There’s no such thing as a straightforward Taylor Swift lyric.
Or, at least, there hasn’t been for a while. Though the singer started off her career telling straightforward girl-meets-boy love stories like, ahem, Love Story and You Belong With Me, her lyrics and her music videos have become more and more intricately self-referential, dropping not-so-oblique hints about her personal ups and downs.
In her latest offering Folklore, which was released last week with none of the usual teasers and hints, Swift has been clear about her intention to “put the Easter eggs in the lyrics, more than just the videos.”
She’s also mapped out “character arcs and recurring themes” that help listeners work out “who is singing about who,” she explained in a chat with fans shortly before the album dropped. This blurring of “fantasy and reality,” Swift revealed in the album notes, helped her to “escape” while composing the tracks in isolation during the coronavirus lockdown.
Here are just some of the references – and mysteries – that Swift has woven into her eighth album…
Who is William Bowery?
In Swift’s first Folklore announcement, she made sure to thank the people she worked with (remotely, of course): The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote or produced 11 out of the 16 tracks, long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff, Bon Iver, who appears in the duet Exile, and William Bowery, who Swift says “co-wrote two [songs] with me.”
Bowery is the only collaborator without an Instagram handle, it seems – a detail which has led fans to speculate that the name might be a pseudonym for Swift’s boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn, who is thought to have spent lockdown with the singer.
Long-term fans will know that Swift has form when it comes to fake names: she famously co-wrote This Is What You Came For, her ex Calvin Harris’ track with Rihanna, under the Scandi-sounding moniker of Nils Sjoberg (an alter ego she then killed off in the Easter egg-laden video for Reputation lead track Look What You Made Me Do, which featured the name on… a grave stone).
Where does Alwyn come into this? Swifties have noted that the star of The Favourite had a great-grandfather named William, who was a composer and conductor, while Bowery Hotel in New York is thought to be the site of one of the couple’s first dates.
Another, albeit less widespread theory, suggests that “musical hero” Bowery could in fact be legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell – whose father was named William, and who counts a work named Bowery Bum among her paintings. This one, though, feels a little tenuous – remember when Mitchell admitted she’d “squelched” plans for Swift to play her in a biopic?
Rebekah Harkness and The Last Great American Dynasty
Swift comes over all You Must Remember This in her track The Last Great American Dynasty, shining a light on the story of Rebekah Harkness, an eccentric heiress and socialite who, as we find out in the song’s final twist, used to own her sprawling Rhode Island residence.
The major strokes of Swift’s storytelling certainly stand up to fact-checking. Harkness, who hailed from St Louis, married Standard Oil magnate William Hale Harkness in 1947, and the couple bought the waterfront Holiday House, throwing, as Swift puts it, parties that were “tasteful if a little loud” and “fill[ing] the pool with champagne.” Harkness’s gang of female friends was portrayed in the press as “the bitch squad,” in a parallel that rings eerily close to media reports of Swift’s high-profile friendships. And yes, there were reports of Harkness dyeing a pet green (in Swift’s song, it was a dog, but in real life, it was a cat).
Harkness’s husband died just seven years after they married, and she went on to tie the knot two further times. A patron of the arts, she formed the Harkness Ballet in the 60s – after the company she had previously funded, the Robert Joffrey Ballet, refused to re-name themselves in her honour. She reportedly tried to build a dome-shaped space for dancers to practice in her home – which was, unsurprisingly, vetoed by her neighbours – and is thought to have spent around $40 million on the company, but her poor decisions (such as firing their acclaimed choreographer) eventually ran it into the ground.
Betty and the ‘teenage love triangle’
“There’s a collection of three songs I refer to as ‘The Teenage Love Triangle,’” Swift told fans shortly before she dropped Folklore. “These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives.”
Naturally, Swift didn’t specify which songs make up her trilogy, but fans believe that Betty, Cardigan and August are the likeliest contenders. Betty, they reckon, is told from the perspective of James, who appears to have betrayed Betty’s trust by hooking up with another girl, prompting her to change home rooms at high school. She’s alerted to this by rumours spread by Inez, who may or may not be the girl he cheated with. Cardigan, then, gives Betty’s point of view, while August, which recounts an ill-fated summer romance, is from the third perspective.
Given that James and Inez are the names of Swift’s friend Blake Lively’s two older daughters with husband Ryan Reynolds, it’s prompted speculation that their third daughter (whose name has so far remained under wraps) is called.. Betty. Given that James’s voice appeared as a sample in Reputation track Gorgeous, it doesn’t seem too far a stretch…
There’s also plenty of theories as to Betty’s identity. Some have suggested that Swift’s erstwhile pal Karlie Kloss, whose middle name is Elizabeth, could be a contender, while others have pointed out that Alwyn’s mum also has the same name. Then there’s the fact that Harkness, the star of The Last Great American Dynasty, was known as Betty to her friends – and the possibility that Swift herself, who was named after American singer-songwriter James Taylor, could be James…
There’s a handful of standout references in Invisible String. First of all, literary-minded fans have wondered whether Swift had a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to hand while working in isolation, as the “invisible strings” of the song’s title echo Mr Rochester’s musings on his bond with the novel’s heroine. “I have a strange feeling with regard to you: as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you,” he tells her. And to continue the theme, the track which follows is titled Mad Woman – a phrase which conjures up Rochester’s first wife Bertha, literature’s ‘madwoman in the attic.’
Swift also name drops her 1989 track Bad Blood, as she sings “Bad was the blood in the song in the cab on your first trip to LA,” before appearing to reference ex-boyfriend Joe Jonas, who is expecting his first child with wife Sophie Turner, in the line: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents.”
He previously got the Swift songwriting treatment in Forever & Always, a track on her second album Fearless, which she apparently dashed off after Jonas broke up with her… over the phone.
In her album notes, Swift said she’d been inspired by stories of her “grandfather, Dean, landing at Guadalcanal in 1942,” looking back at his battlefield experiences in the Pacific theatre of World War II. Epiphany’s opening lines, which evoke “crawling up the beaches” with a “helmet” and a “rifle,” are surely based on his time in the military – a picture of Dean also appears in the video for the album’s lead track, Cardigan.