Betty, James, Augustine and Attachment Theory in Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’

Okay, so. I don’t know what spurred this any more than you do. But I was listening to folklore for five straight hours on a hike yesterday (as one does) and my brain began to obsessively turn something over.

Betty, James and Augustine. An intriguing group of characters. A captivating trio of songs. And what makes them so specifically interesting is how different they all are (the songs, that is, but also the characters). Each has their own mood, their own narrative, their own style. And yet each is running over the same situation, harbouring the same theme — attachment.

I think it would be easy to assume that a love triangle with a man in the center would follow the stereotypical attachment theme — two anxious women, one Avoidant man. But that didn’t feel quite right in this case. In fact, the more Cardigan, August and Betty flooded my synapses, the more something became glaringly obvious — we are dealing with the precise inverse of that dynamic. Let’s break this down on a character by character basis.

Character #1: Betty

Betty is perhaps the simplest of the three characters to pin down from an attachment perspective. Her nostalgic ballad Cardigan, in which she details her memories of a life alongside James, is easily the most cerebral song Taylor has ever written.

Over the course of four minutes, the words “I knew” make an appearance ten times (and I honestly didn’t count that hard, it may have been more). Betty is singing about her feelings, yes. Technically. But do we actually know how she feels about James? Does she tell us?

When Taylor Swift released Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, most of us were pretty damn surprised to hear that Betty had ended up with James. Cardigan seems to put distance between them, as if she were mourning his memory more so than revelling in his experience. And perhaps, on some level, she was.

Avoidants are not always great at physically leaving, the way that they are good at emotionally leaving. Avoidance makes you miss danger cues, miscolor red flags, reach for the anger you know should be inside of you when someone hurts you and come up empty-handed. Betty can perhaps remember how she used to feel — when her and James were much younger, now that there is a safe emotional distance between that time — but she does not seem capable of accessing her current emotional experience. The entire song is told to us in soft, detached retrospect, despite the fact that she is meant to be singing about her current partner. So what is going on here?

We have to assume that Betty is a biiiiiit cut off from her emotional experience. She can analyse and dissect it with shocking eloquence (as Avoidants often can). But the song itself does not give us anything raw. It details the life of a woman who sat back, watched, waited, analyzed patterns with precision and then nodded satisfactorily when she turned out to be right. Even about a topic as emotionally loaded as infidelity.

Now, let’s move on to the more interesting stuff.

Character #2: James

Let’s get something out of the way: in pop culture, Avoidants are often stereotyped as being fuckboys. And this can be true, sure (we’ll cover more of that trope when we get to Augustine). But are they the most likely type to be promiscuous? Highly debatable. Because nobody — and I mean nobody — needs love, sex and connection as desperately and constantly as the anxious style. Which brings us neatly to the character of James.

James has this sort of helpless quality about him. Poor James, you can tell he is thinking. Hot women keep telling me to get in their car and also that one time, Betty danced with someone else.

Throughout the entirety of the song Betty, he references almost nothing but his own sense of longing. Never mind the women who are both hurting from his lack of honesty and decisiveness. It is an infuriating perspective. But from an attachment point of view, it makes sense.

At the time of writing this, I have a giant blister on my baby toe. It is one of those blisters that is so painful, I can feel my pulse throbbing straight through it and I swear to God that pulse is ten times stronger than the one in the rest of my body. Now. Am I aware of how my big toe feels in this moment? Hell no. I have not thought of my big toe in days. I would have to check to make sure it is even still there. The pain of my baby toe is way too preoccupying for me to focus my attention on any other toe at the moment. And this is kind of what it’s like to be anxiously attached.

Emotional pain is completely preoccupying to the anxiously attached style. Around the same time as the Avoidant learned to detach from their inner experiences, the anxious style learned to amplify them, for fear they would otherwise go unattended to. Pain — even pain that was caused by the self — feels so viscerally overwhelming to this type that it seems almost impossible to focus on anything but how bad it feels in the moment. Betty and Augustine are James’s big toe as far as he is concerned. If someone asks him to focus his attention on how it (they) feel, he could probably do it, but he sure as hell isn’t going to do so naturally, when he has the throbbing pinky of his own regret to worry about.

