Alongside the rest of the world, Taylor Swift found herself unexpectedly experiencing a world-altering coronavirus pandemic. She put her quarantine time to good use writing the songs for her eighth album, Folklore.
Folklore marked the first time Swift strayed from her customary rollout strategies, which typically involved dropping singles and weeks or months of promotion. Instead, she announced the record on social media hours before its release. The songstress admitted that previously she might have overthought the timing of her new release and saved it for the "perfect" moment. "But the times we're living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed. My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world," she reflected. "That's the side of uncertainty I can get on board with."
This song was released as the first single alongside the album launch.
According to Swift, this song started with the imagery of "a cardigan that still bears the scent of loss 20 years later." That image in her head became a story in which she compares a teen romance between two characters named Betty and James to an item of clothing.
When I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone's bed
You put me on and said I was your favorite
When James came into Betty's life, she was low in confidence feeling like a discarded cardigan. He made her feel precious and needed by putting her on (i.e. wearing the tatty old garment).
According to Swift, the song "is about a lost romance and why young love is often fixed so permanently within our memories. Why it leaves such an indelible mark."
This is one of three songs on Folklore where Swift reflects on an ill-fated summer love triangle involving three teens: Betty, James and an unnamed girl. "Cardigan" is from Betty's point of view, "Betty
" from James' perspective and "August
" from the unnamed girl's. On "Cardigan," Swift sings about the triangle on the second verse.Chase two girls, lose the one
When you are young, they assume you know nothing
Swift references the cardigan again on the outro of "Betty."
Standing in your cardigan
Kissin' in my car again
Stopped at a streetlight
On Swift's merchandise store, she offered a knit cardigan
with silver star patches on the elbows, representing this song.
Swift wrote the song with multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner of The National. Dessner, who had never worked with Swift before, co-wrote and/or produced 11 of the album's 16 tracks. The Cincinnati-bred musician recalled that the country-turned-pop superstar approached him during the lockdown in late April about the possibility of writing some material remotely together.
"I thought it would take a while for song ideas to come and I had no expectations as far as what we could accomplish remotely," he recalled. "But a few hours after sharing music, my phone lit up with a voice memo from Taylor of a fully written version of a song - the momentum never really stopped."
Dessner called on his The National bandmate and twin brother Bryce Dessner to help orchestrate this song along with several others.
Swift wrote and directed the song's enchanting music video, which she shot during the Covid-19 pandemic. It finds the singer entering an alternate world by playing her piano and wandering through a mystical moss-covered forest with a dazzling waterfall before being tossed into a bitter storm at sea. The clip ends with Swift returning home to her warm cardigan.
Swift revealed in a Tweet that everyone on set took extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. The crew included cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who is known for his work with Martin Scosese (The Irishman, The Wolf of Wall Street).
Said the songstress: "The entire shoot was overseen by a medical inspector, everyone wore masks, stayed away from each other, and I even did my own hair, makeup, and styling."
This song debuted at #1 on the Hot 100, while Folklore landed at the top of the Albums chart. In doing so, Taylor Swift became the first artist in history who simultaneously debuted at the summit of both the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200.
The only #1 song Aaron Dessner was involved in before "Cardigan" was The National's "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
," which topped the Alternative chart in 2017.
Dessner tweeted regarding "Cardigan": "Hard to believe we have a #1 song that starts with a quiet shaker and a lap beat!?!"
Swift revealed in her Disney+ concert film Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions that "Cardigan" is Betty's perspective from 20 to 30 years later. "Looking back on this love that was this tumultuous thing," she said. "In my head, I think Betty and James end up together... but he really put her through it."
Folklore was the top-selling album of 2020 in the US. It sold 1.276 million copies through December 31, 2020, making it the only album to sell at least a million copies during the year.
Swift performed this with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner at the Grammy Awards in 2021 from a set that looked like a fairy house. It was nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance and Song Of The Year, and while it didn't win those, Folklore won for Album Of The Year.
Speaking with The New York Times
, Swift said when she first heard Dessner's instrumentals, she was struck by how "immediately, intensely visual" they are. "The first time I heard the track for 'Cardigan,' I saw high heels on cobblestones," she said. "I knew it had to be about teenage miscommunications and the loss of what could've been."