With last year’s surprise release of her 8th studio album, music industry titan Taylor Swift has arguably cemented herself as not only one of the most ambitious acts in the industry (Folklore having been created at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic), but a polished, transformed, critically acclaimed lyricist.
Although Swift has always been known for her hands-on songwriting (her Speak Now LP, for example, is entirely self-written), her discography seldom strayed from presenting details about the songstress’ personal life.
With the birth of alternative/indie folk record and Album of the Year winner Folklore, however, all that has changed. The record is a meteoric, full force introduction to a new Swiftian age of music, one where fictional, storybook-like worldbuilding takes the driver’s seat.
“It started with imagery; visuals that popped into my mind and piqued my curiosity”, reads the prologue of the album booklet, penned by the songwriter herself. “Pretty soon these images in my head grew faces or names and became characters”, it goes on. “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”.
And so, on long, long pond studio nights of quarantine, with the help of Swift’s long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff and the new addition of American rock band The National’s Aaron Dessner, the world of Folklore was created.
Merriam-Webster defines the term folklore as “the traditional stories and culture of a group of people”.
Let us take a look at how the lyrical universe of the record paints such stories. Fortunately, and thanks to Swift’s usual, zoomed-in style of visual songwriting being ever-present on the album, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Track One: The 1
1.“Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool” – Swift’s lyrical persona likens a past relationship between two former lovers with the decade of the 1920s, famously known for its extravagant culture.
2. A scene of bonding between two individuals who look at each other like family: “Rosé flowing with your chosen family”
Track Two: Cardigan
3,4. “Vintage tee, brand new phone, / When you are young, they assume you know nothing”. Through juxtaposition, Swift places two contrasting ideas in close proximity to one another. Oftentimes are young people looked down upon by older generations for their craze with vintage clothing for the reason that they still benefit from modern technology. This particular image also paints a picture of Taylor in her RED album era, in which her Instagram focused on hipster aesthetics.
5. “High heels on cobblestones” can signify unsteadiness and a difficulty of balance. As the track revolves around a fictional couple reuniting decades after a break-up in their teenage years, it can be a flashback to their past mistakes. Could also signify the lack of stability in one’s teenagerhood.
6,7. “Sequin smile, black lipstick” is a line which ties into Swift’s relationship with her current boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn. She met him at the 2016 Met Gala, where she was wearing black lipstick and a sequin dress. It could also reference the complexity young people can possess – dark make-up can often be worn by the happiest of people.
8. “I knew you, / Dancing in your Levi’s / Drunk under a streetlight”. This particular image is one of the first which introduces listeners to the fictional ex-couple Taylor has created for this record – James and Betty. Betty is observing the drunken movements of her then-lover, back in their early days.
9,10. “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan, / Under someone’s bed”. As it will be revealed later on, the record states that James did cheat on Betty with a girl named Augustine. Due to this, the young woman felt thrown away, used, like an old garment of clothing that had been forgotten about. The line “You put me on and said I was your favorite” is ambiguous – at first glance, it could signify how James tried convincing his girlfriend how much she meant to him. On the other hand, he did cheat on her, and to put someone on is American slang for lying about something to a person.
11, 12. “Hand under my sweatshirt, baby kiss it better”. Betty reminisces about past moments of affection shared with James.
13. “I knew you, playing hide-and-seek and / Giving me your weekends” gives the first actual sign that points towards James’ infidelity and two-timing nature.
14,15,16,17. “To kiss in cars and downtown bars, / Was all we needed / You drew stars around my scars, / But now I’m bleeding”. Although the pair had their moments, James ultimately ended up hurting Betty. Drawing stars around one’s scars can refer to the healing effect he once had on her, which is now gone due to his ultimate betrayal.
18,19. “I knew you, stepping on the last train, / Marked me like a bloodstain”. The last train is usually the final train before service stops for the night. This is a line that expresses how James made a last-ditch effort and left Betty, alone and hurt.
20. “I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water” intensifies the suffering Betty felt after her partner cheated on her and left her with the damage. It uses the rhetorical device of an ironic smile, comparing a situation to an opposite idea such as a father leaving. He is meant to be a permanent, integral part of his child’s life and does the opposite, same as James with his girlfriend Betty.
21. “I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss”. A tattoo is permanent – after all the years, Betty still feels the effect James had on her.
