Willow (song)

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"Willow"
A sepia toned picture of Taylor Swift standing in a field. The background consists of trees.
Single by Taylor Swift
from the album Evermore
ReleasedDecember 11, 2020 (2020-12-11)
RecordedJuly 2020
GenreChamber folk
Length3:34
LabelRepublic
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s)Aaron Dessner
Taylor Swift singles chronology
"The 1"
(2020)
"Willow"
(2020)
"No Body, No Crime"
(2021)
Music video
"Willow" on YouTube

"Willow" (stylized in all lowercase) is a song by American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, released on December 11, 2020, through Republic Records. It is the opening track of her ninth studio album, Evermore (2020), serving as its lead single. A chamber-folk ballad built around picked guitars, glockenspiel, flute, strings, and percussion, "Willow" is a love song making use of several metaphors to convey the singer's romantic state of mind, such as portraying her life as a willow tree.

Swift penned the song's lyrics upon hearing an instrumental composition by the song's producer Aaron Dessner. She compared the song's overarching motif to casting a love spell. An accompanying music video, directed by Swift, premiered the same day as the song's release. The video is a continuation of the storyline from her preceding video for "Cardigan" (2020), showing a golden thread that guides the singer through a mystical saga and leads her to her fated lover. "Willow" received acclaim from music critics, who complimented its romantic lyricism and guitar-centric sound.

"Willow" debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, scoring Swift her seventh number-one song in the United States, third number-one debut, and second chart-topper in 2020 after "Cardigan"; simultaneously, Evermore opened at number-one on the Billboard 200, making Swift the first act in history to debut atop both the charts in the same week on two occasions, following Folklore and "Cardigan". The single also broke the Hot 100 record for the biggest fall from number one, largely due to the Christmas songs that flooded the chart. "Willow" further topped Billboard's Hot Alternative Songs, Hot Rock & Alternative Songs, Digital Song Sales, and Adult Pop Songs charts. The song also reached number one in Australia, Canada, and Singapore, and the top 10 in Belgium, Hungary, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. "Willow" received its live debut performance at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. Its music video earned three nominations at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards.

Background and release[edit]

American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift launched her eighth studio album, Folklore, in July 2020. After its release, the album's co-producer Aaron Dessner casually composed an instrumental track "Westerly", named after the location of Swift's Rhode Island home. An hour later, Swift wrote "Willow" to the track and sent him back the finished song.[1] "Willow" was a surprise release made available on December 11, 2020, alongside Swift's second surprise album, Evermore, as its lead single.[2] The song was written by Swift and Dessner, who also produced the track. Dessner programmed the track and played drums, percussion, keyboards, synthesizers, piano, and electric, bass, and acoustic guitars. The orchestration was provided by Bryce Dessner. Greg Calbi and Steve Fallone mastered the track at Sterling Sound, Edgewater, New Jersey, while Jonathan Low mixed it at Long Pond Studios in Hudson Valley, New York.[3]

On December 13, 2020, Swift's 31st birthday, an electronic "Dancing Witch" version of "Willow" was released, remixed by Swedish producer Elvira. It was followed by an acoustic "Lonely Witch" version on December 14, and a synth-driven "Moonlit Witch" version on December 15.[4][5][6] A video for the "Lonely Witch" version, featuring behind-the-scenes pictures from the "Willow" music video, and a video for the "Dancing Witch" version, featuring the storyboards of the "Willow" music video, were uploaded to Swift's YouTube channel on December 15, 2020.[7][8] "Willow (90's trend remix)", an electronic remix of the song, was released as part of the Evermore fan edition, which was available for digital download on June 3, 2021.[9][10] The remix was later independently released onto digital download and streaming services on June 14.[11]

Composition[edit]

A picture of a willow tree with a body of water in front of it.
The song portrays life as a willow tree (pictured), and life-changing love as a wind that bends the tree.

