Song Lyrics – Taylor Swift – Cardigan

In this episode, Jack discusses the lyrics to the Taylor Swift song Cardigan.

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Hello and welcome to Learn English Vocabulary. My name is Jack and I’m making this podcast for you to learn or revise English vocabulary. You can find a transcript of this podcast on LearnEnglishVocabulary.co.uk. There’s a page for this podcast with the transcript, an activity and a task for you to do in the comments section.

Introduction

Today, I want to talk about the lyrics to a song called Cardigan by the American singer and songwriter Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift’s music is very American, country-pop. I don’t listen to a lot of pop music, but I think that Taylor Swift is quite good. I’m not really a fan, but the music is interesting for pop music and the lyrics are great for language learners as her voice is quite clear and she wants you to be able to hear what she’s singing.

The language is quite tough. Most of the language I’m going to talk about is B2, with a few more advanced words and phrases. 

The title cardigan is an item of clothing. A cardigan is like a jumper that can be opened at the front. Cardigans are normally made of wool and have buttons at the front. I used to have a cardigan that was knitted by hand and was so comfortable. And I think that’s the point of the song, but we’ll get to that later because there are four more items of clothing in the song that I want to talk about before going through the song verse by verse. 

The first item is a vintage tee. This means an old t-shirt. The word vintage comes from winemaking and a vintage is normally a year. Wine is made from grapes and depending on the weather, each year, the harvest is slightly different so the wine that is made each year is slightly different. Wine lasts a long time so people might have wine from lots of different vintages. If the wine from a particular harvest was special, that vintage would become known as a good vintage. 

The word vintage is also used to talk about other things and it has come to mean old but valuable. So you get vintage cars, old classic cars that people still love. Vintage guitars – Fender and Gibson guitars from the 1950s and 1960s are incredibly valuable. So vintage doesn’t just mean old, it means old and cool. There are shops that specialise in vintage clothes. These are not just second-hand clothes, they are specially selected. I have lots of old clothes, but they are not really vintage – they are just old. 

The next item of clothing is high heels. These are shoes that are normally worn by women that have a very tall thin heel at the back. If you don’t know what high heels are from that description, I don’t think I’m going to be able to explain it any better. They are strange, uncomfortable shoes that women sometimes wear in quite formal situations.

The next item of clothing is Levi’s. These are jeans which are usually blue denim trousers. Levi’s are a famous brand of jeans. 

The fifth item of clothing that is mentioned in the song is a sweatshirt. A sweatshirt is an item of clothing that you wear on the top half of your body. I think it was originally designed for people to exercise and do sports in, but now the word can refer to any casual long-sleeved top. It’s often shortened to sweater. In the past, sweatshirts were always made from a blend of cotton and polyester with a smooth outer feel and a soft inside, but I’ve just looked and the word sweater seems to be synonymous with jumper and pullover. Perhaps sweater is used interchangeably and sweatshirt is still used for the sporty clothing?

OK – now that the clothing has been dealt with, let’s go through the lyrics, verse by verse. I will talk about the interesting vocabulary and try to talk about the meanings. 

The first verse is: 

Vintage tee, brand new phone

High heels on cobblestones

When you are young, they assume you know nothing

If something is brand new, it means it’s new from a shop and hasn’t been used at all. Normally, most new things we buy are brand new. But you can buy stuff that is second-hand, that has been used by someone else before. In that case, it might be new to you, but not brand new. The other way the phrase is used is to say that something has never been used before. So if you buy a new phone, it is brand new on the day you buy it and perhaps for a day or two longer and then after that, it’s still new for a while, perhaps a week or two. 

Cobblestones are round smooth stones that used to be used to pave streets in towns, that is stones that were used to make the surfaces for streets. They used to be smooth river stones, but now, you can buy stones that are cut or made for paths and roads. They are smaller than bricks. In the song, the lyrics mention high heel shoes on cobblestones. This is because it’s really difficult to walk on cobblestones if you are wearing high heel shoes. I don’t know this first-hand. I have never worn high heel shoes on cobblestones, but I used to live in Canterbury in the UK and some of the streets were cobbled and you’d often see women having problems walking along the cobbled streets. 

To assume means to think something is true about someone or something without any proof or evidence. Assumptions are a bit like guesses about people and situations. When you guess, you know that there’s a chance you’re wrong. When you assume, you believe you are right. People don’t doubt their assumptions and most of the time, most assumptions you make will be completely correct. For example, if your friend is coming to visit and they are travelling a long distance, you might assume that they will be tired when they see you. That’s a guess, but it’s something that seems pretty likely. However, if you make too many assumptions, you can get caught out and negative assumptions about people can easily turn to bigotry or prejudice.

I’m not really sure what this first verse means. I think that it might be about the choices that young people make that seem unwise to older people. Spending money on a vintage t-shirt and a new phone and then choosing to wear high heel shoes on a cobbled street don’t seem like sensible choices. Perhaps that’s why she sings that when you are young they assume you know nothing. I’m not sure who they are yet. Let’s move on to the next verse.

