Whether it’s flinging your phone into the ocean or fleeing to the mountains, singers are calling on us to abandon the digital world and embrace nature. But is this escape into the outdoors a radical act of rebellion or an unattainable fantasy?
‘I’m not cut out for all these cynical drones, / these hunters with cell phones,’ admits Taylor Swift on ‘the lakes’, the lustrous closing track to the deluxe edition of the first of her two 2020 albums, Folklore. A year on, it’s hard to remember how surprising the album’s delicate folk-pop sound and rich, detailed fantasy worlds were, so decisive was Swift’s metamorphosis from pop superstar to thoughtful, indie songwriter.
The immersive storytelling of Folklore and its sequel Evermore captured the imagination of millions during the height of the pandemic. Swift’s desire to escape the cold, digital world for the mountains and lakes of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads struck a chord with a world fatigued by Zoom calls and endlessly scrolling through Twitter.
A year later and Lorde is gleefully claiming, ‘I throw my cellular device in the water. / Can you reach me? No, you can’t’ on her latest album’s title track ‘Solar Power’. The song calls on the listener to bask in the warmth of summer, presenting this life spent outdoors chasing the sunshine as a subversive alternative to the indoor, technology-dominated realm many of us have come to know all too well over the last 18 months.
Favouring soft, organic subtlety over radio-friendly spectacle, Solar Power is in many ways Folklore’s summery mirror image, swapping cosy cabins and mystical forests for sun-kissed beaches and deep, expansive oceans. While Folklore and Evermore are garnished with careful intricacies and neat, chamber-pop ornamentation, Lorde’s songs spill into one another with dreamy languor. Sinuous electric guitar lines curl round soft, sweet vocal harmonies and close, muted percussion flecks a warm acoustic backdrop.
But despite contrasting moods and imagery, both albums are premised on the desire to escape our modern reality for the worlds of the past or of fantasy.
Swift’s music video for the song ‘cardigan’ depicts her following a glowing light to an enchanted world hidden inside her piano. Reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia, the song also references Peter Pan, evoking a sense of innocence lost. And just like the stories that inspired it, the video ends with the protagonist returning to the comfort and familiarity of her own bedroom. Similarly, ‘seven’ looks back wistfully on childhood friendships, fondly remembering a time of rope swings and haunted houses.
Swift’s music hit upon a trend that was already surfacing across the internet. ‘Cottagecore’ is aptly described by journalist Amelia Hall as a ‘visual and lifestyle movement […] designed to fetishise the wholesome purity of the outdoors.’ 1 The aesthetic, based on harkening back to an idyllic, rural past, had been around for years before it was dubbed Cottagecore in 2018, but during the pandemic its popularity skyrocketed. In fact, trend expert Amanda Brennan last year noted a correlation between increasing Covid cases and rising interest in Cottagecore.2
Enter Folklore, an intricately crafted set of cosy, folk-inspired songs, seeped in pastoral imagery and glimmering with subtle touches of fantasy. Add in her homage to the Romantic poets, who were themselves harkening back to a bygone era in response to industrialisation, and a guest appearance from Justin Vernon, an artist who famously recorded his first album as Bon Iver alone in an isolated cabin in rural Wisconsin, and you have the quintessential Cottagecore album. 3
Solar Power, on the other hand, conveys an entirely different vision of nature. Aside from a few references to the 60s hippie movement, if Lorde evokes the past at all, it’s an Edenic, prehistoric past before humanity built up walls between itself and the natural world. On the track ‘Big Star’ she pays tribute to the memory of her beloved dog Pearl, who introduced her to ‘shivering pines and walls of colour’, musing ‘I can’t believe I used to stay inside.’
Unlike the cosy familiarity of Cottagecore, Solar Power communicates a sense, not of retreat but of discovery, of the world opening up around you, liberating you.
But the album is not all blue skies and sunshine, because Lorde’s easy-going, outdoors lifestyle is an escape from the nightmares of fame. The song ‘California’ expresses her mixed feelings about her life in the spotlight, admitting ‘I don’t miss the poison arrows aimed directly at my head’. She describes the anxiety her fame has brought her in poignant detail on ‘The Man with the Axe’: ‘I’ve got hundreds of gowns, I’ve got paintings in frames / and a throat that fills with panic every festival day, / dutifully fallin’ apart for the Princess of Norway.’
Writing for the Guardian, Laura Snapes considers Lorde’s newest work alongside that of Billie Eilish and Lizzo, questioning, ‘has being a female pop star in 2021 become unbearable?’ 4 Eilish and Lizzo have also opened up about the incessant abuse and overwhelming pressure they have been exposed to and all three artists have left Twitter, escaping one of the most infamously toxic sites on the internet.
It’s not a move available to everyone. Eilish and Lorde both rose to prominence via the internet, with their songs gaining traction on Soundcloud. To get to the place they are at now, where they can abandon social media and disengage with the press, they needed first to use these channels to reach the top of the ladder.
And for their listeners too, whose social and professional lives are likely sustained in part through the internet, throwing a phone into the ocean is as far-flung an idea as discovering a magical forest inside a piano.
