The romance and tragedy of Taylor Swift’s ‘The Lakes’

This article is part of What Do You Mean?, a series where we dive into the analysis and associations of the important songs of today.

While it’s been close to a month since Taylor Swift’s surprise album ‘Folklore‘ dropped, it seems the dust has not quite settled on the buzz just yet.

Just as the album spends a third week atop the Billboard 200 chart, one missing puzzle piece—the bonus track ‘The Lakes’—finds its way to streaming services today.

In true Swiftian, Folklorean fashion, the song is a folk ballad packed with easter eggs and references. Let’s take a look at some of them:

The Romanticism

When the song opens with “Is it romantic how my elegies eulogize me?”, Swift is making both a reference to her reputation for romanticising music, and the time period of the late 18th century that the word gets its roots from.

In fact, ‘The Lakes’ refers to the Lake District in England, famous for being home to a host of Romantic poets, most prominently William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Of these names, however, only Wordsworth did, as the song’s chorus suggests, actually spend his final days in the area. The ‘death’ that Swift suggests probably refers to a metaphorical feeling of languish and fatalism rather than the physical inevitability.

Speaking of Wordsworth, Swift does in fact mention him by name in the song, with the line “Tell me what are my words worth”.

And, play on words aside, the song seems to be a dedication to Swift’s beau Joe Alwyn (who also happens to be British), whom she calls her ‘muse’.

The Tragedy

Given that the song opens with talk of elegies and eulogizing, there’s no denying the subject of death that’s present throughout. Swift mentions ‘clones’, ‘hunters’ and ‘sleaze’ all as threats, references to naysayers in her career who undermine her work and/or wish to orchestrate her fall from grace. Taken more literally, the song’s chorus might also be a reference to the death of poet Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in a river.

Besides that, the song’s usage of big, Google-demanding words pushes it almost to the realm of melodrama. ‘Eulogize’, ‘calamitous’ and ‘insurmountable’ are surely not part of our everyday vocabulary, and Swift uses them as a way of bringing the song to a level of excess. It almost seems like she’s mocking comments about her tendency to over-dramatise by well, doing exactly that.

The result is jarring, given that a good majority of the song uses more elegant language. But then again, when was Taylor Swift ever known for subtlety?

The New in the Old

Building on this sense of discordance is Swift’s usage of distinctly modern allusions. Swift is no stranger to subversion, and along with the imagery of lakes, peaks, and flowers come the anachronism of ‘cell phone’, ‘namedropping sleaze’ and ‘tweet’ that surely throw one off. If you were to replace these phrases with their more dated origins, however, the meaning becomes clearer. Scrutiny, scandal and gossip are all things that Swift is familiar with. And these aren’t new phenomena, either, just exacerbated by our modern ways.

There have been comparisons made between ‘Folklore’ and the work of Lana del Rey, whose music is grounded in the conceptual stylings of 1950s and 1960s Americana. For Swift however, the past seems to be more of a flight of fancy rather than a place to be. ‘The Lakes’ is Swift’s cry for a getaway car from the watchful eyes of the public, for an escape to somewhere obscure where she can’t be found. She’s found love, and maybe that’s all she needs. And given that she’s marketed this place as the “perfect place to cry”, we’d really love to know how to get there, too.

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