Part IV: cardigan 2
Picking up from last week’s article, this will be the final nail to Taylor Swift’s folklore love triangle, from the album of the year that just had its one-year anniversary a few days ago. The ending to cardigan, told from Betty’s perspective, contains some of folklore’s best lyrics and is filled with poetic pieces throughout
Starting from the bridge, it is made clear that the relationship between Betty and James was deeply flawed, yet they both clung on because it seemed better than it actually was. The lines “to kiss in cars and downtown bars was all we needed,” show how Betty, like James, was focused on the glamour of their relationship, on how they were probably a popular couple in their highschool, and that their romance was good for showing off and not much else. She never really loved him– not because she didn’t want to, but because she couldn’t. James was too immature, and Betty had put up with that hoping that he could change. Although some fans speculate that this bridge is about what happened after James showed up at her party and they got back together, since seventeen is too young to go to a bar, based on how it was heavy eluded in the song august that the summer affair between James and August was sexual, it wouldn’t be a big deal if they were in a bar at that age. Thus, these two lines could be Betty reminiscing about what she used to have, right after she learned about James’ affair. The next lines, “you drew stars around my scars but now I’m bleeding” served as the icon for folklore during its emergence last year. What this means is quite simple– you had shown someone your pain, and they had told you that they wanted to be with you despite your past, yet their empty promises are not enough and you’re left hurting again and again. Drawing stars is a childlike action, and when it’s done around someone else’s scars, it shows that James couldn’t understand how much he had hurt Betty by cheating, and that meant they couldn’t get back together because they were no longer on the same page. The imagery of stars around scars also correlates to one of the folklore merch– a cardigan with stars.
In the chorus, Betty makes a handful of comparisons to what it was like when James left her. Amongst them, were stepping on last trains, marking a bloodstain, Peter losing Wendy, a father leaving, and running like water. Let’s dissect them one at a time. Stepping on a last train is a deliberate action of leaving a place with no plans to return soon; it is about moving on fast. Being marked as a bloodstain, however, is the only metaphor here that is not about a literal movement of abandoning something. A bloodstain on its own is both a cause and an effect– the effect of a relationship’s death, as well as the cause of both of their pain, because even after they had broken up, Betty was a bloodstain to James, an almost permanent mark that reminded him of his crimes. When he marked her, it was his way of pointing out the fallibility between them, showing her that no matter how much they want each other back, his past mistakes would be out to get them, and it would be better if they split up. Betty, on the other hand, must’ve felt that it was partly her fault when she insinuated that August wasn’t the bloodstain– she was. Next, she compares their relationship with Peter and Wendy’s from the cartoon Peter Pan. In Peter Pan, Wendy had left Peter, a boy who never ages, and Neverland in order to grow up and move on with her real life. This parallels the fact that Betty had always been the mature one in the relationship, and James’ immature actions had made her want to leave him. In both relationships, the girls wanted to be with the guys, but couldn’t, because they wanted different kinds of lives– the latter wanting fast rushes of fun, the former seeking for something more mature and secure. In the next lines, a father leaving is quite similar to someone boarding the last train, in which both actions are from someone who has made up their mind and would not come back soon. It’s harder to analyze what the father line meant because every father who had left had left for different reasons– and perhaps that was what Betty wanted to say: the reasons she and James couldn’t keep dating were complex, maybe too complex for two seventeen-year-olds. Lastly, to compare someone to water leaving suggests that the break is inevitable. And it’s true. Both Betty and James had reached a point in their lives where they had to move on from the past in order to heal. Though the places they have reached were different, the dilemma was tantamount; it would be pointless to stop water from slipping away.
The last verse has a more liberated tone than the previous two verses, and it’s because Betty talks about the story of her and James from hindsight, where she could see all the faults as well as all the beautiful things. Once again, she compares him to a few things, such as a tattoo kiss, the smell of smoke, and shadows in the grocery line. A tattoo kiss is, obviously, a kiss that permanently stays on a person’s skin, and the person had once wanted that, like wanting to get a tattoo, only this one might’ve been a bit more regretted. The next line follows this theme, in which Betty states that “I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs,” and the “what-ifs” could go both ways– he used to make her wonder about the bright possibilities of their future, and now she’s left overthinking about whether or not he would come back. She compares him to smoke, which is something that is subtle but toxic, indicating that even though James was no longer a part of her life, the thought of him was still slowly killing her. Assuming that the smoke had come from cigarettes, it would also mean that like a smoker, she had willingly let ash into her lungs, knowing that it would never go away and her life would never be the same again. Then, she tells him that she has cursed him for the longest time, and it’s ambiguous if the curse refers to swearing or wishing bad things for the rest of his life. The answer is probably both, as the next line, “chasing shadows in the grocery line,” is a clear indication that James’ absence was both a dark, tragic thing (shadow), and also a repetitive, daily occurrence (grocery line). Her breakup with James did not only give her a traumatic backstory to tell years later, but it has always been affecting her life down to the smallest details. After the metaphors, Betty states that she knew he would come back to her porch, but this last part could be interpreted as either James’ apology for the summer affair with August, or something that took place years later. The front porch lights allude to how they had finally gotten the courage to face the truth of their failing relationship, instead of dancing drunk under streetlights.
The song ends with one last refrain, which adds on to the possibility that James had found her again years later and mended things, but then again, if he had done so, why would Taylor describe this song as “a cardigan that still bears the scent of lost twenty years later?” Repetition of the line “you’d come back to me” almost sounds like a desperate cry, like saying something over and over again even though the plea would remain unanswered. Anyhow, she has chosen to finish her Instagram statement with this: “now it’s up to you to pass them down.”
So that’s what I did. Happy one year of folklore.
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.