Music in 2020—Very Much Unlike 2020 Itself—Was All About Fairy Tales

How everyone from Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy to Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift found escape from this hell year in fantasy.

When news spread back in March that we would be confined to our homes for the indefinite future, there was an obvious escapist answer: Live in a lush green pasture where one could harvest their own food, chat with carefree animals, and pretend that a glamorous period of solitude would lead to personal growth while the world figured its shit out. It was so delusionally enticing that some rich dimwits actually fled their mansions for a nice remote second home. But for most, if you couldn’t leave the closet-sized apartment you share with three roommates, this rustic escape came through the internet. Whether through a bug-eyed avatar on Animal Crossing or the cozy pastoral setting of Taylor Swift’s sister albums, cottagecore became a poignant trend of escape.  

There were so many times this year where I wished a fairy godmother would fall out of the sky and poof the troubles away. Or maybe some mythic man might fly to my window and carry me away to another realm. Both of these fantasies would be bizarre and disarming, but maybe it wouldn’t seem so strange compared to the hellscape that this year turned out to be. Which is why it was curious when a breadcrumb trail of fairy tales began to reveal itself in some of my favorite tracks of the year. 

Selena Gomez had her own take on finding a prince among dozens of frogs in her “Boyfriend” video. In the video for “Don’t Stop,” Megan Thee Stallion drew inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, giving new meaning to the Cheshire Cat. Shawn Mendes gave a wink to a fairytale escape in the trailer for “Wonder.” But the best tracks using such tropes didn’t glorify these magic tales—instead, they used them as metaphors for their personal realities that are full of melancholic self-awareness. They didn’t use them as Disney-fied references of an ideal life or sense of self. Instead, they subverted and matured these stories, first heard in their childhood, as they grow into adulthood with their personal reflection or grief. After months of protesting Black murders at the hands of police, for example, Beyoncé’s Black Is King was a musical celebration of Black life complete with stunning visuals. Although Lion King isn’t a fairytale (it was based on Hamlet and commissioned in the ’80s) and it’s not necessarily a wild story (aside from the talking animal bit), it shouldn’t be ignored that one of this year’s grandest artistic releases reconstructed an integral tale in the American canon of children’s stories to illustrate a spectrum of Blackness and assert that Black lives not only matter but have a remarkable story to tell.

Meanwhile, on Soccer Mommy’s “royal screw up,” images from Snow White collapse in on themselves. She becomes both a princess and then the villain holding herself captive. “I am a liar and my truths are shackled in my dungeon of fire / I’m the princess of screwin’ up,” she sings darkly. “And I’ll be the dragon / I’ll hold me captive.” There’s no grand rescue or happily-ever-after to this tale. Rather, her prince turns into a magic mirror, which she uses to view her “skewed reflection.” As she continually lays bare her self-destructive excesses, blunt guitar strums bloom into wavy reverb and melancholic strings. As the orchestra breaks through, Sophia Allison sings that she’s the captain of her own disaster. Then there’s what sounds like a brief moment of applause—maybe it’s validation for this personal admittance. Or maybe it’s the world watching her self-destruction as a kind of glorious performance. 

Through instrumentation and metaphor, Soccer Mommy subverts how fairy tales infiltrate our worldview. Some ancient fairy tales are abhorrently violent and creepy, whereas modern Disney renditions, whether the classic animations or modern live action interpretations, are whitewashed and antiquated in many respects. These are the stories that are sold to us and simultaneously instill hope and a black/white lens of morality. There’s a villain, an innocent princess waiting to be saved, and a hero. On “royal screw up,” Soccer mommy illustrates that the grandest villains can be ourselves.

The best tracks using such tropes didn’t glorify these magic tales—instead, they used them as metaphors for their personal realities that are full of melancholic self-awareness.