22. “I knew I’d curse you for the longest time, / Chasing shadows in the grocery line” shows how Betty kept sensing her betrayer in all the places she went to.
23,24. “But I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired, / And you’d be standing in my front porch light, / And I knew you’d come back to me” Swift mentioned, in an interview with Apple Music, that she imagined how James would ultimately try and reconcile with Betty, decades after their love had ceased to exist. The expired thrill can potentially refer to the impermanence of the rush James might have felt while betraying Betty with Augustine.
Track 3: The Last Great American Dynasty
25,26. “Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny”. The first line introduces us to Rebekah Harkness, a patron of the arts and founder of the Rebekah Harness Foundation, who the song is largely centered around.
27. “Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis”. Rebekah Harness grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, to an emotionally rigid family. She then bought a Rhode Island mansion that Swift now owns.
28. “The wedding was charming, if a little gauche”. Referring to something as being gauche is a stereotypical phrase said by old money snobs, who’ve grown up with wealth and look down on people who tend to spend their wealth extravagantly. This is one of the first instances where Taylor uses the visual motif of gossiping locals: “The town said how did a middle-class divorcée do it?”
29. “They picked out a home and called it Holiday House”. Along with William Harkness, Rebekah purchased the aforementioned home, nicknamed Holiday House.
30. “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen”. Due to her wealthy status, Rebekah was often the center of chatter and rumors.
31. “Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names”. This is an anecdote found in Blue Blood, a 1988 book written by Craig Unger about Harkness’ life. He mentioned in the book how she once cleaned her pool with Dom Pérignon.
32. “They say she was seen on occasion, / Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea”
33,34. “In a feud with her neighbor, she stole his dog and dyed it key lime green”. In the book by Unger, the author mentions how, allegedly, Rebekah once stole her neighbor’s cat and dyed it green. The change from feline to dog might have been because of Swift’s love for cats. It also might be a reflection on how folklore and stories get warped as they’re passed down the line.
35,36,37. “Fifty years is a long time, / Holiday House sat quietly on that beach, / Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits, / And then it was bought by me”. After completely detaching herself from the story for the entire song, Taylor ends the track in a songwriting fashion that’s reminiscent of one used in Country music – directly inserting one’s self into the last verses to show the similarity between the singer and the character. In this case, Swift feels closely connected to Harkness because of their shared experiences with being the subject of gossip and rumors. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Taylor noted how parallels began to develop between their lives as she began reading up on Harkness. “I was always looking for an opportunity to write about the lady that lives in that house on the hill that everybody gets to gossip about, because I am her”, she detailed.
Track Four: Exile (feat. Bon Iver)
35. “I think I’ve seen this film before, / And I didn’t like the ending”. Comparing their relationship to that of a motion picture, the singer sees the situation at hand as one all too familiar – and it seemingly won’t end well.
36. “You’re not my homeland anymore, / So who am I defending now?” The homeland imagery is assigned to the significant other – something fundamentally defining for a person, which is now stripped away.
37,38. “You were my town, now I’m in exile, seeing you out” Similarly to the homeland metaphor, being exiled from one’s town is the ultimate end to one’s life in that location. In this case, the lover in question seemingly is forced to leave the life of their significant other.
39,40,41. I can see you staring, honey, / Like she’s just my understudy, / Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me”. The understudy metaphor extends the show-business-related simile chain, this time with a character from the world of theatre. The partner who the song was written about is trying their best to hide the fact that they’re falling for someone else, but it’s unsuccessful.
42. “Second, third, and hundredth chances, / Balancing on breaking branches, / Those eyes add insult to injury”. There were countless attempts to fix the damaged relationship, all to no avail. The breaking branch visual image showcases the fragility of the already unstable romance, which is even more depressing considering one of the parties involved still has feelings and hope.
Track Five: My Tears Ricochet
43,44. “We gather here, we line up, weeping in a sunlit room”. As per Swift’s BBC One interview, track five is about a hypothetical funeral for a person who was killed/betrayed by someone they trusted; this is the scenery set-up.
45,46. “And if I’m on fire, you’ll be made of ashes too”. Violence and damage done to one half directly affect the other.
47. “And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?”. Addressed to the party who betrayed the other, a poetic way of questioning why one checks up on somebody who they gave up on.
48. “Look at how my tears ricochet”. Even though the betrayed is the one in the utmost pain, the betrayer also gets their fair share of suffering.