So is pop music’s emergence into the outdoors just a new way for celebrities to sell us an unattainable lifestyle while crafting a wholesome, homespun image?
No, not entirely. One of Solar Power’s most compelling tracks is ‘Fallen Fruit’. Addressed to ‘the ones that came before us’, the song looks at the damage to the planet inflicted across generations: ‘Through the halls of splendour where the apple trees all grew, / you’ll leave us dancing on the fallen fruit.’ In tackling the topic of climate change, Lorde joins a host of smaller artists who have addressed the crisis, and often humanity’s complacency, in their recent albums, including Fleet Foxes, Spellling, the Weather Station and Marina.
And it’s not all just words. Lorde’s concern for the climate led her to release Solar Power as an eco-friendly ‘music box’ in place of a CD, despite the fact its sales won’t contribute to the album’s place on the Billboard Charts. Eilish has also been vocal on the environment, launching a campaign last week alongside a host of other artists to urge the US Congress to act on the climate emergency.
Because this new generation of pop stars brings with it a new set of values. Growing up in a world driven to the brink of ecological collapse by unrestrained corporatism, young artists are rejecting the individualism and commercialism that drive it. In Snapes’ words, Lorde’s and Eilish’s modest, mellow 2021 releases reflect ‘a turn away from hustle culture towards more intimate forms of self-protection and fulfilment.’ 5
Swift, on the other hand, belongs to the old guard of millennial superstars. But a decade in the spotlight has come with its fair share of tumult, including the sale of her back-catalogue against her will. With the title ‘Folklore’, Swift calls up a distant past, when music and stories were woven into a shared community and its traditions: a culture that is the antithesis of today’s capitalist music market.
So while the quiet, outdoorsy indie-pop of both Lorde and Swift is born out of the same profit-driven industry as any of their glossier hits, it does reflect a shift in values that pop music will in time surely have to adjust to. It’s music made for a generation ambivalent towards the digital world their lives are so firmly entrenched in, and who have grown up with their futures hanging in the balance thanks to climate change.
If turning towards nature, the oldest source of artistic inspiration, gives artists the space to champion mental health and sustainability, that’s certainly no bad thing. Lorde told the Guardian, ‘I really think people need me to be able to see our world clearly in order to write about it, and I couldn’t do that and remain online.’ 6 While logging off and running to the hills remains a rare privilege, it’s one that may just provide some much needed perspective.
As Swift sings on Evermore, ‘honey when I’m above the trees, I see this for what it is.’
Listen to Folklore:
Listen to Solar Power:
1 Hall, Amelia. ‘Why is “cottagecore” booming? Because being outside is now the ultimate taboo’. The Guardian, April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/15/why-is-cottagecore-booming-because-being-outside-is-now-the-ultimate-taboo
2 Brennan, Amanda. Quoted in: Jennings, Rebecca. ‘Once upon a time, there was cottagecore’. Vox, August 2020, https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/8/3/21349640/cottagecore-taylor-swift-folklore-lesbian-clothes-animal-crossing
3 Jennings, Rebecca. ibid.
4 Snapes, Laura. ‘Billie, Lorde, Lizzo: has being a female pop star in 2021 become unbearable?’. The Guardian, August 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/aug/20/billie-eilish-lorde-lizzo-women-music-industry-fame
6 Lorde, interviewed by Laura Snapes. ‘Lorde: ‘I’m not a climate activist. I’m a pop star’. The Guardian, June 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/jun/25/lorde-im-only-just-scratching-the-surface-of-my-powers
Lorde, interviewd by Rhian Daly. ‘Lorde: “I feel like I can see my world and myself a lot clearer now”’. NME, August, 2021, https://www.nme.com/big-reads/lorde-cover-interview-2021-solar-power-3029614
Jones, Damian. ‘Billie Eilish leads artists calling for Congress to act on climate change’. NME, September 2021, https://www.nme.com/news/music/billie-eilish-leads-artists-calling-for-congress-to-act-on-climate-change-3048834
The Take. ‘The Paradox of Cottagecore | Rejecting Hustle Culture’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YRl4Kdnl2E
Meisenzahl, Mary. ‘Lizzo is quitting Twitter because it has “too many trolls”‘. Business Insider, January 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/lizzo-quits-twitter-because-it-has-too-many-trolls-2020-1?r=US&IR=T
Lorde, interviewd by Neil Shah. ‘Lorde Doesn’t Want to Be Pop Royalty Anymore’. The Wall Street Journal, August 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/lorde-doesnt-want-to-be-pop-royalty-anymore-11629118800?AID=11557093&PID=6415797&SID=in%7C611be883ec3f552fdc3109f8%7C1632738803848&subid=Business+Insider&cjevent=8b0466a91f7e11ec83bba1af0a18050d&tier_1=affiliate&tier_2=moa&tier_3=Business+Insider&tier_4=3861930&tier_5=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.wsj.com%2Farticles%2Florde-doesnt-want-to-be-pop-royalty-anymore-11629118800