This overwhelming emotional experience is perhaps summed up in the line that serves as the curious antithesis to Bettys — “I don’t know anything but I know I miss you.”

Now I’m not trying to say that anxiously attached people don’t know anything. They can be fucking rocket scientists and brain surgeons. But when it comes to their own emotions, intellectualizing in the moment can feel next to impossible. The emotional flashbacks of this type essentially catapult them into fight or flight mode, which means their prefrontal cortex isn’t online to help them make sense of what’s happening. They’re all amygdala, baby. And you know what the amygdala loves to communicate to the rest of the brain? “I AM AFRAID/IN PAIN, MAKE IT STOP.”

So the attention naturally focuses on what will take them, the experiencer of such pain, out of it as quickly as possible. James doesn’t know anything, when he thinks about the complex dynamics of his relationships. His amygdala is just screaming BETTY IS OUR ATTACHMENT FIGURE AND WE MISS HER. MAKE IT STOP.

Fair enough.

Now, there are different ways different Anxious subtypes go about making the pain stop. Some rage. Some exaggerate their vulnerabilities. And some — like our dear friend James — adopt a persona of feigned helplessness in an attempt to enlist others to solve their problems for them.

James doesn’t have a single plan or thought throughout the entire song about what HE will do when he shows up at Bettys party. He wonders only about how SHE will take the reins and react to his valiant gesture of existing in close proximity to her.

And this is another particularly interesting trait of anxious attachment. When you ask an anxious person how much time they spend thinking about the inner worlds of other people, they will usually say that they think about that almost constantly. But when you hook them up to an EEG and look at which areas of their brains are active when they’re thinking about other people, the part of their minds that are most active are the areas that process threats of rejection. Meaning they’re not thinking about what other people are thinking in general (therefore taking in their true worldview), they’re thinking about what other people are thinking about them.

And this is what we see with James. He is wondering not how he made Betty feel, but whether or not Betty will be mad at him when he shows up at her party (‘Will you have me/Will you want me/Will you tell me to go fuck myself’).

The viewpoint of James helps us understand why Anxious attachment in adulthood is otherwise deemed Preoccupied attachment.

The dude is pretty damn wrapped up in his own emotional experience. And the less responsibility he can take for the whole thing happening, the greater a chance he accurately perceives himself to have at winning Betty back. (‘I was walking home on broken cobblestones just thinking of you / When she pulled up like / A figment of my worst intentions’ sounds a whole lot better than ‘I cheated,’ amiright?)

The feigned helplessness subtype of Anxious Attachment is alive and (un)well inside the character of James.

Character #3: Augustine

Alright so, when we consider Augustine there are two songs we must consider. Let us begin with her namesake, ‘August.’

I think it’s easy to read the lyrics of ‘August’ as anxious-leaning. The pining! The aching! The prioritizing of James’s approval over her own sense of self (‘cancel plans just in case you’d call’ etc.). All of these are absolutely traits that we tend to associate with anxious attachment.

HOWEVER.

Something about this song being anxious didn’t sit right with me. I listened to it on repeat a bunch of times, then had an ‘aha’ moment. The lyrics of this song are anxious but the FEEL of the song is not. Does that make sense? Let me expand.

When I was writing about Taylor Swift songs and avoidant attachment, I had to include ‘Tis the Damn Season’ because honestly there weren’t a lot of avoidant-leaning songs to choose from and my anxious-leaning partner pointed this one out as a no-brainer.

Now. If you look at the lyrics, ‘Tis The Damn Season’ is avoidant. But the FEEL of the song is something different. I paced around my room trying to figure out why my avoidant-leaning heart didn’t connect with this song whatsoever.

And then I realized: the song has the distinct feel of an anxiously attached person romanticizing what it would be like to be avoidant.

And I believe ‘August’ is the direct inverse of this.

