Home » Albums » folklore » Songs on folklore » the last great american dynasty

the last great american dynasty

folklore (2020)

“the last great american dynasty” is the third song on Taylor’s eighth studio album, folklore (2020). It follows the story of Rebekah Harkness, a patron of the arts, and founder of the Rebekah Harkness Foundation. In 2013, Taylor bought a Rhode Island mansion once owned by Rebekah Harkness, which is known as “Holiday House.”
“the last great american dynasty” narrates the story and satirizes the vilification of American socialite and composer Rebekah Harkness, who previously inhabited the Holiday House — Taylor’s mansion in Watch Hill, an affluent coastal village in Westerly, Rhode Island. Written in a townsfolk third-person narrative, it details the following: Rebekah West, a middle-class divorcée from St. Louis, married William “Bill” Harkness in 1947, who was the heir to Standard Oil, an oil-refining company that was the 19th-century’s first and largest multinational corporation in the world. The couple bought a seaside estate in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and nicknamed it “Holiday House”. Bill died of a heart attack in 1954, for which Rebekah was blamed by the town. After her then-husband’s death, Rebekah inherited his enormous wealth and became one of the wealthiest women in the history of the United States.

Background and Lyrical Theme

Taylor wanted to write a song about Rebekah Harkness and Holiday House for a long time. “I don’t think we often hear about women who did whatever the hell they wanted,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2020. She first learned about Harkness from a real estate agent who walked her through the Rhode Island property. Consequently, Taylor started reading a lot about Harkness’ life and found her stories interesting. It led to the development of parallels between Harkness and herself, both of them “being the lady that lives in that house on the hill that everybody gets to gossip about”. Taylor stated she was looking for a chance to write about Harkness, and finally found it when she heard the instrumental track that Dessner sent. She employed a narrative device in the song’s lyrics commonly found in country music, which she described as: “the first verse you sing about someone else, the second verse you sing about someone else who’s even closer to you, and then in the third verse, you go, ‘Surprise! It was me’. You bring it personal for the last verse”. In the documentary folklore: the long pond studio sessions (2020) she told Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff:

«When [Aaron] sent me the track to ‘the last great american dynasty’ I had been wanting to write a song about Rebekah Harkness since 2013, probably. I’d never figured out the right way to do it because there was never a track that felt like it could hold an entire story of somebody’s life and moving between generations. When I heard that [the track] I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think this is my opening. I think this is my moment. I think I can write the Rebekah Harkness story!' It has that country music narrative device. In country music, it’s like, ‘This guy did this, then this woman did this, then they met...and their kid was me! I was that kid!' Which is the best because when you listen to country music it’s like, ‘Shivers everywhere, my whole body!'»

Taylor Swift

Production

Aiming for an uptempo and enticing sound, Aaron Dessner composed the instrumentals of “the last great american dynasty”, inspired by the electric guitars in Radiohead’s album, In Rainbows (2007). He sent the music sample to Taylor; she liked the sound, and wrote the lyrics to the song in under the time Dessner would go out for a run and return.

«I wrote that after we’d been working for a while. It was an attempt to write something attractive, more uptempo and kind of pushing. It was very much in this sound world that I’ve been playing around with, and she immediately clicked with that. Initially I was imagining these dreamlike distant electric guitars and electronics but with an element of folk. There’s a lot going on in that sense. I sent it before I went on a run, and when I got back from the run, that song was there. It’s almost like a song would come out like a lightning bolt. It’s exhilarating. The shared focus, the clarity of her ideas, and the way she structures things, it’s all there. But I think she works really hard when she’s working, and then she tweaks. She keeps going, so sometimes things would evolve or change. By the time she actually sings it, she’s really inside of it. She doesn’t do very many vocal takes before she nails it.»

Aaron Dessner

The Folklore of Holiday House

Taylor draws subtle comparisons between herself and Rebekah Harkness in the song. Rebekah, whom people actually called Betty. She was infamous for not fitting in, entirely, in society, which only heightened Taylor’s interest in her. She told People in 2021, “It can be a real pearl-clutching moment for society when a woman owns her desires and wildness, and I love the idea that the woman in question would be too joyful in her freedom to even care that she’s ruffling feathers, raising eyebrows or becoming the talk of the town. The idea that she decided there were marvelous times to be had, and that was more important”. She also told Entertainment Weekly in 2020:

«Anyone who's been there before knows that I do 'The Tour,' where I show everyone through the house. And I tell them different anecdotes about each room, because I've done that much research on this house and this woman. So in every single room, there's a different anecdote about Rebekah Harkness. If you have a mixed group of people who've been there before and people who haven't, [the people who’ve been there] are like, "Oh, she's going to do the tour. She's got to tell you the story about how the ballerinas used to practice on the lawn.” And they'll go get a drink and skip it because it's the same every time. But for me, I'm telling the story with the same electric enthusiasm, because it's just endlessly entertaining to me that this fabulous woman lived there. She just did whatever she wanted.»

Taylor Swift
Rebekah invited “big names” and her “bitch pack”—a group of female city friends—to the house, and spent her new money by throwing numerous high-class events and “outrageous” parties; Watch Hill scorned her for causing the downfall of the Harkness family, calling her the maddest and the “most shameless” woman in the town’s history. Pursuing her passion for arts, Rebekah founded a professional ballet company in 1964, called the Harkness Ballet.

