Taylor Swift's teenage love triangle songs on Folklore explained
It wouldn't be a Taylor Swift album release if it didn't spawn theory after theory about who or what each song is about.
And although Swift has been characteristically mum on the particulars of most of the songs on Folklore, there are three that she's revealed quite a bit about: the triptych of songs exploring young love that she refers to as "The Teenage Love Triangle."
During the release of the music video for the album's first single, "Cardigan," Swift joined fans on YouTube to answer some questions about the song and the new album, which dropped at the same time. At one point, she wrote, "One thing I did purposely on this album was put the Easter eggs in the lyrics, more than just the videos. I created character arcs & recurring themes that map out who is singing about who."
Her note continued, "For example, there's a collection of 3 songs I refer to as The Teenage Love Triangle. These 3 songs explore a love triangle from all 3 people's perspectives at different times in their lives."
Okay, so Swift hasn't explicitly said which three songs on the 16-track album she's referring to, but based on the lyrics and the singer-songwriter's own explanations, we think we've figured it out. So what are the three songs, who (if anyone) are they about, and what happens in each? Let's break it down:
Starting with "Betty" seems to be a natural choice here, as it's the song that provides the most direct information about the affair, including some of the names of our characters and several high school references, leaving no doubt that it's told from a teenager's perspective. First things first: Although the three names mentioned in the song — Betty, James, and Inez — are a playful nod to her friends Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds' daughters, the song is not about them (that'd be weird). In her album intro, Swift says that her imagination ran wild when writing the album: "I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I've never met, people I've known, or those I wish I hadn't." Her admission on YouTube that she "created character arcs" with regards to the Teenage Love Triangle would seem to suggest those three songs fall into the former category: songs about people she's never met.
Moving on to the song itself, "Betty" seems like James' account of how the affair started, and their attempts to win Betty back by showing up to her party unannounced and apologizing. "Would you tell me to go f--- myself/Or lead me to the garden?/In the garden, would you trust me/If I told you it was just a summer thing?/I'm only seventeen, I don't know anything/But I know I miss you," James tells us. In the bridge, it's explained that the affair between James and the unknown girl started as James was "walking home on broken cobblestones" and she pulled up in her car. "She said 'James, get in, let's drive'/Those days turned into nights/Slept next to her, but/I dreamt of you all summer long," Swift sings.
The song makes a reference to someone named Inez ("You heard the rumors from Inez/You can't believe a word she says/Most times, but this time it was true"), and some fans have taken that to mean she's the "other woman" in the love affair, but it's more likely that Inez is just the local gossip. After all, it'd be pretty weird to start rumors about your own affair to the face of the other woman involved.
The song ends with James on Betty's front porch, preparing to apologize, but it's not clear (at least in this song) how Betty responds, but importantly, there is a reference to her cardigan: "Standing in your cardigan/Kissin' in my car again/Stopped at a streetlight/You know I miss you." Which brings us to...
Remember how Swift said she put "recurring themes that map out who is singing about who" in the three songs? That reference in "Betty" to a cardigan feels pretty obvious here, but "Cardigan" has other bits of imagery that pop up in the other two songs. For instance, the cobblestones from "Betty" also appear at the start of this song: "Vintage tee, brand new phone/High heels on cobblestones/When you are young, they assume you know nothing." And there's a reference to kissing in cars later in the song, as well. Swift tells us in her album intro that one of the images she was inspired by was "a cardigan that still bears the scent of loss 20 years later." From that, we can infer that this time around, we're getting the perspective of the cardigan-wearing Betty — the girl that was cheated on — as she reminisces 20 years year later about her lost young love. In it, she tells us that she knew James would come back to her, and even makes a reference to the failed apology: "I knew you'd miss me once the thrill expired/And you'd be standin' in my front porch light/And I knew you'd come back to me." It seems then, that even though the love left an indelible mark on her, as young love often does, Betty walked away with the upper hand.
And finally, we make it to the song told from the perspective of the "other woman." In her intro, Swift only says of this song that she was inspired by the image of "the sun drenched month of August, sipped away like a bottle of wine." So how do we know this is the third song in the teenage love triangle trio? Once again, it's the recurring images Swift uses to paint the picture, and we can infer that it's told from the other woman's perspective because she repeatedly refers to the fling as something that was "never mine." As far as similar imagery goes, in "Betty," James tells us the affair "was just a summer thing," and in "August" the narrator says, "So much for summer love and saying 'us.'" The car scene referenced in "Betty" is also mentioned again here, but from the woman's perspective: "Remember when I pulled up and said 'Get in the car'/And then canceled my plans just in case you'd call?" And, even though it's not mentioned in the other two songs, it's worth mentioning that a meeting at the mall is referred to multiple times in this song, which is about as "summer teenage romance" as you can get.
Like "Cardigan," "August" feels like a song told from a point in the future (albeit an indeterminate one) from a woman who is reminiscing on a lost love, while "Betty" is told from the point in time during which the affair took place. In short, the three teens were caught up in a summer love affair that left its mark on each of them, but which ultimately ended with all three going separate ways.
It should be noted that James' gender is never explicitly stated, and in keeping with that tradition, they were not given a gender here. I have my own theories, namely that Swift's use of male-oriented metaphors in "Cardigan" — "I knew you/Tried to change the ending/Peter losing Wendy, I/I knew you/Leavin' like a father" — suggests that James is male. But far be it from me to take those sapphic love story theories away from you, dear readers.
After all, as Swift herself notes in her album intro, a folklore is something that is "passed down and whispered around," and "the lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible." This is just one of many attempts to pass down the stories Swift has given us.