Meanwhile, Lady Gaga’s Chromatica opens with an epic string prelude, but we’re soon thrust into the frantic, strobe-lit nightclub of “Alice.” The pulsing, energetic beat tries to cushion Gaga’s unsettling journey of self-acceptance. Like Alice in Wonderland, she’s fallen down a hole and looks for a way out. “My name isn’t Alice, but I’ll keep looking / I’ll keep looking for Wonderland” she stressfully belts. More so it seems that she’s struggling to discern whether her escape to Wonderland is more of a comfort than the honesty of her home. Gaga laments how she’s tired of screaming. During the chorus she asks to be taken to Wonderland and then home. Are they the same? Or is one a hell? “Where’s my body / I’m stuck in my mind,” she sings. Similar to Soccer Mommy, Gaga conflates a storybook setting with her reality. She steps into the Mary Janes of a classic fairy tale protagonist, but by the end of the track the only resolution we’re left with is that she desires reprieve. Her final declaration: “Set me free.” 

Fairy tales are a tricky thing. They can be a comfort, planting the idea that good naturally prevails over evil, and the “good” are rewarded with true love in the end. Other times, they can feel like an exquisite trap. Take Peter Pan, a love story that doesn’t end the way we anticipate. Peter isn’t a prince, but a sad man-child. Him and Wendy don’t end up together, which leaves a bittersweet taste in the reader’s mouth watching through the eyes of a child. On the lead single of her surprise quarantine album Folklore, Taylor Swift reflects on the melancholic tale. On “Cardigan,” she wrote from the fictional perspective of a character named Betty, who reflects on a once-in-a-lifetime love that “tried to change the ending” of “Peter losing Wendy.” 

This is a far cry from Swift’s “Love Story.” There’s no way to know if Betty and her lover end happily in each other’s arms. (Although Swift does.) Instead, Folklore itself paints the grey areas of storytelling. Swift is aware that narrative is power. Narrative is a way to cope, and a way to heal. Two weeks ago she dropped her second album of 2020, Evermore, which winks at its sister album’s title and her own ability to weave others stories on the standout track “gold rush.” She sings, “My mind turns your life into folklore.” 

These tracks illustrate the disillusion of the fantasy we’ve been taught to want that runs parallel with a hunger for diversion and nostalgia. None of these songs suppose that there’s an easy solution that lies in fantasy.

Unlike Soccer Mommy and Gaga, Phoebe Bridgers knows no one is going to save her and tell her she’s the protagonist in this story. Even then, on her sophomore album Punisher, she looks to the heavens and tries to believe in a divine answer.  On the title track, she’s afraid of becoming her idol’s nightmare in small talk, that they won’t love her the way she loves them. She wrote it about Elliott Smith, referencing the cottage in Los Feliz where he lived that supposedly inspired the tale. “The house where you lived with Snow White,” she sings. Bridgers doubles down on fantasy, imagining her idol living with the animal-loving princess. Smith, who passed away before Bridgers even knew who he was, is just as fictional to her as the Disney character. In the last line of that verse, she wonders what Snow White thinks of the house’s design and the roof’s “story book tiles.” From the outside it’s a romantic, anachronistic dream. But from the inside, the view’s a bit more dim. “But from the window, it’s not a bad show / If your favorite thing’s Dianetics or stucco.”

Fairytales are simplified escapism. They take us out of time—or back in time—and allow for a conflict to be solved with a nice satin bow. The appeal of cottagecore or living in a fantasy isn’t its reality. One fan of the movement explained to the New York Times that “cottagecore is all about finally feeling comfortable and at peace, even if that peace is fake.” In contrast, these tracks illustrate the disillusion of the fantasy we’ve been taught to want that runs parallel with a hunger for diversion and nostalgia. None of these songs suppose that there’s an easy solution that lies in fantasy. Each time these stories are integrated into reality they become more complex. The idealization of the fairy tale and the hardship of reality both fissure. Sometimes what fairy tales suggest is not a big floofy dress or true love’s kiss, but an answer or a lesson. As Soccer Mommy realizes during “royal screw up,” that becomes complicated when the problem is our own selves. FL


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