Did you double-check that Twitter handle? Verified that blue check? Took a quick glance at today’s date just to be absolutely sure it’s not a prank? Yep, it’s legit: One of the biggest pop stars of the 21st century will be surprise-releasing a brand new, previously unannounced album.
Okay, so it’s not a complete surprise — Taylor Swift gave us about 16 hours of lead time before the midnight release of 8th album Folklore, which by this year’s standards might be more like a week in non-2020 time. But the news is still stunning coming from an artist so synonymous with carefully plotted promotional rollouts that folks could set their calendars to her release schedule for the first decade of her career.
Surprise Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my 8th studio album, folklore; an entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into. Pre-order at https://t.co/zSHpnhUlLb pic.twitter.com/4ZVGy4l23b
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) July 23, 2020
It makes sense for a number of reasons. The first, of course, is that Swift’s previous two rollout periods were not necessarily indicative of the albums they advertised. The Reputation era was kicked off in 2017 by the villainous electro-pop cackle of “Look What You Made Me Do,” which shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 but receded quickly after, with some fans and critics dubbing it a misfire. More big-sounding advance tracks, much-hyped award show performances and expensive-looking videos followed in its wake — all dazzling and most impressive, but few capturing the public imagination — before Reputation, an album less focused on vengeance and more on vulnerability, finally dropped two and a half months later.
The same was true of last year’s Lover, which was trumpeted by the playful pomp-pop of “ME!” in April. The song became Taylor’s first lead single in four albums not to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 — though it was only a historic monolith of a smash that kept it at No. 2 — drew largely mixed reviews, and also failed to match previous Swift singles for radio ubiquity. Four months, and another cavalcade of big-budget videos and elaborately staged performances, separated “ME!” and Lover’s August release date.
None of this set up the albums that followed for a fall. The singles’ receptions were underwhelming only by Swift’s otherworldly standards of success, and Reputation and Lover still posted gigantic first-week numbers. But in a streaming age where the biggest pop artists were moving faster than ever, the long rollouts had started to feel a little archaic. What’s more, they were largely red herrings for their accompanying sets: “Look What You Made Me Do” didn’t suggest any of the revealing, mature, at times sensual album that Reputation ended up being, while “ME!” was a dramatically over-simplified rendering of the sparkling, joyous and occasionally heartbreaking pop contained on Lover.
So for Swift to put all of that behind her with a day-long lead-up to her latest project makes for a pretty stark contrast, but a welcome one. And although we can’t be sure until we actually hear it tonight, it probably makes sense for this particular album, too. Everything she’s revealed thus far about Folklore – from its title to its woodsy greyscale art to its collaborator list (including indie heroes Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner, the latter of The National), to its billing as having been recorded “in isolation” — suggests that this will not be the Big Pop version of Taylor Swift we’ve gotten for most of the past decade, but rather something a little closer to her singer-songwriter roots.
While many of Swift’s longtime fans would likely be delighted by a sort of back-to-basics, perhaps less traditionally “pop” Taylor Swift album, it would have marked something of a risk if rolled out like one of her previous albums. How would the lead single play on top 40 radio? What song makes the most sense to perform at the VMAs? What kind of first-week numbers is she looking at? By releasing it overnight with what for her is an unprecedentedly minimal amount of build-up, she frees Folklore from all of these questions and expectations. If fans love it and consume it like crazy, then great. If it gets a lukewarm response critically and/or commercially, then she can underplay it as a quarantine-released personal project, not subjected to the same standards as one of her “official” albums — like a mixtape, basically.
It’s a smart decision, one that both positions Swift as a veteran star able to keep up with modern trends, and one who (presumably) is as restless and overwhelmed with thoughts to express during this quarantine period as the rest of us. And regardless of what it means for her career and her standing in the pop mainstream, it’s just a great move for any artists to gift fans right now with an unexpected album — an album that they don’t even have enough time to get worked up about to really risk being let down by. For an artist so well-known for her careful, long-term plotting, embracing spontaneity may very well end up being one of her shrewdest moves yet.