folklore’s “betty” saga is a trans story
A Taylor Swift album is the last place you’d expect to find a transqueer love triangle, yet the much-discussed “betty” saga from Swift’s latest album, folklore, hides exactly that. Only, no one was willing to look for it. So, for the end of Trans Awareness Week and the folklore concert hitting Disney+, we did.
After months of hot takes, it may be true that there isn’t much left to be said of Taylor Swift’s dreamy quarantine album, folklore. Truly, “in my defense, I have none for digging up [this LP] another time,” but the merely sapphic and *gag* hetero readings of the album’s “betty” saga have ceased to satisfy, if they ever did at all. The Swifties, for all their scrupulousness, just couldn’t stretch these lyrics as far as they could have, without intruding on the personal life of the artist.
As has become the case with most popular art, fans have tended to search for the hard “is,” the final answer, the authorial intent. Consequently, we get Genius liner notes that regurgitate the already uncovered, for example that Betty is probably named after one of Blake Lively’s children, or the simple opinion, with the most popular being that James is cheating trash.
But after Swift explained in a country radio spot on Thursday, August 6, that “betty” is “a song that I wrote from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy,” authorial intent and the Swifties’ need for a final reading fell away for me.
I want gay “betty,” dammit.
So here’s how we’ll fix it:
What if James were a transboy?
In the weeklong scramble to unravel song meanings after the Taylor Swift drop, folklore listeners uncovered a teenage love triangle as it unfolds in simple A-B-C format through the songs “august,” “betty,” and “cardigan.” Each song covers the romance from a different angle in a very Taylor Swift way. Like the rest of her discography, it’s theatrical, dramatic, fluid.
Yet, what piques my interest most of all is the album’s overarching nostalgia. Inarguably, folklore constitutes a breakup album. It yearns for a golden past— for Swift’s country beginnings, for childhood, for the feeling of home. In fact, “nostalgia” etymologically stems from the Latin for “homesickness,” and in Greek, the word breaks down into nostos (“ to return home”) and algia (“pain”).
But nostalgia for the LGBTQ community can sometimes be all pain without the sweetness of home, as childhood and adolescent memories get muddled up with the trauma of the closet. In a piece for Oprah magazine, author V.E. Schwab describes her closet as a dark and sprawling mansion. She writes that her feelings for her best friend are what ultimately led her out of it. Meanwhile, in his genre-bending memoir, titled Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Daniel M. Lavery describes his childhood as being “possessed of a rootless homesickness… [that] would translate quite neatly, for a nervous thirty-one-year-old, into transsexuality.”
With this in mind, James’s appeal to Betty, that “I’m only seventeen; I don’t know anything but I know I miss you,” pierces layers of queer experience. He’s not using his immaturity as an excuse for hurting her. Rather, he’s pleading with his friend for understanding.
In other words, James is not trash. James is lost.
What else could the plural “rumors from Inez” be but James’s crush on Betty and James’s perceived gender deviance? What else would make Betty uncomfortable enough to switch her homeroom, even while she longs for him at the school dance?
Given this reading, James’s admission that “the worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you” stops feeling like regret for his infidelity but for his queerness. Identity never stops at the edge of the self. We are all but “mirrorball[s]” reflecting the communities around us,”chang[ing] everything about [ourselves] to fit in,” and when we become illegible to them, the results can be devastating.
Within the context of the “betty” saga, the effects of James’s forced uncloseting infect Betty, “mark[ing her] like a bloodstain,” as her own identity gets caught up in James’s changed one. Suddenly, she becomes the crush of the weird kid, of the confused butch, of the single Gay in a small town with one movie theater (“this is me trying”) where the only cool hangout is located behind the mall (“august”). Her involuntary change of status (because of course all of Betty’s “stupid friends” would believe queerness to be James’s choice) makes her drop all acquaintance with him.
Then, in “cardigan,” Betty remembers her friend, vintage tee, sensual politics, and all. Most importantly, however, she recalls their promise at the age of “seven” to be together and “be pirates, then you won’t have to cry or hide in the closet.”
For both, there’s no going back to who James was, no way to be convinced that “it was just a summer thing.” Indeed, their “coming of age has come and gone,” but the only way forward from the naivete of youth is to return to the site of childhood, the garden. It’s a poetic, Swiftian denouement that heals the tension that rises from nostalgia.
And how do I justify the nameless other woman from the bridge of “betty” whose perspective is glimpsed in “august?” Well, what I like to imagine is that she was the first person to see James’s closet, its door rusted. That she was the first to speak James into being when she pulled up and said “get in the car” at the start of the summer when “we were changing for the better.” Within the context of the A-B-C sequence, then, her perspective has to come first. She’s the catalyst for change.
Moreover, folklore itself can be a catalyst for change.
Taylor Swift’s albums draw so much attention, so much interpretation, of not only the lyrics but of the singer herself. The question of whether Taylor Swift is a secret lesbian gets bandied about often on social media stan accounts, mostly as a joke, sometimes as a conspiracy theory, yet I’ve not seen a single word about a theory that aligns with both the popular desire for authorial intent and queer interpretation.
For all of us, it’s a failure of the imagination. Listeners who refuse to put aside authorial intent to conceive their own readings of a text, including Swift’s more hardcore LGB fans— the lesbian Swifties in particular— fail to recognize the possibility of their peers’ experiences in the music they love together.
We don’t need Taylor Swift to be a part of our community (and she doesn’t need that either, seeing as she’s already gone so far as to clarify in a 2019 interview for Vogue that ours is “a community that I’m not a part of”). As listeners and consumers, we need to take our favorite artists’ advocacy a step further: Because they have recognized us, we must turn and recognize each other, especially in the time of folklore, an album that was made (and enjoyed) completely in isolation.
The end of Trans Awareness Week (November 13-19) does not mean we can go back to forgetting who might be standing beside us at the next Taylor Swift concert. Until the next time we can gather, I invite you to let trans James live alongside your own interpretation of him as you listen at home to folklore.
For years, the stories of transmen have gone untold, rendering them invisible. It’s no wonder, when James crashes Betty’s party, they choose to leave the other revelers behind. It seems they were never invited to celebrate their pride as a transqueer couple at this parade in the first place.