On July 23rd Taylor Swift posted a series of ominous pictures on Instagram. These included black and white photos of trees without captions. The 10th picture had a caption which read: “Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen. And that thing is my 8th studio album, folklore. Surprise…” (@taylorswift) July 24th 2020 we were blessed with Taylor’s “Indie record, that’s much cooler than mine.” (We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together)
Cardigan is narrated by Betty, and is told as she looks back at a relationship from her youth. She remembers feeling insecure and says her ex, James, ultimately made her feel safe: “When I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed… You put me on and said I was your favorite.” They had an intense relationship but in the end she got cheated on “Chase two girls, lose the one…When you are young, they assume you know nothing.” The fact that James “would haunt all of my what-ifs” affected her for awhile. She also recalled that James would “miss me once the thrill expired.” That appears to be exactly what happened, as Betty recalls the night James tried to win her back. He showed up at her front door unannounced. We don’t find out what came next: The song fades out as Betty repeats the refrain “I knew you’d come back to me.”
August is narrated by the girl James was cheating on Betty with: Unnamed, although Swift’s fans have nicknamed her Una for short. Overall she is relatively unimportant, due to the fact she was young and inexperienced. She sings in late-summer imagery: “Your back beneath the sun… Wishing I could write my name on it.” Una recalls her younger self as mostly unassuming, recollecting the times that she “canceled my plans just in case you’d call,” and, though she wanted her and James to be a real couple, it was enough “to live for the hope of it all.” (There’s also a flash of a scene of Una pulling up next to James in a car, a hint she wasn’t entirely passive.) Though, the romance ended when the summer did “August slipped away into a moment in time,” and Una is left with disclosure: “You weren’t mine to lose.”
Finally, it’s James’s turn. While the narrators of “cardigan” and “august” both look back on the love triangle, “Betty” takes place in the present tense, sung from the perspective of 17-year-old James. The backstory is very 2010 era Taylor Swift: everything started after a school dance, where James left Betty, then, after seeing her dance with someone else, stormed out. As James was walking home, Una showed up in a car “like a figment of my worst intentions,” and things went from there. Meanwhile, Betty found out what happened through a gossip named Inez. Betty was so upset that she switched homerooms.
As the song goes on, a remorseful James ponders how to get Betty back: “The only thing I wanna do…Is make it up to you.” Giving us a rousing sing-along chorus and an exhilarating key change, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of teenage romance. Swift throws in subtle signs that James is too immature for the feeling to stick. First, denial: “Would you trust me if I told you it was just a summer thing?” Then, shrugging off responsibility: “I’m only 17, I don’t know anything.” A dash of deflection: “Slept next to her, but I dreamt of you all summer long.” Finally, adding in bitterness: “Will you kiss me on the porch in front of all your stupid friends?” The song ends on the same cliffhanger that “cardigan” does: James shows up on Betty’s doorstep, dreaming of a reconciliation. The ending, Swift rhymes “standing in your cardigan” with “kissing in my car again.”
Within Folklore, Taylor Swift crats a narrative that has inspired the imaginations of many of her fans, as analysis of this new release began right from the get-go.