The Hidden Meanings And Sneaky Easter Eggs In Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’
There's a lot to unpack.
If Taylor Swift has proven anything over her glittering career, it’s that she knows how to write a song. Whether she’s writing country — the genre in which she cut her teeth — or stadium pop, or understated folk, she knows the value of a good story, and knows how to tell it.
Her latest album, folklore, contains her best songwriting to date. Most of the songs detail fictional characters, stories that came to her while self-isolating during the pandemic. It’s an album that takes days, maybe weeks, to properly listen to, understand, and absorb.
That being said, here’s everything that we’ve figured out — so far — about the meaning behind the songs on folklore.
The track, and the whole album, starts off with the line, “I’m doing good I’m on some new shit”, which honestly…true. If nothing else, folklore really is some new shit. ‘The 1’ is the feeling you get when you’re finally over your ex, to the point where it’s stopped hurting and you can reflect on how nice it would have been if things worked out.
‘cardigan’ / ‘august’ / ‘betty’
These three songs need to go together because they make up the ‘Teenage Love Triangle’ that Taylor revealed on a YouTube livestream. James and Betty are two teens who were dating, but over the summer James started secretly sleeping with another girl. Betty found out about the affair from a snitch named Inez, and tried to break up with James but it sounds like they got back together in the end.
‘Cardigan’ is from Betty’s point of view, lamenting the loss of young love. ‘August’ is from the perspective of the other woman, who had the secret summer affair with James. And ‘betty’ is all about James trying to get Betty back (and revealing that he’s a gaslighting piece of shit).
There are a heap of lyric parallels between the three songs — including mentions of cardigans, summer, driving, and porch confessions. Just to make it more interesting, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds have two daughters named James and Inez. And there’s a scene in Friends where Phoebe sings a song “about a love triangle between three people I made up”, one of whom is named Betty.
HOLY SHIT TAYLOR YOU DID NOT- OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE SHE ACTUALLY DID THAT pic.twitter.com/4LKlrL1PhE
— Lea✨// Folklore out now!!! (@taylenarare) July 26, 2020
‘the last great american dynasty’
Only Taylor Swift could write a song about an old lady who used to own her house, and make it sound this compelling. Swift’s Rhode Island mansion was owned in the 1940s and ’50s by socialite and dance patron Rebekah Harkness, who married the heir to an oil fortune.
She reportedly wasn’t too popular with her respectable neighbours, who took issue with her loud parties and friends from the city. At one point she even dyed her neighbour’s cat green (though Taylor Swift, noted cat lover, changed it to a dog for the purposes of the song).
Taylor then parallels Rebekah’s story with her own — when she moved into the mansion in 2012 her neighbours got up in arms about construction and complained about having her as a neighbour.
This duet with Bon Iver is making a lot of bearded, triple j-listening dudes reconsider their thoughts about Swift. Justin Vernon’s distinctive low voice blends really well with Swift’s in this song about a doomed couple rehashing their relationship.
It’s like an evolved version of Red’s ‘The Last Time’ featuring Gary Lightbody — they’re singing over each other like a pointless screaming match where you only hear your own voice.
‘my tears ricochet’
Most Swifties agree that this song is about Taylor’s departure from record label Big Machine, and losing the rights to the masters for her first six albums. Even the title could be a callback to one of her first big hits, ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’. She writes of her former manager, Scott Borchetta, and the public feud they had last year after he sold the label (and her masters) to Scooter Braun: “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace/And you’re the hero flying around, saving face.”
The line, “you wear the same jewels that I gave you as you bury me” likely references her six albums under Big Machine — Braun and Borchetta tried to release new live versions of her music last year but they flopped on streaming services.
— 𝒂𝒊𝒎𝒆𝒆 (@loveraimee13) July 27, 2020
At first listen, ‘seven’ is all about childhood friendships, hanging out in the woods, swinging over the creek, and running away with nothing but dolls and a sweater. Where I would say “I used to run around like a feral child when I was seven”, Taylor sings: “Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Any time I wanted.”
It does seem to have darker undertones, referencing a friend with an abusive father. “Your dad is always mad…I think you should come live with me/Then you won’t have to cry or hide in the closet.”
‘this is me trying’
This one hits like a punch in the gut. Lyrics like “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout/Could’ve followed my fears all the way down” and “They told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential” are an endlessly relatable insight into Taylor’s insecurities.