"Willow" is a chamber folk[12] ballad[13] with Americana stylings,[14] indie folk orchestration,[15] tropical house accents,[16] and a hip hop-leaning rhythm reminiscent of Swift's 2017 album, Reputation.[17] It is built around a glockenspiel, drum machines, cello, French horn, electric guitars, violin, flute, and orchestrations, and is characterized by its "breathless" chorus.[3][18]

"Willow" is about intrigue, desire, and the complexity that goes into wanting someone. I think it sounds like casting a spell to make someone fall in love with you.

The song is mostly set in 4
4
common time
with 2
4
bars in the chorus. It has a tempo of 84 beats per minute. It is written in the key of E minor and Swift's vocals span from E3 to B5.[20] Constructed in verse–chorus form,[17] it follows the chord progression Em–D–Em–D–Em–D–C.[20] Lyrically, "Willow" is a love song[21] that sees Swift invite her soulmate into her life, making use of several metaphors.[16] Its chorus consists of lyrics such as "Wherever you stray, I follow" and "I'm begging for you to take my hand", which reference Swift's older lyrics: "nothing safe is worth the drive / And I will follow you, follow you home" in "Treacherous" (2012), and "you take my hand and drag me head first" in "Fearless" (2008), respectively.[22]

Critical reception[edit]

Patrick Ryan of USA Today named "Willow" as a lyrical standout on Evermore.[23] In his album review for The New York Times, Jon Pareles complimented the song's "restlessly intertwined guitar picking" as one of Evermore's numerous musical flourishes.[24] Paste critic Ellen Johnson commended the song as a "graceful opener" to Evermore,[25] while Bobby Olivier of Spin called it an earworm suited for beach bonfires.[26] Writing for The Guardian, Alexis Petridis opined that "Willow" could easily function as a "pop banger" if synthesizers, auto-tune and programmed beats replaced its "tasteful" acoustic arrangement.[27] Variety's Chris Willman wrote that the song represents Swift's state of mind, and deemed it a cousin to "Invisible String" and "Peace", the eleventh and fifteenth tracks on Folklore (2020), respectively.[28] Insider writers Courteney Larocca and Callie Ahlgrim lauded "Willow"; Ahlgrim admired the song's chorus and lyrics that can easily convey "deeply tangled" human emotions, while Larocca thought that the song resumes Swift's "dreamland" trope from "The Lakes" (2020), the final track on Folklore.[22] Rolling Stone named "Willow" one of 2020's best pop collaborations, praising the pairing between Swift and producer Dessner.[29]

Commercial performance[edit]

Debuting at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, "Willow" scored Swift her seventh number-one single in the US. It made her the first artist in history to debut an album and a single at number one simultaneously on two occasions, previously achieving it with Folklore and "Cardigan" (2020). "Willow" was Swift's third number-one debut on the Hot 100, after "Shake It Off" (2014) and "Cardigan"; her second Hot 100 number-one in 2020. The song became Swift's 29th top-10 hit on the Hot 100, surpassing Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder as the artist with the sixth most top-10 entries in the chart's history, and extended her female record for the most debuts in the top-10, with 19.[30] "Willow" collected 30 million streams, 12.3 million radio impressions, and 59,000 digital sales in its first week.[30] On the chart dated January 2, 2021, it descended to number 38 on the Hot 100, due in part to Christmas songs flooding the chart, marking the biggest fall from the number-one spot in the chart's history, and hence surpassing the record set by "Trollz" by 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj.[31] In its third week on the Hot 100 (dated January 9, 2021), "Willow" climbed up 15 spots to number 23.[32] It spent 20 total weeks on the chart.[33]

