bare and made public in song, ready to be consumed by the public. The language of these songs takes the plain, everyday, down-home ways of speaking that ordinary, often working-class people use, and intensifies them into an unnatural, poetic, metaphorical state, with a “dense, pervasive use of puns, clichés and word-play.”
Dolly Parton’s “Bargain Store,” for example, uses her own dialect both lyrically and in performance to recast her life of poverty and her broken heart, things that people often keep private.
My life is likened to a bargain store
And I may have just what you’re lookin’ for
If you don’t mind the fact that all the merchandise is used
But with a little mending, it could be as good as new
Pamela Fox also considers how the autobiographical country song is different for women. Far from a masculine or chauvinistic perspective of a hard-drinking, hard-worn life of labor and lost loves, successful women in country such as Lynn, Parton, and Tammy Wynette have public identities positioned as overcoming an earlier life of hardship and poverty, particularly family origins in coal mining, sharecropping, or cotton picking. This source of authenticity is hard to fake or debate, compared to the assumed emptiness of a comfortable middle-class life.
And yet, writes Fox, “one cannot remain country for long if one lacks roots (and slowly exchanges ordinary life for an unreal world of excess and continual displacement).” In a way, “success stories rank as distinctly gendered ‘failures’ of country authenticity: as working female celebrities, they forfeit not only their traditional pasts,” but the public respect that comes with the humble domestic or maternal world they sing about, thanks to their new lives of comfort and success. As Dolly Parton put it, “Although I look like a drag queen’s Christmas tree on the outside, I am at heart a simple country woman.”
In a way, Swift’s struggle with the perception of authenticity is just as real and problematic as the one faced by the women in country who came before her, though Swift came from upper-middle-class origins rather than poverty.
The worth of words
In “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift pens the story of someone she never knew: the eccentric, wealthy Rebekah Harkness of Rhode Island. As Swift inserts herself into the narrative’s end, it transpires that Harkness owned the house that Swift later bought.
“Fifty years is a long time/Holiday House sat quietly on that beach,” she adds. “Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/And then it was bought by me.”
Swift’s personal experience is slightly less relatable because it reminds most of us that we can’t simply buy holiday houses on a beach in Rhode Island. And yet, the feelings of being outside of the norm, of not belonging and feeling out of place, of being criticized as mad, are certainly emotional states we all can understand.
In Swift’s evolving songwriting, about other people or herself, the events may be outside our experience, but they can be just as heartfelt through the deft use of language. And in this, we may come to understand just what Taylor Swift’s words are worth.