In the song’s bridge, Taylor reveals her purchase of the Holiday House after 50 years of its vacancy, and in the final chorus, she shifts to first-person narrative, proclaiming herself “the loudest woman” the town has ever seen, and correlates between her celebrity life and Rebekah’s controversies. Taylor resonates her highly criticized moves with elements of Rebekah’s story, and concludes the song with an outro of “I had a marvelous time ruining everything”. Mainstream media has linked several moments of Taylor’s unfavorable press to that of Rebekah’s, including the scrutiny she faces because of her highly publicized romantic life, her “squad” of popular celebrities, the Fourth of July parties she threw at the Holiday House, Watch Hill residents’ concerns about the attention Taylor brings to the community, and the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, suggesting a tax on secondary homes costlier than $1 million, which was famously dubbed “the Taylor Swift tax”.

Live Performance

Taylor first performed “the last great american dynasty” as part of the concert film and documentary folklore: the long pond studio sessions (2020), together with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff.

Critical Reception

Critics praised “the last great american dynasty” for Taylor’s signature wordplay and the storytelling plot. Hannah Mylrea of NME lauded the song for its brooding instrumentals, Taylor’s peculiar vocals, and storytelling style reminiscent of works by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bob Dylan, and pitted it as “a contender for the best Taylor Swift song ever written”. Noting its historical details, Americana imagery and “Fitzgerald-esque” lines, Pitchfork writer Julian Mapes hailed the song as “the all-timer, the instant classic” that celebrates society-defying women, and stated that the lyrics “play out in your mind like a storybook”, but successfully point out society’s reception of assertive women.  PopMatters critic Michael Sumsion labelled the song a shrewd comparison that upgrades a small-town tale into a “towering myth”. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone wrote that the song satirizes the upper-class environment of “Starlight“, the fifteenth track on Taylor’s 2012 album RED, and matched the similarities between the songs—the usage of the word “marvelous” and the muses being people who lived decades before Taylor’s birth.

In her list ranking all 161 songs by Taylor yet, Hannah Mylrea of NME placed the song at No. 2, only behind “All Too Well” (2012). NME placed the song at No. 8 on its list of “50 Best Songs of 2020”. Uproxx listed the track as the 15th best song of 2020. Pitchfork named it the 32nd best song of 2020 on its list ranking the year’s 100 best songs. Billboard ranked it as the 39th best song of 2020, while American Songwriter listed it amongst its 20 best songs of the year.

Commercial Performance

Upon release of folklore, “the last great american dynasty” reached top-20 in many countries worldwide. In the US, all of the album’s sixteen tracks debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously, with “the last great american dynasty” at No. 13, one of its five top-20 hits. The song further debuted at No. 42 on the Billboard Digital Song Sales chart. The song peaked at No. 13 on both of the Canadian Hot 100 and New Zealand Top 40 Singles charts.

In Popular Culture

“the last great american dynasty” became a fan-favorite from folklore. Upon release, the song ignited a phenomenon of viral memes on the internet, with the phrase “there goes the last great American dynasty” applied to several fictional families or friends that appear in films and television shows, such as The Twilight Saga, High School Musical, Succession, Gilmore Girls, Schitt’s Creek, This Is Us and Jersey Shore, Disney Channel releases like Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, and many more.

On September 8, 2020, a Twitter user proposed the idea for a film inspired by “the last great american dynasty”, with a cast featuring Blake Lively as Rebekah, Ryan Reynolds as Bill and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the neighbor, to which the three actors responded affirmatively. Taylor extended her support to the idea, along with Gigi Hadid.

Lyrics

[Verse 1]
Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny
Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis
Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money
And the town said, “How did a middle-class divorcée do it?”
The wedding was charming, if a little gauche
There’s only so far new money goes
They picked out a home and called it “Holiday House”
Their parties were tasteful, if a little loud
The doctor had told him to settle down
It must have been her fault his heart gave out
And they said

[Chorus]
There goes the last great American dynasty
Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been
There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen
She had a marvelous time ruining everything

[Verse 2]
Rebekah gave up on the Rhode Island set forever
Flew in all her Bitch Pack friends from the city
Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names
And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet
And losing on card game bets with Dalí
And they said

[Chorus]
There goes the last great American dynasty
Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been
There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen
She had a marvelous time ruining everything

[Bridge]
They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green
Fifty years is a long time
Holiday House sat quietly on that beach
Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits
And then it was bought by me

[Chorus]
Who knows, if I never showed up, what could’ve been
There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen
I had a marvelous time ruining everything

[Outro]
I had a marvelous time ruining everything
A marvelous time ruining everything
A marvelous time
I had a marvelous time

General Information
ArtistTaylor Swift
Albumfolklore
ReleasedJuly 24, 2020
RecordedMay–July, 2020
StudioKitty Committee (Los Angeles)
Long Pond (Hudson Valley)
Sterling Studio (NYC)
GenreIndie Folk
Length3:51
LabelRepublic Records
SongwritersTaylor Swift
Aaron Dessner
ProducerAaron Dessner
FOLKLORE CHRONOLOGY
cardiganthe last great american dynastyexile
Single Certification
Song Artwork
Rebekah Harkness
Live Performance
Lyric Video
Official Audio
Official Live Audio