49,50,51. “We gather stones, never knowing what they’ll mean / Some to throw, some to make a diamond ring”. Those in the Swift fandom believe the lyric works on two levels; the stones that were thrown away/turned into diamonds could represent Swift’s stolen master recordings or just failed relationships. The diamond rings could signify the songwriter’s new albums (Lover, folklore, evermore) under the Republic Records label. Swift owns the masters of said records, and that’s why they might feel more precious to her, like diamond rings.
52,53. “You know I didn’t want to have haunt you, / But what a ghostly scene, / You wear the same jewels that I gave you, / As you bury me“. In a cruel manner, the aggressor adds insult to injury by showing up to the funeral of their late victim in garments that were by them.
54,55. “And I can go anywhere I want, / Anywhere I want, just not home”. The ‘home’ in question could be interpreted both literally and figuratively; a toxic environment where one grew up that they cannot return to, or the sense of belonging once found in a lover, now gone.
56. “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace, / And so the battleships will sink beneath the waves” After learning how their own actions were inappropriate, Swift’s lyrical ego uses the battleship metaphor to symbolize the destructive nature of an uncalculated response.
57. “You had to kill me, but it killed you just the same”. A lyric similar to the ones discussed above; even though Swift’s aggressor thinks they are free of guilt and responsibility, they ultimately catch up to them.
Track Six: Mirrorball
58. “I’m a mirrorball, / I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight”. A mirror ball, more commonly referred to as the disco ball, is made up of dozens of pieces of reflective glass. This is a metaphor used to highlight the people-pleaser nature of a person – In an attempt to get someone to like them, they try to mimic the personality of the individual in question.
59. “Shimmering beautiful, / And when I break, it’s in a million pieces”. Extending on the disco ball visual, the songwriting reveals just how chaotic of a breakdown Swift’s lyrical alter ego experiences when experiencing trauma.
60. “Spinning in my highest heels, love, / Shining just for you”. Aside from mirroring the personality of the other person, they try to impress even further, by presenting the absolute best side of their own selves.
61,62,63. “You are not like the regulars, / The masquerade revelers, / Drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten”. Addressing the crush, Swift reveals just how different they are compared to everyone else she knows – not gossipy like locals, superficial like most superstars, and most importantly, they do not revel in or profit off her trauma (which is more likely than not a reference to the media or a past relationship).
64,65. “And they called off the circus, burned the disco down”.
66,67. “When they sent home the horses and the rodeo clowns”
68,69. “I’m still on that trapeze, / I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me”. Although the town has shut down, Swift, now in the image of a travelling circus performer, is still trying her best to keep the other half entertained.
Track Seven: Seven
70. “Please picture me in the trees, / I hit my peak at seven”
Growing up in West Reading, Pennsylvania, Swift was surrounded by nature and refers to her childhood in such environments as the peak of her life.
71,72. “Feet in the swing over the creek, / I was too scared to jump in”. Further painting a picture of her childhood, Swift mentions her once childish fear of jumping into a flowing body of water. It can be argued that this line was included to display the naïve problems of youth.
72. “I was high in the sky, / With Pennsylvania under me”
73. “Although I can’t recall your face, / I still got love for you”. The track introduces a new character, one of Swift’s childhood friends. The physical characteristics of the person in question are no longer ones that Swift remembers, yet the emotional attachment to them is still with her.
74,75,76. “Your braids like a pattern, / Love you to the Moon and to Saturn”. A small detail of her childhood friend that is still large enough to remind Swift of her overwhelming love for her.
77,78. “I think your house is haunted, / Your dad is always mad and that must be why”. Once again returning to the image of a toxic natal environment, Swift addresses the difficult conditions in which her friend grew up, through the lens of a naïve youngster.
79,80,81. “I think you should come live with me, / And we can be pirates, / Then you won’t have to cry, or hide in the closet”. In the role of her seven-year-old self, trying her best to comfort their distressed friend, Swift tries her best to cheer them up. Running away from home with a dear friend is the ultimate solution in the mind of a young child. The closet metaphor may also refer to LGBTQ+ people who grew up with intolerant parents, forced to hide away and surpass their emotions from guardians that do not accept them.
82,83,84. “Pack your dolls and a sweater, / We’ll move to India forever”. The lyrics further detail a potential, more positive future, shared by two friends who love each other unconditionally.