Yes, Augustine seems sad that her relationship with James has come to an end. But there’s also an undertone of complete acceptance in the song. There seems to be no desire to change, control or manipulate the situation to get James back (all things the anxious strategy unconsciously jumps to do when someone they are attached to abandons them).

‘August’ feels more like an avoidant person trying to get ‘I’m securely attached’ brownie points by feigning trying at a relationship in which they were actually just pursuing someone they knew was emotionally unavailable.

Which, by the way, Avoidants do all the time. I’ve noticed that a lot of non-Avoidants think Avoidants have an ego around their own avoidance. Like we are wandering around thinking about how cool and aloof we are. Dudes, not at ALL. Avoidants are in the unconscious business of denying that they have any attachment wounding whatsoever. So they aren’t wandering around thinking ‘Hah, no one is good enough to get with me!’ More often than not, the conscious mantra of the avoidant is ‘Of course I’d like a secure, happy relationshIp! It’s just that none of mine have worked out thus far, for some reason that is beyond me.’

This is the vibe I get from Augustine. She claims to be pining after this dude (and I’m sure in her head she is) but she also purposefully and quite assertively went after someone who she knew full well was in love with someone else.

Now both anxious and avoidant types may pursue unavailable people. But the anxious style is seeking to win them over and lock them down in an attempt to validate their own perceived sense of self-worth (‘I am so desirable that I tore them away from someone else,’ kinda thing).

But the avoidant style will pursue unavailable people because they know that eventually a wall will be hit where the relationship with that person will break down, and hitting that wall is a relief for the avoidant. It may feel kind of sad and nostalgic (a la ‘August’) but it will come with a very calm sense of acceptance (also a la ‘August’). Because they will be returning to what is unconsciously their most comfortable state — alone. Y’see what I mean?

If you don’t, let’s move on!

Illicit Affairs, I have to assume, is also written from Augustine’s perspective. And this was the song that locked her in as Avoidant in my mind.

Again, we have Augustine lamenting the end of her relationship with James and this time we get more emotion. The bridge of this song is SCATHING. My little vengeance-seeking fearful-avoidant heart adores it. BUT. Let’s look at the linguistics involved in this song, yes?

Contrasted with James’s first-person recounting in ‘Betty’ — a song in which we are completely immersed in his first person point of view and romantic musings, one cannot help but notice that ‘Illicit Affairs,’ is told entirely from a second-person perspective.

The bridge, as impassioned as it is, does not start off with Augustine directly addressing James. It starts off with her explaining ‘And you want to scream…’ And then she goes on to emote what she will never actually say. Because her strategy is to detach and self-regulate.

The second-person viewpoint is subtle. But important.

When you study attachment academically you spend like half of the time studying linguistics. And avoidants have a specific tendency to not speak in first person when they’re addressing their emotional experiences. They can name, analyze and dissect their emotions but they don’t really feel them in a visceral way. And this is reflected — albeit very subtly — in their speech patterns.

Avoidants speak about emotions universally, rather than personally. Kind of like how, in ‘Illicit Affairs,’ Augustine doesn’t talk about her affair. She sings ‘That’s the thing about illicit affairs.’ She is generalizing an experience that is actually quite personal to her. This is very telling of her style.

There is a subtype of Avoidant attachment that can be quite promiscuous — it develops when babies learn they are safer with strangers than their actual attachment figures, so they become quite good at ‘performative attachment’ — which is to say, the art of behaving like they are close and connected to random people whom they actually feel quite detached from. I think that the grown-up version of this is what we’re looking at with Augustine. Would she have you believe she is pining endlessly after James? Yes. But would she be lying to you and also (absolutely first and foremost) herself in saying so?

I’m going to go ahead and say yes.

***

ALRIGHT friends and comrades. I think that’s all I have to say about the attachment dynamics of Folklore. For now. If you would like a continuation of this series, someone please convince Taylor Swift to release another album!

I am always — for reasons that completely evade me as well — up for spending hours of my life picking her music apart.

See you next time!

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Heidi Priebe

Heidi Priebe

Writer. Psycho-analyzer. Person. In order of ascending importance.