Fans have pointed out that the line “I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back/I have a lot of regrets about that” is similar to a quote she gave in Miss Americana about not knowing if any of her fans cared if she returned after disappearing from the spotlight in 2016.
This Fleetwood Mac-sounding song seems to tell the narrative of Taylor’s relationship with the media and her constant need to reinvent herself to stay popular and relevant. “I’m a mirrorball/I can change everything about me to fit in.”
In the Miss Americana doco released earlier this year, Taylor spoke of the pressure female artists have to reinvent themselves with every new album, in order to be successful. “[We are] constantly having to reinvent, constantly trying to find new facets of [ourselves] that people find to be shiny.”
The lyric “And they called off the circus/Burned the disco down/When they sent home the horses and the rodeo clowns” are direct references to her different eras over the years: the Red Tour with its circus theme, the disco-inspired songs of 1989, the yee-haw cowgirl energy of Fearless.
The idea of a mirrorball can also be compared to a speech Taylor gave at the end of last year: “This was the decade when I became a mirror for my detractors. Whatever they decided I couldn’t do is exactly what I did.”
While this song could be another fictional story about a secret affair, some clues lead me to believe it might actually be about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal. Thanks to the songs ‘Babe’ and ‘All Too Well’ we can get the idea that he cheated on Taylor back in 2011 when they dated for a short while — “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest” and “broke the sweetest promise that you never should have made”.
‘Illicit Affairs’ has the lyric “you showed me colours I can’t see with anyone else” which is pretty reminiscent of the song ‘Red’, and all the colours that went along with their relationship. Then “you taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else” almost reflects “maybe we got lost in translation”.
Joe at his zoom brunch after waking up at 3:45 hearing Taylor singing about illicit affairs in the guest room across the hall pic.twitter.com/RZaurtjMXX
— dissent is patriotic (@MakaiylaW) July 29, 2020
This is one of the handful of autobiographical songs on the record that detail Taylor’s relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. She mentions the yoghurt shop he used to work at in London, and the dive bars they frequented when they first started dating (also mentioned in ‘Delicate’). It’s kind of like a grownup version of ‘Red’ — she even mentions the very mature adult behaviour of getting over her hatred of ex, Joe Jonas, enough to send his new baby a present.
Another track that seems to be pointed at Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta, ‘mad woman’ touches on the entrenched sexism tied to women’s emotions. The lyric “no one likes a mad woman” mirrors a quote Taylor gave in an interview last year: “There’s a different vocabulary for men and women in the music industry… A man is allowed to react. A woman can only overreact.”
“Women like hunting witches too/doing your dirtiest work for you” is referencing how Braun’s wife wrote a long Instagram post about how Taylor was throwing a temper tantrum because she didn’t get her way.
Even the lyric “Do you see my face in the neighbour’s lawn?” is a reference to how music labels put banners out the front of their offices in Nashville to celebrate albums going number one. When Lover charted last year, Borchetta would have seen Taylor’s face on Music Row right by Big Machine HQ.
The lyric “something med school didn’t cover” was one of the first signs that this album wasn’t just about Taylor’s own life. This song is actually about her grandfather, Dean, who served in the army in World War II. It parallels his experiences as a medic with the current COVID pandemic: “Holds your hand through plastic now/‘Doc, I think she’s crashing out’/And some things you just can’t speak about.”
‘Peace’ is hands-down the greatest love song Taylor’s ever written (sorry ‘Lover’). It echoes a theme we got a lot of on Reputation and Lover, being scared that her fame will inevitably ruin her relationship: “The rain is always gonna come if you’re standing with me.”
“All these people think love’s for show/but I would die for you in secret” refers to the years and years she spent writing songs about her very public relationships and break-ups, and her choice to now keep everything about Joe a secret.
joe listening to folklore and trying to work out if he just got dumped or if hes bout to be a dad pic.twitter.com/SQt7vQouef
— would you tell me(ghan) to go **** myself (@babyouremyqueen) July 27, 2020
On the surface, ‘hoax’ seems to be a heartbreaking song about a flawed relationship between two people who just can’t bear to be without each other: “Don’t want no other shade of blue but you/No other sadness in the world would do.”
While it could be another fictional song, it does contain a lot of imagery that Taylor has used before when talking about Joe — the colour blue, New York, and a kingdom.
It’s a pretty sombre note to end the album on — especially compared to past records — but producer Aaron Dessner revealed that ‘hoax’ and ‘the 1’ were the last two songs they wrote, and decided to use them as bookends.
Jemima Skelley is a freelance lifestyle and culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.