Breaking Down “Willow”: A Video Out of my Quaran-Dreams

The clock struck midnight. Instead of worrying that my carriage was about to turn back into a pumpkin, I was planted firmly in front of my computer in the dark of night, a pair of Beats headphones around my ears, as my excitement reached a crescendo. The lead single to Taylor Swift’s surprise 9th studio album, Evermore, was about to premiere.

Willow picks up right where Folklore‘s Cardigan video left us. With Taylor, a water-logged lyrical goddess divine, staring straight into the camera with all the vulnerability of Bambi. The golden dust of the previous video is now a shimmering gold string – a la Folklore‘s Invisible String where Swift sang “One single thread of gold tied me to you“. The string beckons her, and us, back into the world of the magical piano and deposits us through the crack in a willow tree on the banks of an inky lake.

“I’m like the water when your ship rolled in that night.
Rough on the surface, but you cut through like a knife.”

Swift slices us lyrically in the opening lines of Willow; setting the stage for her specialty: transportive tales of love, magic, and hopeful optimism in the face of obstacles, real or other-worldly. As the pitch-black lake draws our focus, Swift peers over its edge as a man stares back at her through the watery depths of her memories. As she begs for us to take her hand, she dives in, chasing the golden string, and her man, through time and place.

Prior to the video’s midnight release, Swift participated in a YouTube Q&A, mentioning that Willow‘s video would evoke scenes harkening back to four songs from Folklore: Seven, Mirrorball, Exile, and Mad Woman.

We’re transported presumably to the past, as two children who represent our video’s love interests share some fun in a makeshift tent of blankets with the string of fate that ties them together. This scene most directly reflects the imagery of Folklore‘s Seven, where two children escape their reality with whimsical fantasies and a pure love that stretches “to the Moon and to Saturn“. All too quickly, the boy has disappeared from Taylor’s life. Her younger-self leaves the naïvety of childhood behind, exiting the tent and following the string once more.

She enters an enclosed stage at a fairground in the dead of night. She sings from her pedestal, entertaining the folks of the fair as they pass her by. Swift watches them kiss and laugh, talk and live; paying her little mind. This scene elicits the feeling of Folklore‘s Mirrorball and Swift’s opinion on her own fame. This shouldn’t come as a shock to the fans who expertly spotted her diving into a fishbowl during Lover‘s music video from 2019. As Swift eyes the dusty fairground crowds, they part. Her mystery man has appeared, grown once more, and slowly walks the path toward her. His eyes are locked on her, ignoring all the sights and sounds around him. In Mirrorball, Swift expresses her feelings on being an entertainer, and the appreciation she has for the one person in her life that sees past the performance to the beating heart underneath.

“You are not like the regulars, the masquerade revelers,
Drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten.”

When Swift tries to join him on the ground, she realizes she’s stuck in the glass case of fame. Our lovers are separated once more. Her only out is a trapdoor through the bottom of her gilded cage, with a familiar gold string leading the way. A physical reference perhaps to a line in Folklore‘s Exile, where Taylor sings, “I think I’ve seen this film before, so I’m leaving out the side door“. She takes the exit with a coy wink to the camera, reminding us never to count her out; she’ll “come back stronger than a 90’s trend“.

The glittering rabbit hole drops us on the edge of a snowy clearing at night, where a caped Swift leads a pack of masked followers. They begin to dance in a ritualistic way as she weaves through them while crackling gold strands descend into the night sky and out into the world. I’m suspecting this is her nod to Mad Woman, where she sings: “Women like hunting witches too“. This group, very clearly, are witches working spells. Swift joins them, dancing around the mystical golden fire as she croons, “The more that you say, the less I know. Wherever you stray, I follow“.

Once again, the string beckons, and she follows for the final time. Leaving the glow of the group behind her, she treks off into the snowy night to seek her fate. When the camera pans up, Swift is gone, but the man she pursues was there the whole time, masked and dancing right along with her. She exits through the magic piano in the cabin, seemingly back where it all began, though now she’s dressed as a pioneer woman. Her cardigan is long gone and the golden strands of fate finally come to an end, leading her to a place and time where her love was meant to thrive. Her lover is there, and the smiles on their faces tell us they finally have all the time in the world to just be. They walk out of the cabin into the light of day, hand in hand.

As the screen faded to black, my first thoughts were of the track Daylight on Taylor’s seventh studio album, Lover. In it she says, “I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden, like daylight”. The gold string was able to lead her through the long dark night into the morning of peace and contentment in her relationship. Willow‘s music video is a beautiful companion to the raging seas of Cardigan‘s video imagery. They each feel like bookends to the lyrical tales packed within. While Taylor Swift has made a career of being a chameleon, morphing into the the physical representations of her next album era, Evermore, and it’s first single Willow, are a testament to the magic that can happen when she takes off her coat and stays a while. This mad woman never ceases to amaze me.

Leave a Reply