Track Eight: August
85. “I can see us lost in the memory, August slipped away into a moment in time”. Track eight is written from the perspective of Augustine, the girl who James had an affair with. In this track, she looks back on the short-lived summer fling, one that she attached more meaning to than James did.
86,87. “I can see us twisted in bedsheets, / August sipped away like a bottle of wine, / ‘Cause you were never mine”. In most Folklore-related interviews, Swift mentions how, in her mind, James took Augustine’s virginity and abandoned her immediately after. Augustine knew the fact that James did not feel attached to her, but she was still hopeful he would develop feelings.
88. “Your back beneath the sun, / Wishing I could write my name on it”
89. “Remember when I pulled up and said “Get in the car”? / And then canceled my plans just in case you’d call?” This scene is later referenced on the track Betty, and further details Augustine’s continuous attempts to win James’ heart.
Track Nine: This Is Me Trying
90,91. “I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting”. On a track that deals with the subject of addiction and burnout syndrome, this lyric highlights a person’s gradual decline.
92,93. “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout, / Could have followed my fears all the way down”. Perhaps one of the most saddening images on the record, it highlights just how close one can get to giving up entirely.
94. “Maybe I don’t quite know what to say, / But I’m here in your doorway”. Could be a reference to James attempting to reconcile with Betty on her porch (as per the lyrics of Betty and Cardigan).
95. “They told me all of my cages were mental, / So I got wasted like all my potential”. Wasted potential is often the ultimate source of depression for people, which can lead to substance abuse issues.
96. “I was so ahead of the curve, / The curve became a sphere”. Perfectionists and overachiever individuals are likely to fall into an endless loop of trying to outdo themselves, others, and most of all, others’ expectations of them. This can be extremely damaging and difficult to keep up with, both physically and mentally.
97,98,99,100. “You’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town”. The ever-present memories of a lost loved one are compared to an old movie that won’t stop screening in the town of one’s mind.
Track Ten: Illicit Affairs
101,102. “Make sure nobody sees you leave, / Hood over your head, keep your eyes down”. On a song about infidelity, the above images are visual fragments of what one does to hide their actions when committing such an act of betrayal.
103,104. “What started in beautiful rooms, / Ends with meetings in parking lots”.
105. “You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else”. A poetic way of expressing ultimate heartbreak – thinking that one cannot be without someone other than their ex-partner.
Track Eleven: Invisible String
106, 107. “Green was the color of the grass, / Where I used to read at Centennial Park”. Track eleven parallels Swift’s early teenage years with her boyfriend’s. At 16, Swift often went to Centennial Park to read.
108,109. “Teal was the color of your shirt, / When you were sixteen at the yogurt shop”. At sixteen, Swift’s current beau Joe Alwyn was working at a London yogurt shop called Snog.
110. “Isn’t it just so pretty to think, / All along there was some invisible string, / Tying you to me?”. The imagery of an invisible string serves as the ultimate visual connector between two soulmates.
111. “Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire”. The barbed wire metaphor is later referenced on Evermore, and it’s a visual item that represents Swift’s missteps and how Alwyn has always been there to comfort her on them.
112. “Chains around my demons, wool to brave the seasons”. The invisible string now materializes into a strong material that not only keeps Swift warm, but comforts her mental health.
113. “One single thread of gold tied me to you”
114,115. “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart, / Now I send their babies presents”. As the ultimate character development, Swift now not only is past her past loves, but is on very friendly terms with them.
116. “Gold was the color of the leaves / When I showed you around Centennial Park”
117, 118. “Time, wondrous time / Gave me the blues and then purple, pink skies”. Blues refers to both the melancholic music genre and the color of internal sadness, which is then replaced by happiness as new love comes along and paints Swift’s skies pink.
Track Twelve: Mad Woman
119. “Does a scorpion sting while fighting back?”. Swift projects the image of a cornered scorpion to draw comparisons between herself and the arachnid.
120,121,122. “Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn? / “Does she smile? / Or does she mouth, ‘Fuck you forever’? Many might think the song’s anger is directed at a past love, but swifties speculate track twelve is aimed at Scott Borchetta instead. Borchetta was the record executive who first signed Swift in 2005 and went on to work with her up until 2017. In 2019, Borchetta sold Swift’s master recordings of her first six studio albums without her knowledge to a person she repeatedly begged him not to sell to. In the above visual image, Swift is hoping Borchetta (or whomever else) will not forget about her dislike towards them.
