By Mariana Schuetze
The first time I heard Taylor Swift’s folklore, it sounded like a movie in my head. While listening, I caught on to a couple of different stories, or maybe one big storyline that connects everything. I think that's what Swift wanted — she’s said that while writing these songs, she started telling other people's stories and not just her own. Those are the ones that interested me.
Swift keeps surprising us with her storytelling abilities. Less than six months after she released folklore, she came out with a whole new album: evermore. Swift called it "folklore's sister record." When I first saw the news, I was so excited for new songs and stories and hopeful for a continuation of some of the stories told in folklore, but I don't think that's there. Still, the album is filled with the same storytelling and imagery that transports listeners into a whole new world. Swift said that she, too, got lost within the stories of folklore, which is why she kept writing more songs. "In making it, I felt less like I was departing and more like I was returning. I loved the escapism I found in these imaginary/not imaginary tales,” she said in an Instagram post.
Just like Swift, I'm still not over the stories from folklore, so let's unpack one of them.
I, along with many other listeners, became intrigued by the love triangle story Swift created in folklore. From listening to the storylines of the songs and reading many theories online, I developed my own interpretation of the narrative. While listening to the songs betty, august and cardigan, I created my own versions of these love triangle characters that are mentioned in the songs: Betty, James and an unnamed girl, who Swift later called Augustine.
This story is about two young girls who get lost in their respective relationships with the same boy. Both Betty and Augustine (at different points in time) were in relationships with James, a boy who didn’t communicate well and ultimately didn’t respect them. It’s a story that resonates with me as a young woman still learning how to navigate relationships. The songs tell the stories of the real heartbreak felt when young and in love, but more than that, they tell stories of growing stronger and smarter after dealing with heartbreak. So, let’s look at how folklore’s love triangle deals with the inevitable experiences of heartbreak in young womanhood.
The love triangle starts with high school sweethearts James and Betty. On their prom night, James sees Betty dancing with another guy, which makes him mad and jealous and results in him leaving prom early.
The song betty is from James' perspective, and in it, he tells us what went through his mind when he decided to leave prom.
"Your favourite song was playing from the far side of the gym. I was nowhere to be found, I hate the crowds, you know that. Plus, I saw you dance with him." - betty
When James saw Betty dancing with someone else, he felt betrayed. As he heads home, a girl from school shows up in her car and offers him a ride. He goes with her and before he knows it, he’s spending the whole summer with her at her beach house. He feels justified in doing that because in his mind, Betty cheated on him by dancing with another boy. Although they never actually talked about it, he assumed that things were over between them, and basically ghosted Betty for the summer. This is when his relationship with the other girl, Augustine, begins.
Even though James felt sad seeing Betty dance with someone else, dancing with another person is not necessarily cheating; especially if they had never even spoken about what constitutes cheating in their relationship. Betty does not belong to James, and he shouldn’t try to control who she spends her time with. Regardless of how hurt he felt, Betty’s actions did not validate his affair. Maybe Betty could have spoken to James about what dancing with someone else in that setting meant to both of them, but she was not wrong in this situation. Clearly, open communication was an element in their relationship that was holding them back. If there is someone wrong here, it's James. His immaturity pushed him to end their relationship because of a possible misunderstanding, and this was rightfully hurtful to Betty.
While knowingly ghosting Betty, James has an amazing summer with Augustine. Despite time with this new girl, James keeps thinking about Betty. Why did he ghost her? Does he truly love Augustine, or is the escape from reality that she provides what drives their brief relationship?
When summer ends, Augustine asks James, "Will you call when you're back at school?" He says he will, knowing very well that he won't.
James’ total disregard for the emotions of Augustine, based on his want for Betty, is indicative of his disregard for the effects that his selfishness has on the people who care for him. He treats Augustine with the same neglect and lack of compassion that he treats Betty with when he abandons her over the summer. Does he see women as toys to toss through as he struggles to understand what he wants? How can he love someone and yet not have the respect to be honest when it comes to the terms of their relationship, ultimately leaving them hanging in the balance?
