This One Line From Taylor Swift’s folklore Plays on a Loop in My Head

On folklore, and Hillbilly Elegy.

I’m mystified by acting, by the way a certain movement or intonation can make a whole person feel real. There’s a little magic about hearing a certain sentence said just so — a turn of phrase truly wild and creative, something you wish you’d said that one time, or something that wouldn’t feel right coming out of your mouth — but my God, if it did! My favorite lines in movies usually aren’t the blockbuster one-liners that you can dine out on. They’re the ones with a certain inflection or cadence that exists so curiously and vividly in the moment, you can’t help but sit up a little straighter. I’m talking about Adam Driver telling Scarlett Johansson that she shouldn’t be upset he fucked another woman but that he had a laugh with this other woman. Peter Sarsgaard whimpering to Natalie Portman, asking what the Kennedy family actually accomplished. Natalie Portman, in turn, telling Clive Owen that lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off. Geoffrey Rush informing Keira Knightley that she best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner, because she’s in one. None of these lines are especially euphonious or poetic, but all of these lines feel surprising and weird and fascinating and, for some reason, they’ve adhered themselves to my brain, planted themselves in my thoughts.

When this column lived at Vulture, it was about the lines actors deliver in movies. That’s how it will remain. But today is a special exception because this is my first real entry, and the weather in New York right now is approximately folklore degrees outside. So: this week’s line reading comes from a Taylor Swift song off folklore. We are gathered here today to talk about “seven.”

“seven” is a song by Taylor Swift, a pop star I have not previously spent a lot of time thinking about. I don’t say that in a cheeky way, but honestly, Taylor Swift, Ryan Murphy, and white Housewives are my biggest pop cultural blindspots. But folklore arrived and felt like a revelation to me: only a few other albums arrived this year, during — gestures blithely, but also broadly — all this. It was the thinking woman’s Man of the Woods. I keep a handful of folklore songs on repeat, still: “the 1,” a song about the clumsy emotionality of running into an ex; “august,” a song about the best month to be born, but the worst month to release a movie; “peace,” a song about wanting to have Joe Alwyn’s babies immediately. (I have said this before, but it is right and I stand by it: Alwyn is totally hot in a way that is not communicated well via photograph but is communicated very well when he is standing right in front of you.) (Also: “cardigan” and “mirrorball” are fine, too.)

On “seven,” Swift considers the innocence and insouciance of childhood. Seven is young enough to be careless and curious; young enough to throw a tantrum, but old enough to feel bad about it. (My teeth came in crooked at seven, and I didn’t really care. My older cousins let me watch Love & Basketball but made me leave the room during the steamy scenes, which I did care about a lot. At seven, I started dutifully printed out ballots for the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards and followed along with the ceremony with a marker and a frown.) Swift remembers her own adolescence, or her character’s, as a time of unfettered wildness and emotions she would later learn to stifle, or at least manage. She recalls a friend whose life at home was not so charmed, and neither girl understood why or how it came to be. The song is sad, but I have a special affection for songs where the artist goes in from minute one: that first “pleeeeeeease” sounds like a friend tugging gently on your sleeve.

And then it happens: for the second verse, Swift has something to get off her chest. “And I’ve been meaning to tell you, I think your house is haunted,” she observes pointedly. “Your dad is always mad, that must be why.” It’s a sad line, obviously, but it’s also a little twisted; it replicates that experience of adolescence when you’re basically inarticulate about serious, heavy things. You don’t have the vocabulary to talk about things subtly or delicately, and haven’t grown the awareness to wonder if there’s a less-blunt way to say this. (When was the last time a child didn’t tell you something extremely rude without realizing it?) My first reaction was that it’s such vivid, visual songwriting; my second reaction was “Hold on — sweetheart, if my house is haunted, you better tell me. None of this ‘been meaning to tell you.’”