"Willow" also debuted atop the Billboard Digital Songs chart, furthering her record for the most number-one tracks on the chart, with 21.[30] The song also topped the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart, followed by 13 other Evermore tracks, giving Swift her second number-one song on the chart after "Cardigan". On the Billboard Hot Alternative Songs chart, Swift claimed 16 spots led by "Willow", besting Machine Gun Kelly's 12 simultaneous entries. Additionally, the song topped Billboard Alternative Streaming Songs and Alternative Digital Song Sales.[34] Four months after its release, "Willow" topped the Billboard Adult Top 40 airplay chart dated April 21, 2021. It marked Swift's eighth number-one single on the chart and her first since "Delicate" (2018), tying her with Katy Perry for the third-most leaders on the chart.[35] It spent three weeks atop it.[36]

In Canada, "Willow" arrived at number one on the Canadian Hot 100, generating Swift's seventh number-one hit in the country.[37] On the UK Singles Chart, "Willow" arrived at number three, shifting 35,183 units in its opening week;[38] it was blocked from the top spot by two Christmas songs. The song marked Swift's eleventh top-five hit in the country. "Willow", along with fellow Evermore tracks "Champagne Problems" (number 15) and "No Body, No Crime" (number 19), increased Swift's total top-20 entries in the country to 21.[39] Similarly, "Willow" landed at number three on Irish Singles Chart, alongside tracks "Champagne Problems" and "No Body, No Crime" at numbers six and 11, respectively, increasing Swift's total amount of Irish top-50 hits to 38.[40]

In Australia, Swift achieved a "Chart Double" by topping both albums and singles charts at the same time. "Willow" opened atop the ARIA Singles Chart, garnering the singer her seventh Australian number-one hit, and the second in 2020 following "Cardigan".[41] In New Zealand, "Willow" debuted at number three on the Top 40 Singles chart, with Evermore tracks "Champagne Problems", "No Body, No Crime" and "Gold Rush" landing at numbers 24, 29 and 34, respectively.[42] On Billboard Global 200 and Global Excl. U.S. charts, "Willow" peaked at numbers two and five, respectively.[43]

Music video[edit]

An accompanying music video for "Willow", directed by Swift, was released along with the song.[44] It is Swift's third self-directed video, following "The Man" and "Cardigan".[45] The video describes the experience of yearning for someone and life's twists along the way to finding the right person.[46] On December 15, 2020, a behind-the-scenes video and a "Before And After" video, featuring the original video footage side by side with their corresponding digital storyboard shots, illustrated by Vincent Lucido, were released.[47][48]

Synopsis and analysis[edit]

The "Willow" music video is a continuation of the "Cardigan" video, picking up where the former left off.[46] Swift, drenched from her oceanic voyage,[a] sits covered by a warm glow of her rustic cabin.[19] A golden string in her hands (referencing the Folklore track "Invisible String")[46] leads her to an alternate reality inside the back of her magical piano that helps her to traverse time and space.[49] Swift has used the color gold to represent her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, throughout her albums Reputation (2017), Lover (2019) and Folklore.[46] The piano opens into a rabbit hole under the roots of a willow tree in an autumnal forest, on the other side. Swift emerges from the willow, embarking on a mystical journey guided by the magical thread. She sees a reflection of herself with a man (Korean-American dancer Taeok Lee) in a moonlit pool.[49]

Taylor Swift is seen trapped inside a glass box with wooden frames. A man is seen outside of the box, looking in.
A scene in the "Willow" music video, where Swift is trapped inside a glass box, unable to join her love interest.

The string later leads her to a scene from her childhood (a reference to "Seven"),[50] where the child versions of Swift and Lee are seen playing together with the string, suggesting that the pair is destined to be together.[46] Swift exits the tent and finds her adult self at a carnival tent party,[49] where she performs with a golden mist-emitting lute inside a glass box,[46] (a metaphor from "Mirrorball")[50] dressed in an cream-colored Zimmerman gown and a bridal headpiece by Jennifer Behr[46] (a "Love Story" reference).[50] While Swift finds Lee, she is trapped inside the glass box, which Swift described before the video's premiere as a metaphor for her feelings about fame. She then realizes that the only way out is to follow the magical thread through the rabbit hole under floor of the glass box, a scene that may represent Swift reaching her lowest moments before finding a golden path once more. During this scene, Swift looks into the camera directly, while mouthing the lyrics "I come back stronger than a '90s trend", a nod to 1989, which is her first pop album.[46]

