Part II: betty
Coming from James’ perspective, the song Betty is about regrets and apologies, not to August but to Betty, the girl he had cheated on with August. It is quite ironic that August wishes to write her name on his skin while he writes Betty’s name as the title of his song as well as the first word.
This is the second of a four-part series analysing the album folklore by Taylor Swift. Find the first essay here.
The song opens with James telling her that he believes her switching of homeroom was because of him. This action of Betty’s alone shows that James and August’s summer affair that discontinued after school started had left unerasable impacts on not just August but on Betty as well, as something not a part of James’ normal life had changed the two girls’ everyday after the summer. He then goes on and tells her that one time he skateboarded past her house and couldn’t breathe. This evokes the question: did he not talk to her because his affair with August has yet to end?
In the first pre-chorus, James tells Betty that even though their classmate, Inez, is known for false rumors, the one about him and August was true. This is an odd point to make, as Betty had already switched her homeroom, indicating that she knew it was the truth. The fact that James had to reinforce this fact shows that there are other things on his mind — such as manipulating the narrative. Sure, Inez might’ve been the reason Betty knew, but it was James who did the wrong thing, and by bringing up Inez’s low credibility, he is doing nothing but trying to find a silver lining of predicting the bad light. In the next two lines, however, he finally admits his fault, stating that “the worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you.” This is perhaps the only place where he showed his maturity, as James acknowledged that his affair was something done to Betty.
Then, he goes on to ask her whether she’ll forgive him if he showed up at her house. He asks her two things — would she have him, and would she want him. By separating these, it’s obvious that there could be different answers for the two questions. Up to this point, Betty’s answers would most likely not be affirmative twice, so perhaps he was hoping for her to give a certain combination of answers. If she would have him without wanting him, he could pretend that he had everything back, as if the summer affair never happened, and if she wanted him without wanting to have him, they’ll not be able to get back together, but he would have two girls who liked him so much they ruined their lives. James then asks if Betty would trust him if he told her that the affair was “just a summer thing.” The word choice of “trust” is manipulative, as he asks her not if she would forgive him but if she trusts his words, which would make her seem like the bad person here if she doesn’t trust him, as he had set himself up as the standard for what is right and what is not. It is also worth noting here that he had referred to the affair as a “summer thing,” while for August it was a “summer love.” He goes on and tells her that he’s only seventeen, and the only thing he knew was that he missed her. The problem with this statement is that Betty used to be in his homeroom — she is seventeen too. James had used their age as a justification for what he had done without realizing that, at the same age, Betty was asked to forgive him. Also, “I don’t know anything” is a terrible excuse for cheating on someone for the entire summer. At this point, James is just making things up.
In the second verse, he gets even worse, by claiming that their relationship went wrong when he saw Betty distancing him by dancing with another guy in presumably a school dance. He states that he wasn’t with her not only because he hated crowds, but also because she was with someone else. In the given context, this comes off as a final effort to play the victim. Their relationship “went wrong” when he cheated in the entire summer, not when she found out. She danced with someone else because James was with August and had yet given her an apology. In short, James was not sorry for having the affair; he was only sorry he got caught.
At 2:47 in the song, there is a quote from August, inviting James into her car. In the same timestamp, August has told him to get in her car in her song. However, as explained in last week’s article, they had broken up in the car in the song August, but that isn’t the case in Betty. Instead, James states that days turned into nights and they slept together the entire summer. This indicates that the most memorable, most emotional part of the affair for August was having to leave James, but for James, it was taking her to bed. In this same bridge, he had called her “a figment of my worst intentions,” which comes off as a pathetic attempt to shift the blame away. And as if he couldn’t get any worse, he ends the bridge with “slept next to her, but I dreamed of you all summer long.” What James has done repeatedly in his song was to attribute his mistakes to being naïve, with the overall theme being that he didn’t know any better. But the thing is, Betty is the same age, and August most likely too, which goes to show his bad mindset of simultaneously justifying his actions with being seventeen, and expecting both girls to forgive him without any other reasons, even though, according to his logic, they should be allowed to make unamendable mistakes too.
Finally, James decides to show up at Betty’s house and apologize in person. In the third verse, he states that he had planned his apology for weeks, and that this will be the last moments he could dream about what she would say. Even though it wasn’t a smart move on his part to wait for so long, the fact that he did show up to apologize was still an improvement. This verse also indicates that James has thought a lot about this moment, and that he definitely hopes to get back with her. Whether Betty wanted to have him, wanted him at all, or anywhere in between is not stated in this song, and will be revealed in Betty’s song, Cardigan.
Contrasting with the first pre-chorus, James has changed “the worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you” into “the only thing I want to do is make it up to you,” which shows that through cleaning up the aftermaths of his mistakes, he was learning to take accountability. And so he showed up at her party. The repetition of that line suggests that he was anxious, and that whole experience almost feels surreal, like he had to reaffirm himself that it is really happening.
In the last chorus, James’ toxicity returns, but in an entirely different way. It starts off normal, with him wondering how she’ll react again, but with stronger longings, wondering about if she would love him and kiss him on the porch. Despite that being an odd expectation, the part that struck a red flag was when he called her friends “stupid.” He insinuates that he and Betty are both better than the rest of their classmates, and almost pressures her into getting back with him by giving off a you’re better than this vibe. Then, he asks himself that if she kissed him, “would it be just like I dreamed it?” The problem is that this is not the first mention of dreaming in this song — he was dreaming about Betty when he was still next to August. In the next line, he throws in a metaphor about patching her wings, which was strange, considering that the rest of this song was pretty straight-forward. James is pushing his narrative of how he’s suddenly more mature than everyone else. Overall, this chorus is about persuading someone to forgive you for hurting them by painting an illusion of how the two of you are above everyone else, above the world, and any past mistakes shouldn’t be enough to get in the way. James is a manipulator. He ends the chorus with the all-too-familiar excuse of how he’s only seventeen, and all he wants is her.
Betty ends with an outro of James reminiscing how he used to be wrapped in Betty’s cardigan, and how they used to kiss in his car. The last two lines — “stopped at a streetlight, you know I miss you,” is the last picture painted in the song, showing that Betty had ended it with him at the party, and he was trying to move on but couldn’t, because everything around him — his car, the streets, the streetlights — they all reminded him of her, and how he could never have her back. Another interpretation of these lines is that James could move on, as long as he was doing something new with his life. Whenever he slowed down, he would be reminded of Betty. This line of analysis fit with his personality, as it was clear that he wanted something fun during the summer, causing his affair with August. It was the same thing — all he would need for the rest of his life was something to distract him from her, from losing her, from the worst thing he has ever done, with no hands guilty but his own.
To put these pieces of folklore together, next week’s article will be on Cardigan, Betty’s perspective.
The 2am writer that lives in the mind of sixteen-year-old Yun-Fei Wang has been taking over her sanity for a few years now, tearing her lifeline down, yet building up an escapism in the same breath. Find her in the evanescence of black-inked words, or at @rainofelsewhere on Instagram.