Take me to the lakes: How Taylor Swift is reviving nature in music

A photo of Cross with a brain in her hair and wearing a plaid coat, copying the Evermore cover. She has a chicken standing on her shoulder.

The day after the release of 'evermore,' Cross recreated the album cover with her chicken. Her posts can be seen on her Instagram @whatthecluckeggs.

Caleigh Cross, a 27-year old Vermont woman, has had pet chickens for years, but she began to do something different with them this past year: pose alongside them to recreate Taylor Swift's album covers. 

Cross, a social media and marketing professional, has been a fan of Swift since the 31-year-old singer released “Love Story” in 2008. She feels she has grown up just “one era behind her’s” and views Swift as an older sister of sorts. She is not alone in feeling this connection to Swift; hundreds of fans expressed similar sentiments. 

For fans of Swift, the last year and a half have been nothing short of overwhelming. The singer-songwriter released two surprise albums in 2020 and began releasing her re-recorded albums, with “Red” slated to release this November. Sister albums “folklore” and “evermore” expanded Swift’s impact beyond the pop music charts and have now piqued the interest of an entirely new group: conservation scientists. 

These scientists are interested in the impact that Swift’s use of nature-based language has had on environmental empathy. It could be the first domino to fall in a series of events that leads to resolving many ecological issues. 

“Pop culture is part of how we see and know things,” said Jeff Opperman, the global lead freshwater scientist for the World Wildlife Fund and author of the New York Times article ‘Taylor Swift Is Singing Us Back to Nature.’ “We need artists like Taylor Swift beginning to integrate [nature] into their lyrics. It’s not going to solve [climate change] on its own by any means, but it’s a brick in rebuilding that bridge between us and nature.”

Opperman’s interest in Swift’s lyrics began when he decided to listen to the album “folklore” at the recommendation of several peers. He first noticed that all of the short videos for the album on Spotify were of Swift observing nature. Slowly, he realized how often Swift wove natural imagery into the lyrics of her songs.

“She’s in a meadow, she’s in a forest, she’s walking along a lake… It often takes a while for the lyrics to kind of sink in. You don’t really hear all the words, and then you start listening, and it’s like, ‘Oh! She keeps referencing parks and trees and creeks and lakes and all this stuff,’” Opperman observed. 

Opperman began figuring out just how many more nature-themed words Swift used compared to other pop artists. He compared the lyrics of the 32 songs on “folklore” and “evermore” to the first 32 songs on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits playlist and found that she uses nature-based language seven times as frequently as the other pop songs. 

Opperman’s analysis shows that Swift’s use of nature-related words is highly uncommon in modern music. A 2017 study published by the Association for Psychological Science titled “A Growing Disconnection From Nature Is Evident in Cultural Products” found that the use of nature-related words in song lyrics declined by 63% from the 1950s to the first decade of the 21st century. Their analysis of nature-related words in English works of fiction and film storylines found similar results. 

“It's an indication that the culture doesn't pay attention to nature or the most beautiful aspects of nature as much… If you value something, you would probably think more about it, talk about it more,” said Selin Kesebir. Kesebir is an associate professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School and the lead scientist on the study. 

The researchers found that as one encounters nature more frequently, it is more likely that they would include nature-related concepts in cultural creations. When they do not spend time in nature, they will not likely include a reference to it in a song, poem, or film. 

“The creative process requires creators to access elements of conceptual knowledge stored in their minds and to combine these elements (Ward & Kitayama, 2010). This means that nature-related concepts can make their way into cultural products if they are stored in the minds of cultural creators and are cognitively accessible to them,” the study stated. “Conversely, if creators have limited encounters with nature or if these encounters do not register with them, nature is less likely to feature in their work.”

Kesebir and her team found that urbanization and technological change are likely reasons for the declining interest in nature. Technology has become a replacement for the joy, recreation, and entertainment that nature once provided.

The researchers also believe that these findings are of concern due to the strong evidence that documents the positive effects of contact with nature and because “cultural products not only reflect the prevailing culture, they also shape it.” This belief means that as people lose physical contact with nature and do not hear or see it in cultural products, such as songs and movies, it creates a negative feedback loop that diminishes interest in nature altogether. 

“If you don't have these cultural role models, then you are less likely to enact that on your own... If you observed other people doing that, then you will be more likely to do that on your own,” said Kesebir. 

Kesebir, a Ph.D. in social psychology, believes that Swift’s impact on redeveloping this connection to nature could be significant, especially because she is this role model to so many people. She believes that Swift has far more reach than authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote about nature in the past. 

“I think it’s this key sort of on-ramp to becoming an active conservationist. That first step is like, ‘Oh, the woods are pretty. Taylor Swift liked it; maybe I should go outside, take some pictures.’ I think that's definitely a key first step on that continuum. At Sustain, we like to just take that to the next step further and link it to a call to action,” said Betsy Mortensen, the CEO and co-founder of Sustain. This non-profit organization partners environmental organizations with the music industry. 

Sustain holds song-writing retreats that bring people into national parks to connect with nature and form an emotional connection to public lands. Sustain also has a program called Trail Sessions, which pairs outdoor concerts with guided educational hikes at public lands. 

“70% of people that attend Trail Sessions have never visited our featured locations before, which kind of stunned me. So it is like a big part of the reason that people are coming out to these is because of the music component that they're attracted to, like, ‘Oh, I know this band, this sounds cool. I feel comfortable going to this place that I've never been because the band is there,’” said Mortensen, who has a master’s degree in Environment, Society, and Development. “95% of people intend to return to these places on their own.”

However, Mortensen and Sustain co-founder, Harrison Goodale, said that Swift’s nature-related lyrics are just the first step in inspiring people to connect to the outdoors. 

“I think that there is significance if the artists were able to promote the conservation efforts in terms of explaining why they're choosing to do nature, rather than just be like, ‘Oh, this is an aesthetic,’” said Goodale.

Goodale has a degree in Music Education and is a musician himself. He believes that albums like Swift’s should do more than just use nature as an aesthetic. Instead of just explaining why she likes trees, Goodale thinks that a call to action that explains the importance of these trees could do a lot to preserve them. 

Both Opperman and Kesebir also believe that Swift’s music on its own will not solve issues like climate change. Still, Swift may unintentionally disband this negative feedback loop by creating cultural products that increase interest in nature. 

However, Cross is an example of a fan of Swift’s who has found herself caring more about nature due to the lyrics in “folklore” and “evermore.” On top of spending more time with her chickens to pose them for photos, Cross has connected with specific lyrics that have drawn her closer to nature. One of the bonus tracks on the “folklore” album is titled “the lakes,” which includes vivid imagery in the lyrics. An example of these lyrics is, “I want auroras and sad prose // I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet.” This song, in particular, led to Cross paying more attention to her environment.

“I would say I paid more attention to lakes, which is so weird because obviously, lakes are pretty big here in Vermont; we have a ton of them. I never really loved looking at them, but I never noticed how beautiful they were with the mountains behind them, and now I always feel like in my head I can really take me to the lakes, and I want to go there and spend more time there,” Cross said. 

Although there is no empirical evidence that Swift’s music has led to more people becoming conservationists, anecdotes like Cross’ prove that it is possible.

“There is this cultural deficit, and if the biggest pop star in the world does this, well, that’s at least a start in repairing the cultural deficit,” Opperman said.

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