123. “And you’ll poke that bear ‘til her claws come out”. While the track is very seemingly aimed at a specific person, Swift said it also sends a universal message about the sexist way in which women’s anger is perceived.
124,125. “Now I breathe flames each time I talk, / My cannons all firing at your yacht”. Further expressing the extent of her fury, Swift compares her words to scorching flames and cannons out to destroy enemy lines.
Track Thirteen: Epiphany
126, 127, 128. “Keep your helmet, keep your life, son / Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifle”. Epiphany, a track about the struggle of heroes both frontline and medical, opens with a striking visual of a soldier battling for his life on the field.
129. “’Sir, I think he’s bleeding out’”. The track is also dedicated to Swift’s late grandfather Dean Swift, who fought in World War II in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
130,131. “With you I serve, with you I fall down”
132,132. “Watch you breathe in, watch you breathing out”
133,134,135. “Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / Holds your hand through plastic now / ‘Doc I think she’s crashing out’”. Shifting the focus towards medical workers and how they care for their COVID-19 patients, Swift tugs on one’s heartstrings by presenting the fact that, for some, the last physical touch they experience is that of strangers’.
Track Fourteen: Betty
136. “Betty, I won’t make assumptions / About why you switched your homeroom, / But I think it’s ‘cause of me”. A song written from the perspective of fictional ex-boyfriend James; the track opens with the teenage boy addressing the girl she cheated on.
137,138. “Betty, one time I was riding on my skateboard, / When I passed your house, / It’s like I couldn’t breathe”
139,140,141. “But if I just showed up at your party, / Would you have me? Would you want me? / Would you tell me to go fuck myself / Or lead me to the garden?
142,143,144,145,146. “I was walking home on broken cobblestones, / Just thinking of you when she pulled up like / A figment of my worst intentions / 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”. The cobblestone imagery present on Cardigan returns and James confesses about his affair with Augustine. He refers to a particular moment in time when Augustine pulled up in her car next to him, which was previously referenced on the track August: “Remember when I pulled up and said get in the car?”. Furthermore, the young man mentions how Betty didn’t escape his thoughts for the whole summer, even if he had cheated on her.
147. “Betty, I’m here on your doorstep / And I planned it out for weeks now”. One of the last declarations of James before he knocks on Betty’s door and tries to make things right. The lyric “I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired, / And you’d be standing in my front porch light” in Cardigan (written from Betty’s P.O.V.) is a seemingly direct reference to James’ visit.
148. “If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it? / Will it patch your broken wings?”. James’ thoughts are spiraling as he gets closer to the moment where he sees his ex-girlfriend again, hoping they make up and fix everything between them.
Track Fifteen: Peace
149. “I’m a fire and I’ll keep your brittle heart warm”. Seemingly back to Swift’s more personal songwriting, she returns to the fire metaphor to describe the warmth she wishes to offer her lover.
150. “If your cascade, ocean wave blues come”. Refers to the potential waves of sadness Swift’s significant other might experience.
151,152,153. “And you know that I’d swing with you for the fences / Sit with you in the trenches / Give you my wild, give you a child”. Swinging for the fences typically means putting all of one’s power into delivering a home run – in this case, Swift is trying everything to make her current relationship the one that will last a lifetime (seen also with the line “give you a child”). Sitting in the trenches, on the other hand, signifies a low point, which she is also happy to reach, as long as she is with her partner.
154,155. “But there’s robbers to the east, clowns to the west”. Refers to the outside forces that put the relationship in danger. The clowns to the west imagery can be seen as an indirect swing at Kanye West, who not only crashed her VMAs 2009 speech out of envy, but fabricated lies about Swift in the recent past, leading to the 2016 Taylor Swift hate bandwagon.
156, 157,158. “I’ll give you my sunshine, give you my best / But the rain is always gonna come if you’re standing with me”. Try as she might to offer only the best to Alwyn, Swift will more likely than not always be in the public eye. This typically means that drama will follow, but if he’s ready to take on this challenge, she will gladly hold his hand for a lifetime.
“I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve.
Now it’s up to you to pass them down.”– Taylor Swift, Folklore album booklet