Two of pop music’s biggest songwriters, Taylor Swift and Charli XCX, released two of the best albums of the 2020, but neither were planning to originally. And yet, it’s resulted in some career-best work for both of them.
From where I’ve been standing (specifically, a four-bedroom apartment shared with four other roommates in Washington Heights), one of the most common indirect side effects of dealing with COVID-19 has been nostalgia. For yesterday, for last week, for seven months ago, for last year. We’ve all dealt in some form of looking back to ease the tension of the present. It’s practically a coping mechanism now for one to say to a friend “well, when things return to normal…” to preface the making of future plans. Seven months in, and none of this feels close to “normal.”
The shutting down of everything didn’t necessarily bring everything to a screeching halt. In some cases, like for Charli XCX and Taylor Swift, it sparked a fervent creativity that resulted in two of the best albums of 2020, how i’m feeling now, and folklore. Maybe more significant yet: though their sounds are radically different and the production of each on opposite ends of the PR spectrum (how i’m feeling now featured periodic vlog-like updates uploaded to Charli’s YouTube while folklore was kept completely under wraps for three months until Swift announced she was dropping it in less than 24 hours), they both thematically focus on relationships (real and fictional) in the past tense in order to process their current states.
Starting with the production itself, the actual creation process of either album lends itself aesthetically to both artists. For Charli, producing an entire full-length LP in the span of 30 days (and documenting the process along the way) is a pressure cooker of a timeframe, and it sounds like it throughout. Going further, in more slowed down moments such as “enemy” and “party 4 u,” the laserlike synths still whirr in the background. Specifically, on”enemy,” there’s a point midway through with audio taken from one of Charli’s own private therapy sessions she was having during production. It perfectly illustrates the inherent restlessness and paranoia brought on by extended isolation.
For Swift, the production process seems to have been a more drawn-out, relaxed affair, albeit with similar constraints. The unexpected but fruitful partnering with The National’s Aaron Dessner meant that songwriting and producing were done almost explicitly over email. Dessner’s spacious and lightly melodic textures give way to Swift’s trademark storybook lyricism, letting words and phrases like “and if my wishes came true/ it would’ve been you” really take center stage and hit with immediate, maximum effect. Her frequent collaborator, Jack Antonoff, plays into this notion as well, with tracks like “my tears ricochet” and “august” swelling with orchestral string arrangements and reverbed vocals that never seek to consume the story they’re telling, but rather clear the air out around them in order to breathe and live long after they’ve ended. It speaks to the innovation of creation through strained methods, sure, but it also inevitably highlights the loneliness and isolation these songs were created in and speak to. It’s impossible for me to think of Swift creating her most sonically palatial and lyrically rich work like this without the outside world informing it directly.
Both women are no strangers to exploring the dizzying highs and fraught lows of romantic relationships, but neither outing feels like a total retread in any capacity. This time around, they amplify the isolation of looking back on the past or even taking stock of one’s present surroundings and couple it with the itch for release from it into a newfound openness. Album highlight “anthems” finds Charli opening with laser-like synths before proclaiming “I’m so bored!” and launching into wanting back the party and crowds of places like New York — the desire to break out and let loose with people other than herself and her psyche. A song bout going apeshit at a concert with your friends might’ve sounded fun but pretty unassuming a year ago. Here, it’s both visceral and stark in its reminder of what is now an absence. It’s a party song ultimately about loss.
Meanwhile, a song like “august” finds Swift singing “but I can see us lost in the memory/ August slipped away into a moment in time.” Though nowhere near the in-your-face confrontation of “anthems,” Swift equally pines for something simple and unassuming, a memory in which the present-day’s clarity clouds nothing. “august” doesn’t directly allude to the Time of COVID like “anthems” does, but it still keys into the same feeling of escaping back into time that’s been taken away. Not one to completely do away with her signature diaristic songwriting though, her most personal track, “peace,” addresses her longtime romantic relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn and the quiet, “normal” life she can never promise him due to her own celebrity. It’s a life he might’ve been more accustomed to before entering her orbit, and while it mainly centers on her present, her allusions to his life pre-Swift are what elevates the song from just good to stunning. It’s what makes the specific universal.
The best music ultimately does this though, right? It utilizes broad swathes of memory in order to comment or make sense of the present. No one could have foreseen just how music artists would meet this moment. Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting any artist to. Not yet, at least. So to have both of these albums out in the world so immediately feels like a remarkable feat. I imagine that with time and distance away, these time capsules will continue to reveal new treasures and old remembrances of things passed. With two pop superstars in much the same boat as the rest of the world, they created two distinct, separate works that make us feel a little less isolated, maybe a little less frightened even. Almost as if to say to us this, too, will be a distant memory someday.