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A Breakdown of The Love Triangle from Taylor Swift’s “Folklore”

Taylor Swift’s new album is all about stories, I mean, it says it right in the name: “Folklore.” While there are so many different stories told through this soothing album, one story in particular captured my attention from the beginning.

The story about a high school love triangle between Betty, James, and the unnamed girl who narrates “August” left me wanting a whole movie about their story. While we wait for some label to buy the rights to this movie, I’ll just break down the story here in this article. 

Made up of three very different sounding songs: “Betty,” “Cardigan,” and “August,” this love triangle has consumed a large percentage of my brain capacity. And now, I’m ready to share my breakdown and interpretation with you.

 

“Betty”:

Beginning with the track called “Betty,” this song is told from James’s point of view. Within the first few weeks of the album’s release, fans were left wondering about James’s true gender identity since it is not explicitly stated in any of the songs. I don’t know about you, but the ambiguity of James’s gender identity in the songs made the story feel more real because situations like this can happen to anyone no matter their sexual orientation or identity. It also leaves an open interpretation for the audience, so more people can truly relate. However, Taylor did confirm that she wrote this song from a young boy’s perspective, but everyone’s interpretation of the story is unique. 

This song offers the most straightforward narrative and message of this 3-part story. Like I said, this song is told from James’s point of view, and it is a message to Betty apologizing for what he did to her. Spoiler alert: James cheated on Betty with the narrator of “August,” but we’ll get more into that when I talk about that song in particular. 

The beginning of the song describes events that happened right after Betty found out about James’s affair. She found out from Inez, the school’s gossip; she switched her homeroom; she left James.

In the pre-chorus, James says “the worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you,” which is how he apologizes to Betty. He fantasizes about showing up at Betty’s party to apologize and get her back throughout the whole song. James amplifies the fact that he’s only seventeen and doesn’t know anything, which is why he cheated. 

James even reflects on the time “August Girl” picked him up and went for a drive. Immediately following that statement James says “those days turned into nights slept next to her but, I dreamt of you all summer long.” This line particularly made me angry and upset for both Betty and “August Girl.” 


couple watching sunset
Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing from Unsplash

The song ends with a beautiful key change signifying the turning point of the song when James finally gets the courage to show up at Betty’s party wearing her cardigan (that will make more sense in a second). It is left unresolved and unknown whether or not Betty took James back, but once we get to the next track, “Cardigan,” the resolution is a little more clear.

Cheating is a horrible thing. But, I also know the feeling of messing up so bad and begging for forgiveness from someone you care so much about. Even if you’ve never cheated, when you listen to this song, you can’t help but feel a tiny bit of sympathy for James because of that time when you messed up and hurt someone you loved.

 

“Cardigan”:

Now, this song has a very somber tone. Told from Betty’s point of view at least a couple years in the future, this song erases every bit of sympathy you may have been feeling for James and replaces it with anger and high levels of sympathy for Betty (rightfully so). 

Betty begins the story by describing her appearance with a vintage tee, a brand new phone, and a pair of high heels walking on cobblestone. The cobblestone is a parallel to the lyrics from James when he recalla the time “August Girl” picked him up in her car. With the song being told in past tense and the melancholy tone, we are led to believe that this is told from future Betty who is reflecting on this pivotal moment in her life.


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She negates many of the phrases that James sings in “Betty” such as “when you are young they assume you know nothing. But I knew you,” referring to the phrase from “Betty,” “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything.” Betty compares herself to “an old cardigan under someone’s bed” because she feels like she has been neglected and pushed to the side by James, especially when he cheats on her. Immediately following those lyrics is “you put me on and said I was your favorite,” indicating that this was a toxic relationship. Betty was left feeling like an old cardigan, but as soon as James noticed, he paid attention to her and made her feel like she was his favorite; only temporarily and misleadingly, though.

As the song progresses, Betty gets more passionate about the situation. She describes the feeling of getting hurt as well as anticipating James’s next move. She knew he would come back to her, but she doesn’t fail to pull at your heartstrings with the metaphors made about her pain: “You drew stars around my scars but now I’m bleedin’.” 

The song ends with the same repeated statement throughout the song, “and when I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed, you put me on and said I was your favorite.” She knew the games he was playing with her. James figuratively and physically showed up in Betty’s cardigan, acting like she was important to him. By leaving the song off on the most emphasized metaphor of the song, this leads me to believe that she didn’t take James back, and I sure hope she didn’t.

 

“August”:

This song is definitely one of my favorites from the whole album. The whimsical tone leaves the listener feeling like they’re in a dream, which is exactly how “August Girl” felt through her short-lived relationship with James. It seems that James took advantage of “August Girl” because she talks about how August and all her moments shared with him slipped away from her when both the month and the relationship ended. 

Since James’s song “Betty” is all about Betty, it’s obvious that James felt nothing towards “August Girl.” He even says to Betty, “would you trust me if I told you it was just a summer thing?” all while “August Girl” tells the story of how she cancelled plans for James and lived for the hope of it all in “August.” Basically, she loved James, but he just saw it as a summer thing and the biggest mistake of his life. 

This song is particularly heartbreaking for me because this girl was deceived by someone she thought cared about her. She repeats phrases like “‘cause you were never mine,” to emphasize her realization that James loved Betty and not her. She recalls the time when she “pulled up and said ‘Get in the car’ and cancelled plans just in case [he’d] call.” The overlap of the points of views at this moment was specifically interesting and satisfying to me because I could envision it using lyrics from all three songs: Betty walking on the cobblestone that was the site of the beginning of James and “August Girl’s” affair. 


using phone in a crowded room
Photo by Robin Worrall from Unsplash

Overall, this love triangle story has so many other parallels and references to each other that make the story that much better. It is best interpreted when listening to each song in full and picking out the references on your own, so I made sure to leave some out for your own enjoyment. The three perspectives from the same situation is truly a brilliant idea and allows a wider audience to relate on an emotional level. Taylor Swift has truly outdone herself with this album, and I highly suggest that you listen to at least these three songs if not the whole thing.

Maggie is a nursing student at Drexel University. From West Chester, Pennsylvania, Maggie enjoys dancing, singing, acting, and playing with her cat. She spends most of her time teaching kids dance at her previous dance studio and sipping on some Dunkin coffee.
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