This song. This line! I’m running the dishwasher, I’m responding to emails, I’m taking out my trash — it pops into my brain, my mind really milling through all its possibilities. “And I’ve been meaning to tell you, I think your house is haunted. Your dad is always mad, that must be why,” Swift sings. I try it out, aloud and to myself, to my empty apartment: I’m not saying any names, but somebody here lives in a haunted house. And again: I’ve actually been thinking this for a while, but by the way, I think your house is haunted? And again: Somebody here lives in a haunted house … maybe it’s because their damn daddy doesn’t know how to act. In the key of the little girl from that “when I leave” viral video: What I’d heard is that somebody’s house is haunted… And again: If you think my house is haunted because my dad has an attitude, no he doesn’t.❤️

And another thing: Is the house haunted because the dad is walking around mad all the time? Or is the dad mad because he’s living in a haunted-ass house? Imagine a trio of ghosts, playing Yahtzee, watching this man walk around fussing! The mind reels.

I know that I’m overthinking this (and that it, in context, actually does suggest a tragic broken home and the way two children can’t make sense of it), but all I do is overthink. I did fast-forward through Folklore: The Long Pond Secret Sessions to hear if Swift herself would shed any light on this specific line, but I did not find it a particularly revealing watch. (Taylor Swift: if you would like to discuss this line, which I love, I would also like to discuss it. Tree Paine: I am eagerly anticipating Amy Adams finally winning her Oscar for playing you in a biopic.)

The only Taylor Swift song I connected to pre-folklore was Lover’s “False God,” where she compares her lover to the West Village. (The metaphor feels unintentionally abrasive to me in a funny way.) But “seven” conjures something different — I can’t get enough of the bluntness of her tongue, how hilarious this sentence is, how it needs no context to be so evocative. I’ve never appreciated Taylor, the writer, so much. A lot of folklore feels well-worn, like a memory or a dream; this “seven” line is so slyly brazen. Aaron Sorkin would end a scene with this; Andy Cohen would start a Housewives reunion with this: “And I’ve been meaning to tell you that your house is haunted. Your dad’s always mad, that must be why.” This line is the closest thing I have to a birth chart; this line might be my first tattoo. Maybe you’re reaching a lull in a conversation, maybe the wine is hitting, maybe you’re lashing out in anger: By the way, everyone knows your house is haunted! And that your dad’s an asshole!

The Other Thing: Someone Needs to Answer for the Casino Poster in Hillbilly Elegy

The less said about Hillbilly Elegy the better. This movie is a relic of another time, like a very 1990s-specific melodrama with a lot of gross conservative politics. It’s less entertaining-bad than puzzling-bad, like a lot of things had to go very wrong to arrive at this specific collection of wigs and that line about Terminator. (That said, I would be interested in a Mamaw-Madea cinematic universe, as suggested by A.O. Scott.) This, however, is my favorite part:

The thing about a framed Casino poster in Hillbilly Elegy is: Why is there a framed Casino poster in Hillbilly Elegy? Look at how it’s framed in this shot. It out-bills the actual hillbillies! The movie’s other pop culture references mostly happen in the background of other scenes, to remind us that we’re in the ’90s and that child-J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos) is bookish and curious about political events. (He asks his mom to turn down Whitney Houston so he can watch Meet the Press — misogynoir, if we’re being honest.) 

But the Casino poster: when Beverly Vance (Amy Adams) announces she’s eloped with her boss and that they’re moving into the boss man’s house, J.D. grumbles an introduction to his new step-dad. The Casino poster takes up as much space in the scene as his temporary father; J.D. basically introduces himself to the poster, not the man. There’s nothing specific gleaned from the poster, and no one comments on it, not even a “Sharon Stone should’ve won that Oscar,” or a “Wow, 20 years from now I bet some HBO kids will give this movie the attention it deserves,” or an incorrect but time-appropriate take: “Hmm, great movie, but not as good as Goodfellas.” Maybe the Casino poster foreshadows the J.D. character’s bad-boy phase, if you can call a half-beer and running wild in a Home Depot after-hours a bad boy phase. Anyway: I love this shot. I love this scene. I also, obviously, love Casino

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