The scene shifts to a wintry forest,[49] where Swift emerges hooded in a cloak reminiscent of her video for "...Ready for It?" (2017).[46] She is joined by other hooded dancers who gather in a circle to perform a ceremony around a bonfire that oozes lots of golden mist and magical orbs.[46] Swift has referenced witchcraft in previous songs such as "...Ready For It?", "I Did Something Bad" (2017), and "Mad Woman" (2020).[50] While dancing, she finds the golden string once again and follows it, leading her back to her cottage. Lee pulls off his mask and looks at the departing Swift in despair. Swift exits the piano wearing a new gown, representing the journey back to her roots as a changed person due to her experiences in the outside world.[46]

At the end of the string, Swift finds out that she is not alone in the cottage and that the string has guided her to back to her lover, Lee,[49] while the lyrics "every bait-and-switch was a work of art" play. The scene sees Swift appreciate the obstacles in her life that led to their relationship.[46] The hook that she repeats throughout the song—"I'm begging for you to take my hand / Wreck my plans, that's my man"—finally comes true at the video's end. The couple walks out the door, holding hands, into a forest shrouded in golden sunlight.[49] This climax references "Daylight", the final track on Swift's seventh album Lover, in which she sings about abandoning her cloaks, and how one has to "step into the daylight and let it go".[50]

Production[edit]

Taylor Swift shooting the music video for "Willow" using a remote-controlled camera fixed on a crane.
Abiding COVID-19 regulations, the music video was shot using a remote camera mounted on a jib, without the need for a professional camera operator.

The cinematography was handled by Rodrigo Prieto, who worked on the "Cardigan" video as well. Swift did not reveal to Prieto or the technical crew that the video was for a new album or song, so the video was shot without using the song. The shooting took place under strict COVID-19 pandemic safety measures, including testing protocols, as advised by Directors Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild and International Cinematographers Guild.[49] The entire crew, including Swift and Lee, had their masks on; the pair took off their masks only during action. The dancers in the scene depicting witchcraft had their masks on while performing, thus their faces are not visible in the video.[49] A color-coded system was used to signify which crew member could be close to the set and the actors; anybody in immediate vicinity of a scene had to wear a red wristband. Face shields were used whenever Swift or any cast was approached. The video was shot without a camera operator, using a crane-directed remote camera.[49]

The pre-production phase was a back-and-forth interactive process between Swift, Prieto and other technicians. Swift wanted the video to conclude back in the cabin (as with "Cardigan") and that her lover, Lee, would be inside when she returns. Upon further discussion with Prieto and team, it was decided that both Swift and Lee would leave the cabin at the end. Swift initially developed the idea for the video as set at night, but then decided it would occur during the daytime. For the witchcraft scene, Swift did not want to use a real bonfire due to the 2020 California wildfires. Instead, she conceived of using magical orbs.[49]

Ethan Tobman, the production designer, presented Swift with reference images and ideas for the sets, and one of them was having magenta leaves on the ground, which the singer liked. Tobman also suggested the idea for the autumnal forest. He worked with his art director, Simon Morgan, over Zoom. For the bonfire scene, Morgan and Prieto, gaffer Manny Tapia and key grip Donald Reynolds, sound-staged first and taped the space in the center where the magic orbs would be. The distance was measured to the blue screen background, and taped the spots of the trees, and mapped the lighting for the set of the carnival scene.[49]

Awards and nominations[edit]

"Willow" was nominated for a Nashville Songwriters Award in 2021, for the category "Ten Songs I Wish I'd Written",[51] while the music video was nominated for an Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) award in the editorial category.[52] At the 2021 Meus Prêmios Nick, "Willow" received a nomination for Video of the Year.[53] At the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards, "Willow" received three nominations for Best Pop, Best Direction, and Best Art Direction, while Swift received a nod for Artist of the Year.[54]