A couple of weeks later, when Augustine realizes that James wasn't going to call her, she calls him and asks if they can talk. They meet behind the mall, and that's when James breaks her heart by telling her that what they had was just a "summer thing," and that he was going back to Betty, his true love. For Augustine, the emotions she felt were real and she doesn’t need James’ admittance to know the truth in her experiences. Still, she feels like her entire world has been taken from her. She had been thinking of James and loving him for so long now that it was all she had at that time.
James becomes a villain, not only through his lack of compassion and self-awareness, but also through his attempt to gaslight Augustine into believing there was nothing between them. The summer he had with Augustine was important to her, and I think he knew that. To say that it meant nothing to him was cruel and manipulative. James’ lack of maturity does not excuse his inability to understand the effects of his actions. He owed Augustine the respect of acknowledging their relationship and validating her confusion at his sudden denial, just as he owed Betty an apology for his inability to confront her about his own insecurities in their relationship.
"But I can see us lost in the memory. August slipped away, into a moment in time, cause it was never mine." - august
Sometimes you need to feel the hurt and heartbreak to get over a relationship. This is what Augustine did and what so many of us young women do too. Swift herself has so many songs about heartbreak. These songs help us process what happened and how we feel about it. But after her experience with James, I think Augustine realized that she didn't need to rely on a partner to feel the happiness she had felt that summer.
In the song betty, we hear James' perspective of going to Betty's house to ask for forgiveness:
"But if I just showed up at your party, would you have me? Would you want me? Would you tell me to go straight to hell? Or lead me to the garden?" - betty
Betty forgives him. At this moment in time, she thinks that he loves her and that his apology is genuine. She takes him back because she thought they were meant to be together. Weren't they?
"I knew you, tried to change the ending, Peter losing Wendy. I knew you" - cardigan
Over time, she realized they shouldn’t have gotten back together. Betty had found a way to forgive James, but she couldn't trust him anymore. Getting back together with him ultimately reminded her of the pain he caused her.
After the break-up, Betty moves on with her life. But she never forgets what her relationship with James taught her about what real love looks like. Neither does Augustine. That summer and the months after it changed both women’s lives. They fell in love and experienced a heartbreak that would lead to a stronger sense of self in every relationship beyond James. Losing James was never the end of their worlds. They still had their whole lives to experience.
"And when I felt like I was an old cardigan, under someone's bed. You put me on and said I was your favorite." - cardigan
In the end, all of them were hurt from this situation, but they also had fun and felt love. So, was it worth it? I don't know. I've never been in love, but from what I hear in these songs, it seems great. So maybe it was worth it. I just hope James learned to treat people with more kindness and respect.
These stories made me sad for Betty and Augustine. They were so young and got wrapped up in a relationship that hurt them a lot, even if they were able to grow from it.
Betty and Augustine became stronger and more self-aware from their experiences with James. I’d like to imagine that somewhere along the way, the pain he caused them planted the seed for a beautiful friendship bound in trust between Betty and Augustine. They both learned that, sometimes, a good friendship can be better than any love relationship, especially in your teenage years. I also think that they kept in touch as they grew up, and from that "love triangle" came a great friendship of women who would learn to support each other.
I love what Swift did with this album by creating an open narrative, where the listener can come up with their own versions of the story. It's almost meditative to imagine these characters.
Along with Swift being a natural songwriter, she is also an incredible storyteller. As a storyteller myself, I feel really inspired by her work. In folklore, Swift creates complex, nuanced storylines about characters who are all flawed in their own ways. In her use of imagery, she connects her songs together with hidden symbols. This gives listeners a deeper connection with the songs and adds a unique touch that her fans really appreciate. It feels very personal, as if she's our friend telling us these stories.
When I listen to folklore, I feel like I'm entering the universe where these stories actually happened. I even feel like I know these characters and share their emotions. It's magical.
"You know the greatest films of all time were never made." - the 1