Creativity in Quarantine: The Pandemic Albums of Taylor Swift & Passenger

Since mid-March, when the world was put on hold, many people have been left alone with their thoughts. Some people used this time to pick up new hobbies, learn a language, or binge-watch a TV show, while others have used this time to write an entire album. Passenger released his 12th studio album Patchwork on July 10th, 2020, and while its release came as a surprise, his acoustic sound and melancholy lyrics were a welcome familiarity. There was something different about this album, though, because there is a COVID-19-specific theme woven throughout. Mike Rosenberg, known by his stage name Passenger, composed the songs for Patchwork entirely in quarantine. He wrote on his Instagram on July 10th: “It was a strange and lonely feeling to suddenly be on my own for weeks and writing these songs became a massive source of hope and comfort for me.” The lyrics of the sixth track on Patchwork “Swimming Upstream” read: “Well some nights I feel okay, I close my eyes and I drift away / Some nights I just lay and stare at the ceiling / Like it’s gonna go somewhere.” These lyrics describe a relatable feeling among many people living during the pandemic, as many lost their jobs and social distancing was encouraged. As a touring musician, Rosenberg was blindsided by the sudden change in lifestyle of being told to stay indoors and not interact with others. Fans, whose lives had also been upended, could relate to his lyric’s sentiments. They could also recognize some of the songs from the brief live streams he held on Instagram. A mutually beneficial relationship between artist and audience bloomed, where each party became the hope and comfort for the other amidst the pandemic.

Another folk music surprise that emerged from quarantine was Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album Folklore, released July 24th, 2020. This album was a drastic departure from her previous pure-pop album Lover and a completely new endeavour into an unguarded acoustic sound. Swift spoke of her inspirations on Twitter while in quarantine: “It started with imagery. Visuals that popped into my mind and piqued my curiosity… In isolation, my mind has run wild and this album is a result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness.” Swift used her time in isolation to create a folktale through songs with colourful characters and vivid scenarios. While some tracks on Folklore draw inspiration from her real-life, like “My Tears Ricochet,” a biting reference to her former record label framed as an ode to a past lover, songs like “Betty” and “August” build a greater story within the album. “August” details a character who is involved in a summer fling with someone in a different relationship, who we later learn in the song “Betty” is a boy named James. There are also echoes of pandemic-fueled fears in the song titles, with “Exile” referencing self-isolation and “Hoax” echoing some people’s view of COVID-19 and government control. These tracks constitute some of the best songs in Swift’s career and a project that could only exist in quarantine. Folklore is a COVID-19-specific album because it is a deep dive into Swift’s imagination and a calm introspection that may have never been born if isolation was not mandatory and her busy life as a celebrity was able to continue. Pressures of touring and selling albums also became unimportant, leaving only the relationship between Swift and her audience remaining.

Everyone is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic differently, and creativity is abundant in people’s homes and artist’s studios alike. Isolation has given musicians a place for introspection and a means to express themselves in a new and different way, with Passenger’s musings from his bedroom and Taylor Swift’s clever storytelling as stand out examples. A strong bond between fan and artist has also been created amidst the crisis, a much-needed comfort in an otherwise distressing time.

Written by: Sienna Russell-Edwards