When I was in college, back in two-thousand-*cough,* I fell down a rabbit hole of internet romance fic. I would spend hours reading plaintext HTML pages detailing the love lives of fictional teenagers in minute, melodramatic detail. If I had to guess, I’d say I was escaping a drab, uneventful life chapter by immersing myself in a fantasy of a past that I’d never experienced. So I understand completely where Taylor Swift is coming from. Folklore, the album she secretly recorded during quarantine, then dropped with 24 hours of notice on July 24, finds Swift expanding her storytelling skills with a trio of songs that collectively form what she calls her “Teenage Love Triangle” trilogy. It seems to have been the A-list pop-star equivalent of firing up AO3. “I created character arcs and recurring themes that map out who is singing about whom,” Swift explained in a YouTube Q&A celebrating the album’s release. “These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives.”
Swift has stayed mum about exactly which tracks form the triptych, but her lyrical Easter eggs have not been too hard to decipher. As many fans have noticed, the trio of “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty” fits the bill. Let’s run down the three songs, figure out how they work together, and see if we can untangle this time-jumping teenage entanglement.
We begin with the album’s lead single, which comes first on the track list but seems to be occurring last on the timeline. “Cardigan” is narrated by a woman we’ll later learn is named Betty, looking back with hindsight on an intense relationship from her youth. (Swift says she was inspired by the image of “a cardigan that still bears the scent of loss 20 years later.”) Betty remembers being lost and insecure, and she says her ex, James, made her feel held: “When I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed / You put me on and said I was your favorite.” In her telling, they had a passionate romance that ended when James cheated on her. “Chase two girls, lose the one / When you are young, they assume you know nothing.”
But Betty says, “I knew everything when I was young.” She knew she’d wear the scars from the betrayal for years, that James “would haunt all of my what-ifs.” And she knew too 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 by showing up at her front door unannounced. We don’t find out what came next: The song fades out as Betty repeats the wistful refrain “I knew you’d come back to me.”
Now it’s time for James’s paramour to tell her side of the story. “August” is a bit like “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” from Evita, in that it’s an “other woman” singing about the end of an affair, her relative unimportance in her lover’s life underlined by the fact that she doesn’t even get a name. (Fans have taken to calling her August, but since we’ve already got one song/name overlap, I prefer “Unnamed Narrator of ‘august,’” or “Una” for short.) She barely gets mentioned in the other two songs, but “august” is her chance to assert her own narrative of the summer fling. She was young and inexperienced, and if it wasn’t love, it was at least infatuation. She sings in languid, late-summer imagery: “Your back beneath the sun / Wishing I could write my name on it.”
Una remembers her younger self as mostly unassertive, recalling the times she “canceled my plans just in case you’d call,” and how, though she wanted her and James to be a real couple, deep down 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.) Eventually, the romance ended when the summer did, as “August slipped away into a moment in time,” and Una is left with a bittersweet revelation: “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 with hindsight, “betty” takes place in the present tense, sung from the perspective of 17-year-old James. (In a sly twist, the acoustic arrangement and Swift’s miraculously revived southern accent call back to the music she released when she was 17.) The backstory too is very Taylor Swift–era Taylor Swift: The whole thing started after a school dance, where James ditched Betty, then, after seeing her dance with some dude, stormed out in a huff. As James was walking home, Una pulled 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, who will be important later. Betty was so upset that she switched homerooms!
As the song goes on, a contrite James mulls how to get Betty back: “The only thing I wanna do / Is make it up to you.” Swift pulls from her familiar bag of tricks here, giving us a rousing sing-along chorus and an exhilarating key change, and it’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of teenage romance. But she also throws in subtle signs that James is a bit too immature for the sentiment to stick. First, minimization: “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.” Throw in some deflection: “Slept next to her, but I dreamt of you all summer long.” Finally, add in residual 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 big dramatic reunion, as Swift rhymes “standing in your cardigan” with “kissing in my car again.”
So, that’s the basic plot — a love triangle worthy of Degrassi: The Next Generation. But there are still more questions to explore.
Why Are People Saying the Story Is ‘Queer Canon’?
This one’s easy to explain. Due to a conspicuous lack of male pronouns in the lyrics, plus the fact that Swift’s friend Blake Lively has daughters named James, Betty, and Inez, many fans have speculated that the James here is actually a girl, thus making these three songs the story of a lesbian love triangle. However, if you want to believe James is a guy, there’s evidence for that too: In “cardigan,” Betty remembers James “leaving like a father” and compares their breakup to “Peter losing Wendy” in Peter Pan. Ultimately, it works either way.
What Happened After James Showed Up at Betty’s Door?
Both “cardigan” and “betty” end with one big question unresolved: Did Betty take James back? I’m inclined to say no. There’s a small hint in the lyrics — Betty says that James “tried to change the ending,” tried being the operative word. It didn’t work; the ending was what it was. The music also points in that direction. Listen to the two songs casually, and you would not think they had much to do with each other, in tune or in tone. “Cardigan” is somber, contemplative, melancholy; “Betty” is a propulsive, major-chord jam. The gap is duplicated in the narrators’ worldviews: Betty is someone who notices everything, even unpleasant truths; James is someone who’s so good at lying that they can’t pick up that they’re lying to themselves. Consider too that our narrators are speaking to us from two different time periods. In everything that matters, these people are very far apart from each other. And there’s something about the way Swift sings “I knew you’d come back to me” in “cardigan” that pricks at my ears. It’s not triumphant; it’s a little sad, like she’s disappointed James lived up to her worst estimations.
When and Where Is All This Supposed to Be Taking Place?
Oddly enough, “cardigan” seems to be taking place in a slightly different universe from the other two. In “betty” and “august,” everyone’s in high school. There’s a homeroom, a school dance, and James is canonically 17 years old. The location feels suburban: James skateboards past Betty’s house, Una dreams of meeting behind a mall, and a lot of the action centers around cars. The first line of “august” mentions “salt air,” so we’re probably by the beach. But in “cardigan,” everyone feels slightly older. Betty reminisces about kissing in “downtown bars,” and the lyrics reference tattoos, the smell of cigarette smoke, and feminist literature. (Not that high-schoolers never do that kind of stuff, but collectively the tropes feel more early-20s.) And we seem to have moved to New York City: Besides the bars, there are “high heels on cobblestones,” and the High Line gets a shout-out.
How do we square this? If you’re the literal type, you can imagine these are three very advanced teenagers who live in Connecticut or New Jersey and take frequent trips into Manhattan. You could also take it as a sign that Betty and James did get back together, their tumultuous relationship spanning past high school and into early adulthood. I prefer to think that Swift’s employing a more impressionistic approach. “August” and “betty” are mentally caught up in that teenage moment, so their stories are set in the suburbs, where Swift grew up. “Cardigan” is a grown woman looking back on her younger self, so it takes place in the city that, for its author, symbolizes independence and maturity. (Fans have noticed that the succession of images in the track’s opening stanza mirrors Swift’s own aesthetics in her earlier album eras.) It’s her fantasy — she can write what she wants to.