Back in our younger and more vulnerable years, when we thought a few months of Covid was all we had to endure, Taylor Swift released Folklore. I was studying for the California Bar Exam at the time, and I was not a Taylor fan. Like many, Folklore served as my gateway drug. I listened to the album on repeat as I walked by the lake near my house. I also happened to be reading The Great Gatsby for the first time, and at a certain point, I started recognizing a series of shared themes and motifs. Like an imperceptible noise that is impossible to ignore once noticed, the dots practically connected themselves. I thought Taylor must have dedicated her album, at least in part, to Fitzgerald’s classic. But after consulting my sister, the resident Taylor expert in my house, it seemed that no one else saw what I did. So, allow me to paint the picture.
I won’t dwell too long on the specifics of Gatsby’s well-known story, but at its essence, Gatsby is the account of a man who can’t get over a summer fling. After falling in love with Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby recognized he had neither the wealth nor social status to marry her. He then embarked on a mission to become worthy of the object of his desire. Unable to move on from the past, he crafted an imagine of a man he dreamt of as a child. The result was nothing less than extraordinary. Yet, despite his new money and infinite charm, he ultimately fell short of his grand design–Daisy–due to circumstances outside his control. That is, he could not singularly overcome the social stratifications of the Gilded Age. New money remained new money. It is the enduring story of lost love and the limits of the American Dream.
Folklore’s opening track sets the groundwork for the album-long extended metaphor. The 1 is written from the perspective of someone who can’t help but reflect on what could have been if the relationship in question had gone a different path. In the iconic chorus, Taylor likens her failed relationship to the spirit of the 1920s: “But we were something, don’t you think so? Roaring 20’s throwing pennies in the pool.” An obvious double entendre, the Roaring 20’s refers to the Gatsby decade and romance in the years between youth and adulthood.
As Taylor and Gatsby both know all too well, those who find themselves on the other side of thirty and alone easily slip into the trap of trying to imagine what could have happened if things had been different. Taylor reflects, in a moment of great vulnerability, that if her “wishes came true. It would’ve been you.” For Taylor, this statement is simply an emotional and mental counterfactual. But for Gatsby, it was the driving force of his actions. Gatsby could not, “resist the temptation to ask … If one thing had been different. Would everything be different today?”
Nick Carraway, the novel’s occasionally unreliable narrator, warned Gatsby that he shouldn’t ask too much of his former lover. He explicitly told Gatsby that he “can’t repeat the past.” To which Gatsby replied, “Can’t repeat the past? . . . “Why of course you can!” This reflects both Gatsby’s greatest strength and weakness. He was so sure of the future, but only because he remained fixated on the past. Despite the catastrophic events that would spring from Gatsby’s attempts to win Daisy back, we never hear Gatsby express an ounce of guilt. Gatsby had no defense “for never leaving well enough alone.” Up to the fatal climax, in the gardens outside Daisy’s home, he insisted that all was going according to plan.
And because Gatsby was living everywhere but the present, he could not see Daisy for who she really was, or at least, who she became. A careless person who is reckless with the emotions of others. She once remarked that the best thing a girl can be in this world is “a beautiful little fool.” This comment let us into Daisy’s secret; she was not the fool she was pretending to be. She could recognize the lack of meaning and purpose in her shallow life, and she was content with it. For Daisy, “it would’ve been fun” if Gatsby had “been the one.” But that’s all she was ever after. Fun. Where Gatsby was foolishly committed to their love, Daisy was only playing the part.
This theme comes to head in The Last Great American Dynasty. This song is dedicated to the life and times of Rebekah Karness, a woman who married the heir of the Standard Oil fortune. After her husband’s death, Rebekah instantly became one of the one wealthiest people in America. She would have fit right into West Egg with all the other uppity new-money social climbers had she not been shunned by the gatekeepers of social capital. A real-life rendition of Gatsby, Rebekah spent fortunes throwing lavish parties and glamorous events. She ultimately died alone after a series of unsuccessful marriages.
Rebekah and Gatsby’s stories both capture the spirit of the Roaring 20’s, particularly the plight of young ambiguous people who had “a marvelous time ruining everything.” Despite the massive upheavals that occurred during the 1920s, their stories reflect how inelastic social stratification remained. One wonders if Rebekah’s life mirrored a character of herself that she invented as a child, like Gatsby. If so, Rebekah also believed in Gatsby’s green light. A future we pursue relentlessly even as it seems to recede before us, on the faith that we will reach it one day. This belief resulted in tragic outcomes for both our protagonists, who both seemed to be chasing the one thing they could never get, after all, “There’s only so far new money goes.”
And then there’s the three-song love triangle between Betty, James, and Augustine. Betty’s reference to a “party” serves as the emotional and lyrical bridge to Gatsby. As James drifts by Betty’s house on his skateboard, and Gatsby gazes at Daisy’s green light over the harbor, both men are absolutely paralyzed by the prospects of coming face to face with their former lovers. Like Gatsby, James is desperately trying to overcome events in the past. Particularly his own infidelity. If it were up to James, the summer with Augustine would never have occurred. Meanwhile, Gatsby wants to recreate the past. Said differently, James regrets the past, while Gatsby lives in it.
Despite these differences, both Betty and Gatsby build up to the moment when the former lovers finally meet at each other’s homes. When James arrives at Betty’s door, it sinks in that he will no longer be able to recreate this moment in his head after it happens. Because Betty will either tell James to go to hell, or will she invite him to her garden. From then on out, reality, for better or worse, will replace his dreams. When Gatsby was waiting at Nick’s house for Daisy, the same thoughts and fears must have been occupying his mind.
Sadly, reality could not live up to their wildest dreams. Nick realized this as an outsider looking in. He lamented that, “[t]here must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything . . . No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” Nick understood that Daisy and Betty could never live up to the expectations Gatsby and James had for them. Yet, despite these fears, and the inevitable shortcomings of reality, James and Gatsby both beat on against the current. An encouraging thought.
The best pieces of art function as mirrors, and Folklore and Gatsby both share this quality. A century apart the lessons remain the same. Both bodies of work are likely to endure–despite their hyper specificity and deeply contextualized narratives–because there is enough ambiguity in the characters to enable us to use them as barometers for measuring our own life. Whether Taylor meant to or not, to me, Folklore will always be an unofficial homage to The Great Gatsby.