Part III: cardigan 1
The last track of this trilogy is none other than folklore’s only single — cardigan, written from the point of view of Betty.
This is the second of a four-part series analysing the album folklore by Taylor Swift. Find the first essay here, and the second here.
Fans theorize that the first verse of this song is a reference to Taylor Swift’s past seven albums, with “vintage tee” resembling debut, “brand new phone” for Fearless, “high heels” for Speak Now, “cobblestones” for Red, “sequin smile” as 1989, “black lipstick” as Reputation, and finally, “sensual politics” as Lover. This may seem like a stretch, but it would make sense to enter the folklorian era by looking at the past one last time. With much less ambiguity, the repeated line “when you are young, they assume you know nothing” is Betty’s response to how James had claimed that he was young and didn’t know better when he cheated on her, showing him that while he used his age as an excuse, she had to go through the pain of being cheated on at the same age.
However, the meaning of that line is slightly altered at the chorus, where it starts off with “but I knew you.” Because of how Betty had indicated that she knew what was happening, it’s strange that the line would begin with a “but.” This is almost stating that to some extent, she agrees that when someone is young they don’t know anything, but to her personally, she at least knew him. From Taylor’s description of this song — “a cardigan that still bears the scent of loss twenty years later,” this song is written from hindsight, and perhaps Betty had realized years later that people were right in assuming that high school kids don’t know anything.
The next two lines give a more in-depth reason on why she felt that she didn’t know enough when she was young. When she and James were together, she watched as he danced wearing a Levi’s jacket, drunk under a streetlight. Aside from the fact that it is illegal for seventeen-year-olds to be drinking in America, because the descriptions are all written from Betty’s perspective, it appears that she remembered what brand he was wearing more than anything else. While this could just be reinforcing the idea that she knew everything when she was young, Levi’s don’t seem to have a special connotation (it would make sense if he was wearing Chanel or something of that sort), and this leads to the most possible explanation — Betty didn’t care about who James really was, but rather what he showed off to everyone else. She was looking at him dancing under a streetlight, giving off the impression that he was always in the spotlight, and she dated him because he was stylish and cool and probably popular in their high school. From the song cardigan, it is obvious that Betty was more mature than her classmates, so it made sense that she didn’t actually like James that much.
And that idea has continued to be eluded in the refrain, when Betty stated that she felt like an old, forgotten cardigan, and James had picked her up and said she was his favorite. This gives off the feeling that Betty only dated James because she wanted to be liked.
The second verse starts off by comparing romance to friendship — you can’t have everyone if you want at least one of them to be real, and the line “chase two girls, lose the one” can be interpreted in two different ways. First, it’s simple, because if someone is unable to make a decision between wanting one thing or another, they’ll most likely lose both opportunities eventually. Another way of seeing this is that the person is losing “the one,” as in suggesting that there was in fact, a right answer to the choice between two, and in the lack of decision, “the one” is lost. This could be connected to the first track of folklore, the 1, which tells a story of letting go of the past while knowing that it’ll forever haunt the present, and people just have to keep living on. Then, the narration goes on to restate that “when you are young they assume you know nothing,” followed by the “but I knew you” in the chorus.
In the chorus, Betty states that James was used to “playing hide-and-seek and giving me your weekends” which indicated that he was someone who was used to running away from problems in their relationship. The connotation of “weekends” is interesting — like a high school student who didn’t like to go to school, James only stayed for the good, fun parts of their relationship and hid when things got harder and needed both people’s time and effort to work. Weekends only exist because there is work and school, and people need a break from producing for society. A person who only exists on weekends is not going to be able to function like everyone else who works five days a week.
The fault in their relationship was that he wanted the stereotypical high school romance — driving, drinking, screwing, while she wanted to be loved more intimately, like being a cardigan that someone puts on as their favorite. That was why, beyond the fact that James cheated, they didn’t work out in the end.
Because of cardigan’s complexity, everything from the bridge onwards will be analyzed in next week’s article, the final part of the folklore triangle.
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.