So, I've kind of developed an obsession with binging musicians' documentaries during quarantine. Trust me –– there are a lot out there right now and most of them –– especially “Chasing Happiness” by the Jonas Brothers, “Shawn Mendes: In Wonder,” and “BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky”–– are worth watching.
You might be wondering, why is this my new obsession? Well, it started out of a curiosity to learn more about the behind-the-scenes lives of the artists themselves. After all, we see their public lives so up close and personal that I wondered, what could they possibly be hiding from us?
And after watching Taylor Swift’s “folklore: the long pond studio sessions,” I found out.
The documentary consists of two main parts: a concert performed by Swift and then her own personal analysis of her recent album, “folklore,” which was released unannounced on July 24. Similarly, the film's release was also a surprise to fans, after Swift announced on Twitter that the film would be released on Disney+ on Nov. 25.
The 30 year-old star tells all in this incredibly personal recount of the writing process for her album, revealing surprises like how the mystery songwriter, William Bowery, credited in "folklore" with writing “exile” and “betty,” is actually a pseudonym for Joe Alwyn, Swift’s long-time boyfriend (shocking, I know).
In the documentary, Swift discusses the process of writing the track “betty” and how hearing Alwyn sing the lyrics in the room next door helped manifest an “entirely full-formed chorus." She was so taken aback by his words that she asked him to add it to the song. It was also incredibly endearing to see Alwyn's dedication to helping Swift produce her music.
We also learn that, as captioned in the movie, “During the (coronavirus disease) COVID-19 lockdown, the musicians recorded separately miles apart while the album was created at Long Pond Studio.”
Long Pond Studio is one of the main settings in the film and where Swift's concert takes place: a rustic cabin located in upstate New York, surrounded by trees as far as the eye can see, with its interior covered in wooden paneling and oriental rugs.
The cozy cabin is owned by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who is also a collaborator on Swift’s album. Even with this freezing cold weather in New Jersey, I felt warm just watching this “concert.”
The film shows a candid Swift, capturing scenes of her conversations with co-writer Dessner and her producer, Jack Antonoff, about the writing process for the project and singing inside this unassuming cabin. There’s even a special guest appearance by Justin Vernon, better known as the frontman of the indie band, Bon Iver, in the film, who's featured on the track “exile.”
To be fair, we probably got an excessive amount of shots of the exterior, but I can’t blame the directors for doing so. The setting felt like the exact atmosphere Swift describes escaping to in her track, “the lakes.”
Before watching this documentary, I had my own interpretation of Swift’s album. But what I didn't know was that the album wasn't just about Swift herself. As Swift shares in the film, “This is the first album that I let go of that need to be 100 (percent) autobiographical.”
I think, oftentimes, artists have very little control over the narrative of their writing. Many of them just produce the album and then share it into the universe for people to speculate over and draw their own conclusions from. This is especially true for up-and-coming artists, who rarely get a chance to publicize their own understanding of their work. But, evidently, multi-platinum, award-winning artists, like Swift aren't exempt from this either.
Even if artists do go on sites like Genius Verified to convey the meanings behind their lyrics, there's no guarantee that their audiences will see their video, listen to their interpretations or even understand their perspective. Nonetheless, I think that out of all the big-name stars out there, Swift's carefully crafted and curated albums always convey her personal story.
This isn't to say that people don't have their own interpretation of her songs, but rather that most of the time Swift’s songs are easily identifiable by whatever boyfriend she was dating at the time or scandal she was in. She never really tried to hide her controversies and would produce her work accordingly, despite the paparazzi and distracting fame.
It might not have been exactly what Swift wanted, but she openly admits this in the documentary, stating: “That’s my favorite thing about this album. That it’s allowed to exist on its own merit without it just being ‘oh people are listening to this because it tells them something that they could read in a tabloid.’”
Additionally, Swift reflects on her quarantine, stating she "was watching movies every day … reading books every day [and] thinking about other people every day," which could explain why her newer songs are more detached from her personal story and more ambiguous and universal in their messages.
The artist also explains why she is so attached to the characters in her self-described holy trinity: “cardigan,” “august” and “betty.”
“In my head, I think Betty and James ended up together. She ends up with him, but he really put her through it," said Swift.
There's not many who can say they've made an album, let alone during lockdown, which is something that makes Swift unique. But just like the rest of us, Swift watches movies and fantasizes about made-up characters and places.
What's even more interesting is hearing Swift explain the stories behind each track. From the heroes and villains reflected in “my tears ricochet,” to how “epiphany” is about her grandfather’s World War II story and the way her experience with relationships in general especially shaped “betty," we get to see her mind fully at work in this documentary.
I was particularly enthralled by the story behind “this is me trying,” which Swift wrote with Antonoff while reflecting on addiction and mental illness.
On coping with the internal battle of addiction alone, Swift said: “There are so many days that nobody gives them [addicts] credit for that. How often must somebody, who’s in that sort of internal struggle must want to say to everyone in the room, 'you have no idea how close I am to going back to a dark place.'”
It’s revelations like these that make this documentary so worth the watch. While there will always be people who disrespect her music –– cough, cough, like the Recording Academy –– or her attitude, Swift is undoubtedly an intelligent and thoughtful artist.
And obviously, I’m not the only one who loves how Swift’s mind works –– she’s been nominated for five Grammy Awards all for this album alone.
Though, when Swift discusses the ideas of fate and the invisible string that connects everyone, hence her track “invisible string,” I had to wonder to myself if she's actually a believer in romanticism, and not as the normative concept of love between two people, but of beauty and intellectualism.
But by the end of this movie, for me, it seemed to scream that yes, sincerely, Swift believes there's beauty in this world, and she believes in thinking about love and existence in a matter that many of us might find just our grasps –– especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I kind of love the romantic idea that every step you’re taking, you’re taking one step closer to where you’re supposed to be, you know, guided by this little, like, invisible string,” Swift said.
I personally would like to believe she’s right. I mean, she delivered this album when we all needed a little introspection and inner peace, so fate must be doing something right.