Remember the early days of Covid lockdown in 2020. All that walking, all that staring out of the window? We all had our pet projects. Mine was reading the novels of Dickens in chronological order, all 3.8 million words of them. So if you saw a man on a train in 2020 reading Martin Chuzzlewit, that was probably me.
Taylor Swift just decided to stay in the recording studio and produce one of her best albums, Folklore. It was another smash obviously, critically acclaimed with all of the album’s 16 tracks entering the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously. The record industry is probably being kept afloat by the 33-year-old Swift. Worldwide she has sold over 200 million records and is the most streamed woman artist on Spotify.
Swift isn’t afraid to channel her own experiences through her songs. My favourite of hers, the 10-minute version of All Too Well from her 2012 album Red, perfectly expresses the emotions involved in your first love, or any early failed love, and includes some blistering guitar work from one of the co-producers, Nathan Chapman.
The songs on Folklore similarly follow familiar Swiftian themes, mainly the pain of relationships. There is one exception and its perfect four minutes unspool like a short story. The Last Great American Dynasty (pronounced die-nasty, obviously) is told in the third person before its unexpected lurch into the first person. It tells the tale of the American socialite Rebekah Harkness, the heiress to the Standard Oil fortunes and one of America’s wealthiest women of the 20th century.
The musician Aaron Dessner composed some music for the song, inspired by the electric guitar sound on Radiohead’s In Rainbows album. Dessner, best known for being a founder member of the band, The National, sent the music to Swift who was self-isolating during the early days of the pandemic and – hey presto – Folklore’s most fascinating song took shape.
Rebekah Harkness bought a mansion in Watch Hill, Rhode Island called Holiday House. A divorcee, Rebekah West married Bill Harkness in 1947. Bill was the heir to the oil refining company, Standard, but he died seven years later of a heart attack and his widow was blamed by the gossips of the town. Swift satirises her life, how she gambled with the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, how she cleaned her swimming pool with champagne, how she dyed her neighbour’s cat green after an argument.
Swift tells the story in a gossipy, arch lyric:
The wedding was charming, if a little gauche
There’s only so far new money goes
The song’s chorus, She had a marvellous time ruining everything, chirps away and refers to how Rebekah became fodder for the tabloid press and her sniffy neighbours.
Rebekah Harkness died in 1982. She had been a composer herself whose tone poem, Safari Suite, was performed at Carnegie Hall, a sculptor and a dance patron, founding the Harkness Ballet company. Holiday House remained empty for years until one day in 2013 Taylor Swift was shown around it and told the story of Rebekah by the estate agent. Finding similarities between herself and Rebekah with their vast wealth and outsider status, Swift discovered more about the house and decided to buy it. It is here that the song switches to a first-person narrative, Swift ending with a changed chorus: I had a marvellous time ruining everything.
Taylor Swift found herself full of admiration for Rebekah Harkness, a woman who for all her faults was a great philanthropist who donated $2 million to medical research, chiefly on Parkinson’s disease. Talking to People magazine in 2021, Swift said: ‘It can be a real pearl-clutching moment for society when a woman owns her desires and wildness and I love the idea that the woman in question would be too joyful in her freedom to even care that she’s ruffling feathers, raising eyebrows or becoming the talk of the town.’
Ironically, though, the residents of Watch Hill have voiced concern about the attention that Swift brings to this quiet community. The governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo suggested a tax on secondary homes that cost more than $1m. This has been dubbed ‘The Taylor Swift Tax’ and inspired another of the songs on folklore, Mad Woman. Ostensibly about Swift’s falling out with American businessman Scooter Braun, it incorporates the witch hunt trope to tell the tale of an old woman scorned by her town.
The Last Great American Dynasty is one of the greatest songs from one of the greatest songwriters of her generation. Anna Gaca, a music critic for Pitchfork, summed up this epitaph for a woman Swift never met, a woman who ended her days staring out into the sea. ‘The real magic is the winking humility of the image in the mirror; a woman criticised endlessly for being too rich and too gauche who knows that living well is the best revenge.’
Swift says she was christened Taylor because her parents were fans of James Taylor. Certainly, the man himself would have been chuffed to have written something as whip-smart as this.