Awards and nominations for "Willow"
Year Ceremony Award Result Ref.
2021 AICP Awards Editorial: Music Videos Nominated
MTV Video Music Awards Best Pop Nominated
Best Direction Nominated
Best Art Direction Nominated
Meus Prêmios Nick Video of the Year Nominated
MTV Europe Music Awards Best Video Nominated
Nashville Songwriters Association International Ten Songs I Wish I'd Written Pending

Live performance[edit]

Swift performed "Willow" for the first time at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, as part of a medley with "Cardigan" and "August", in a "dreamy" cottagecore setting featuring a moss-covered cabin inside a forest, accompanied by collaborators Dessner and Jack Antonoff. The singer won Album of the Year for Folklore at the ceremony.[57][58] Pitchfork critic Cat Zhang praised the performance as one of the show's best moments. Zhang lauded Swift's vocals and the enchanted forest-themed spectacle of the set, describing her look as a "benevolent fairy princess in a kingdom of dwarves".[59] The Washington Post ranked Swift's performance as the sixth best of the evening, and highlighted its "woodsy, mystical aesthetic" aligning with that of Folklore, with "haunted-looking trees and glittering gold lights in the background".[60] Billboard writer Heran Mamo ranked the "Lord of the Rings-meets-Twilight fantasy" performance as the fourth best of the show.[61] Writing for Rolling Stone, music journalist Rob Sheffield ranked Swift's performance as the first of the "10 Reasons We Loved the 2021 Grammys."[62]

Track listing[edit]

Credits and personnel[edit]

Credits adapted from YouTube.[72]

Song[edit]

Video[edit]

  • Taylor Swift – director
  • Rodrigo Prieto – director of photography
  • Jil Hardin – producer
  • Chancler Haynes – editor
  • Ethan Tobman – production designer
  • Regina Fernandez – production designer
  • Joseph Cassell – stylist
  • Sunshine Madsen – stylist
  • Joe Osborne – first assistant director
  • EV Salomon – co-first assistant director
  • Ingenuity Studios – visual effects
  • Grant Miller – visual effects
  • David Lebensfeld – visual effects
  • Jumanah Shaheen – visual effects
  • Rebecca Skinner – executive producer
  • Kathy Palmer – co-producer
  • Manny Tapia – gaffer
  • Alexander Griffiths – key grip
  • Vincent Lucido – storyboarder

Charts[edit]

Certifications[edit]

Certifications and sales for "Willow"
Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[114] Platinum 70,000double-dagger
Canada (Music Canada)[115] Platinum 80,000double-dagger
Norway (IFPI Norway)[116] Gold 30,000double-dagger
Poland (ZPAV)[117] Gold 25,000double-dagger
United Kingdom (BPI)[118] Gold 400,000double-dagger

double-dagger Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

Release history[edit]

Release dates and formats for "Willow"
Region Date Format(s) Version Label Ref.
Various December 11, 2020 Original Republic [63]
December 13, 2020 "Dancing Witch" [64][65]
United States December 14, 2020 Adult contemporary radio Original [119]
December 15, 2020 Contemporary hit radio [120]
Various
  • Digital download
  • streaming
"Lonely Witch" [66]
December 16, 2020 "Moonlit Witch" [67]
Italy December 18, 2020 Contemporary hit radio Original Universal [121]
Various June 14, 2021
  • Digital download
  • streaming
90's trend remix Republic [11]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Footnote[edit]

  1. ^ In the music video for "Cardigan", Swift enters a magical piano in her cottage, which teleports her to an enchanted forest, and then to a dark, stormy ocean. She is stranded on the water surface, clinging on to a floating piano.[19]

Citations[edit]

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  3. ^ a b Minsker, Evan (December 11, 2020). "Taylor Swift Releases New Album evermore: Listen and Read the Full Credits". Pitchfork. Archived from the original on December 13, 2020. Retrieved December 14, 2020.
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