Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: The teenage love triangle behind Taylor Swift’s “folklore”

<p>Taylor Swift&#x27;s album &quot;folklore&quot; was released in July. The album is currently No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album charts, Swift&#x27;s seventh album to reach No. 1.</p>

Taylor Swift's album "folklore" was released in July. The album is currently No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album charts, Swift's seventh album to reach No. 1.

Chock full of characteristically sharp-witted lyrics, Taylor Swift’s “folklore” album gave fans a lot to think about this summer. Most enthralling is the sweet and sour tale of a teenaged love triangle gone wrong, as listeners were quick to figure out the songs “august,” “betty” and “cardigan” weave together a fable starring James the adulterer, Betty the saint and an unnamed girl. 

More mysterious is how the other 13 songs fit in with that story. Swift hasn’t spoken more on which songs are her voice and which are her characters. 

If “folklore” had a big role in helping you escape from the doomsday summer of 2020, you probably have strong opinions on how the album chronologically fits into one timeline. As someone with a compulsive need to analyze Taylor Swift lyrics that's been festering since I was eight years old, I definitely do.


The story begins from the perspective of the “other woman” archetype, presumably named August. This song is filled with summertime angst and recounts the beginnings of a love affair between her and James. She thought he was her forever and this blind faith was enough.

“For me it was enough, to live for the hope of it all.”


Still from August’s voice, "mirrorball" drips with insecurity. She does everything possible to keep James interested in her, no matter how much she loses herself in the process.

“I’ll get you out on the floor, shimmering beautiful, and when I break it’s in a million pieces.”

illicit affairs

The affair comes to a painful end, leaving August, forever the mirrorball, shattered. She describes the excruciating feeling of James losing interest in her, despite everything she did.

“Take the words for what they are, a dwindling mercurial high.”


James goes back to Betty, but it’s too late. She’s trying to move on. In this Bon Iver duet, and later in the song “betty,” we learn that she was seeing someone else at this point – possibly William, her eventual husband.

"I can see you staring honey, like he's just your understudy."

this is me trying

James' tries to decipher where he went wrong. He concludes his tenacity and impulsiveness, at first just products of his ambition, ultimately became his undoing.

“So ahead of the curve, it became a sphere.”

This explains why he traded the stability Betty gave him for someone else — he wanted to be special, thus wanting a girl that could make him feel that way. We know that August did this for him because of the themes explored in “mirrorball.”

the 1

Betty has moved on — or so she thinks. But James’ presence lingers. More than anything, she wishes that the affair hadn’t happened, otherwise they’d still be together.

“If one thing had been different, would everything be different.”


After time apart, James can’t be without Betty anymore. He arrives at her party in true Jerry Maguire fashion, begging her to take him back. The sheer euphoria of this song is proof that the two reconcile.

"The only thing I want to do is make it up to you, so I showed up at your party. Will you have me? Do you want me?"

mad woman

James and Betty back together, August becomes the pariah of their town. She knows Betty should be just as mad at James as her, but probably keeps it inside.

“The master of spin has a couple side flings, good wives always know. She should be mad, should be scathing like me, but no one likes a mad woman.”


We hear Betty’s perspective on the early years of the affair. The bittersweet reveal comes after realizing “cardigan” is about someone who loves you profoundly but hurts you irrevocably, meaning James is both the one who made her feel like the old cardigan and the one who made her feel like the favorite.

"And when I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone's bed, you put me on and said I was your favorite."

my tears ricochet

This one's definitely about Swift’s dispute over her masters with Scott Borchetta, founder of her former record label. But it also fits into August’s narrative as she looks back on her explosive parting with James, who treated her so horribly in the end that she couldn’t help but make it public.

“I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace.”


James’ final remarks to Betty are a promise to stay with her forever, but he knows his reputation means the couple will always be the focus of judgment in their town. His admitted flaws mean they will also forever be braving storms together.

"The devil's in the details, but you got a friend in me. Would it be enough if I can never give you peace?"


Betty’s final remarks to Jamesreveal she accepts him for who he is. She acknowledges that pain is a side effect of real love. This song and “peace” sound like counterparts, reflecting Betty and James’ unbreakable bond.

“Don’t want no other shade of blue but you, no other sadness in the world would do.”


This song signifies the end of the era in which the three teenagers lived. It's not solely focused on them, but rather on changing tides and the ambiguity of life and death.

"You dream of some epiphany, just one single glimpse of relief to make sense of what you've seen."


This song is one of three songs on “folklore” that take place in current time, sung from Taylor’s own voice. Outlining the innocence of love, "seven" shows you what it is before you’re old enough to understand it.

"Your braids like a pattern, love you to the moon and to Saturn."

the last great american dynasty

Taylor nods to the unhinged behavior of Rebekah West Harkness, her Rhode Island mansion’s previous owner, who married Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness. Rebekah’s nickname also just happens to be Betty. Perhaps James died in the war alluded to in “epiphany,” and Betty married the eager boy, forever her second choice, that she danced with in gym.

"There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen, she had a marvelous time ruining everything."

invisible string

Lastly in our timeline, this song shows Taylor finding the happiness once coveted by the teen heartbreakers. 

"Isn't it just so pretty to think all along there was some invisible string tying you to me?"

There’s no telling how correct any of our theories are when it comes to “folklore,” so the best we can do is interpret it the way we choose — just like we do with real folklore passed down through generations. But if there’s anything that can be learned from this album, it’s that love, life, people and situations are agonizingly complicated. So basically what Swift has been trying to tell us since 2006.  

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