Taylor Swift’s Cruel Winter: Why ‘Marjorie’ Is Her Heart-Shredding Masterpiece

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Nobody, absolutely nobody, was complaining Taylor Swift didn’t inflict enough emotional brutality on us this year. But here she is and here we are. Taylor is celebrating her birthday this weekend, and she decided to turn 31 in typical Swift style — dropping her second surprise masterpiece of the year, Evermore. It’s just five months after Folklore, and just a few weeks after redefining those songs in her Long Pond Studio sessions, with collaborators Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. But she’s on the hot streak of her never-exactly-chill life. She just wrote “Happiness” last week. At this rate, she’ll have another album by New Year’s Day. Who else spends the first year of their 30s cranking out over 30 new songs?

Considering how the world is still reeling from Folklore, topping it with this album is cruel and unusual: the ultimate “You know you won so what’s the point of keeping score?” move. Like its sister album, Evermore is all cathartic beauty, an album full of ghost stories and haunted houses. But the most heartbreaking moment is “Marjorie,” her tribute to her late grandmother. It’s not just the centerpiece of a stunning album. It’s a song that ties up all her favorite obsessions into a story of love, death, and grief. It’s one of the best things she’s ever done. It’s a new peak for her as a story-teller, with the key line, “What died didn’t stay dead.” What a way for Taylor Swift to cap off her amazing year. And what a way to begin her new one.

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She wrote “Marjorie” with Dessner, as a tribute to her real-life grandmother Marjorie Finlay, an opera singer who passed away in 2003. When she announced the album this week, Swift called it “one starring my grandmother, Marjorie, who still visits me sometimes…if only in my dreams.” She brings in Finlay’s voice at the end—when she confesses, “If I didn’t know better / I’d think you were singing to me now,” we hear Marjorie’s soprano voice singing along with her.

Just as Evermore is a sister album to Folklore, this is a sister song to “Epiphany,” the stark ballad of her grandfather Dean and his World War II combat experience on Guadalcanal. Like “Epiphany,” “Marjorie” is placed at Track 13—a number near to the songwriters heart. (Are Track 13s the new Track 5s?) Dean was her father’s father, Finlay her mother’s mother. But they both inspire their granddaughter to visit some scary places creatively. They’re both songs about living with the dead as you grow older, and feeling their spirit in your bones.

Swift made a video for “Marjorie,” full of family footage. Let’s just say the lady seems right at home in front of a camera—she’s the essence of grandma realness, glammed up in her bouffant and lipstick. In one scene, she shares a piano bench with her granddaughter; Taylor is just a toddler, but Marjorie is already showing her where to place her hands on the keys. Such a powerful image, especially when you consider all the songs Taylor would go on to write with these hands.

Finlay was a classically trained virtuoso who grew up singing in her high-school choir in Mexico, Missouri. She majored in music at college, and in 1950 won a talent contest to go on the radio show, “Music With the Girls.” Her career took off in Puerto Rico, where she lived with her husband after some time in Havana. She sang with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and the supper clubs of San Juan, such as Club La Concha in Condado. She also hosted her own TV show. In a news clipping from her hometown paper, as seen in the video, she says, “My Spanish was bad enough to be funny, and the audience loved it. I became a sort of straight man for the show’s M.C.”

It makes you imagine the conversations she’d have with her granddaughter as she made a life in music, the kind of life Marjorie could only dream about. But she didn’t live long enough to see her become a star. As Taylor sings, she died with “All your closets of backlogged dreams / And how you left them all for me.”

The song’s power comes from Taylor’s hushed vocal over the seething electronic pulse, a nod to Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” (It says a lot about the year we’ve had that the idea of Taylor Swift entering her Steve Reich/Terry Riley phase doesn’t even make the top thousand weirdest surprises of 2020.) Bryce Dessner orchestrated it, with vintage synths and strings, with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on background vocals. “I should have asked you questions,” Taylor sings. “I should have asked you how to be / Asked you to write it down for me / Should have kept every grocery store receipt / Because every scrap of you would be taken from me.” (The way she drops the word “receipt” is a truly Swiftian move: Her clever flashback to the the Reputation era, when “receipt” just meant petty social-media score-settling. She’s going for bigger emotional stakes now.)

When you go back to Folklore after hearing “Marjorie,” it’s a whole new album, because you can hear echoes of her in the stories, like the scandalous old ladies of “Mad Woman” and “The Last Great American Dynasty.” Right now, somewhere in the universe, Marjorie and Rebekah are arguing over who got a better song. (Sorry, Rebekah — it’s Marjorie.) Taylor makes her small-town diva of a grandma the star she must have always wanted to be.

But “Marjorie” also feels like a sister song to “Mirrorball,” tapping into one of Swift’s favorite themes: the pressure on women to be smiling super-trouper people-pleasers in ways they have to fight hard to unlearn. The story of how Finlay made to it her TV show — clowning to make her male co-star look better — gives a new resonance to “Mirrorball,” especially the line, “I’ve never been a natural / All I do is try, try, try.” (Another news clipping from the hometown paper: “Her parents had always discouraged her from doing supper club work, and she accepted the engagement only after assuring them that ‘this will be very dignified.’ ”)

The night Taylor dropped Evermore, she wrote to a fan on YouTube, “I have about 50 fav lyrics but right now it’s… ‘Never be so kind you forget to be clever. Never be so clever you forget to be kind.’ ” That’s the advice her grandmother gives her in this song. She wishes her adult self could have learned even more from this wise old woman. But that’s part of grief — the work is never done, and there’s never a resolution to the story. (I love how this album has a song called “Closure” — the least Swiftian concept imaginable.)

Like so many songs on Folklore and Evermore, “Marjorie” is about living with those memories, learning from the dead, carrying on with the hard work of grief. When she announced the album last week, she explained: “I wanted to surprise you with this the week of my 31st birthday. I also know this holiday season will be a lonely one for most of us and if there are any of you out there who turn to music to cope with missing loved ones the way I do, this is for you.”

And for most of us, grief is built into this time of year — ’tis the damn season, indeed. “What died didn’t stay dead” reminds me of a Bruce Springsteen song that hits a little harder these days, “Atlantic City”: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

Elsewhere the album, Swift sings, “My mind turned your life into folklore / I can’t dream about you anymore.” But on Folklore and Evermore, turning the lives of our loved ones into folklore is how we keep them alive—it’s how we ensure that like a folk song, their love will be passed on. “Marjorie” is about communing with someone you’ve lost and trying to hear the story they always wanted to tell you. It’s about the inspiring power of grief. It’s about holding on to the memories so they will hold on to you. “Marjorie” hits so deep because it feels like a summary of all the new ground Swift has explored in her peak year. But it’s also a song that shows she’s always going somewhere new.

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