Sequin smile, black lipstick

Sensual politics

When you are young, they assume you know nothing

OK. I’m still not sure. Sequins are little plastic disks that can be sewn onto clothes. They reflect light and look shiny. You can get dresses that are covered in sequins that sparkle. They look a bit like jewels, but really they are just plastic. Perhaps that’s what a sequin smile is. A bright shiny happy smile that’s not really that valuable? I’m not sure. Lipstick is makeup that you wear on your lips. It is more commonly worn by women and it’s normally red, or a shade of pink. Black lipstick is very striking looking.

Sensual politics. I’m not really sure what this means. Sensual refers to the direct experience of the senses and things that are pleasurable. However, it’s often used to talk about the sense of touch and sexual experiences that are not necessarily sex. So a massage might be described as sensual. Sensual politics, then would be the rules and agreements, the ways that we behave that are considered acceptable and unacceptable to do with sensual experiences. Though, as I say, I’m not really sure what this means.

The next lines are:

But I knew you

Dancin’ in your Levi’s

Drunk under a streetlight, I

I knew you

Hand under my sweatshirt

Baby, kiss it better, I

The use of the word but means these lines should contrast the first part of the song. I knew you when you were dancing in your jeans, this means on a casual night out, drunk under the streetlight. Drunk means that you are intoxicated or at least affected because you have been drinking an alcoholic drink. Under the streetlight, in the UK, we say street lamp, but I think that the meaning is easy to understand. 

And now we come to the chorus.

And when I felt like I was an old cardigan

Under someone’s bed

You put me on and said I was your favourite

So, an old cardigan is a very comfortable item of clothing, but it’s not glamorous or smart. It’s what you wear at home when you want to be warm and don’t really care what you look like. There aren’t many famous cardigan wearers. Mr Rogers, the American children’s presenter, used to wear a red cardigan and in the film The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ character, the dude, wore a cardigan that looked old and comfortable. Taylor Swift sings that she felt like she was an old cardigan under someone’s bed. This means that she was not really respected, but that she provided warmth and comfort and that she was told that she was her partner’s favourite. It’s not a very positive description for a partner. 

Let’s move on.

A friend to all is a friend to none

Chase two girls, lose the one

When you are young, they assume you know nothin’

This is a nice verse. If you are everybody’s friend, then nobody is really special to you. If you try to chase two girls, you will lose the one. To chase means to pursue or follow and try to catch. Usually, chasing involves running. My kids are always running around after each other. One will tease the other and run away and the other will chase after them. Even I get involved sometimes. I might pretend to be a monster and chase after my kids. If a boy or a girl is said to be chasing a girl, then it means they are trying to become involved in a romantic relationship. They are not physically running after them. The next verse has a fantastic rhyme.

But I knew you

Playing hide-and-seek and

Giving me your weekends, I

Hide-and-seek is a game that children play. Normally one child closes their eyes and counts to fifty or one hundred while the others run off and hide. The child who counts is the seeker and then has to go and seek or look for the hidden children. In the song, this use is figurative. When you play hide and seek, you hide, but you are also inviting the seeker to come and find you.

In the next verse are the lines:

I knew you

Your heartbeat on the High Line

Once in 20 lifetimes, I

Your heartbeat is the rhythm of your heart. I’m not sure what this line means. The High Line is a park in New York City created on an abandoned elevated railway. It’s a garden, built on the platform that used to hold a railway line. 

We use the expression once in a lifetime to talk about an positive experience that is really rare or the sort of thing that someone might only get the chance to do once. It’s normally collocated with holidays or experiences. A once in a lifetime holiday might be an expensive cruise or a once in a lifetime experience might be something that’s really expensive so you’d only pay to do it once. Once in 20 lifetimes then is an experience that is really rare and really valuable. It’s not a normal use of the phrase, it’s normally just once in a lifetime. 

There’s another chorus and then there’s a bridge section.

To kiss in cars and downtown bars

Was all we needed

You drew stars around my scars

But now I’m bleedin’

Downtown refers to the centre of a town or city. In the UK, it sounds quite glamorous, possibly because of the 60’s song Downtown about life in an American city. I met a couple from Florida on a train last week and they referred to downtown Bromyard which is a small town in Herefordshire. This made me laugh because it’s a really small town and not at all like the idea I have of downtown. 

You drew stars around my scars. A scar is a mark on your skin from an injury that has healed. I have a few scars on my hands from doing silly things when I was younger. I wasn’t very careful. 

You drew stars around my scars but now I’m bleeding. If you are bleeding, you have a wound that is leaking blood. 

So this section of the song starts by thinking back to the time in their relationship when they were very happy and Taylor Swift felt that she was supported by her partner, but this time is contrasted with the present when she says now I’m bleeding.

The song continues:

‘Cause I knew you

Steppin’ on the last train

Marked me like a bloodstain, I

If you mark someone, you do something that leaves a mark, that is some sign. If you have paint on your fingers and you touch something, the paint will leave a mark on whatever you touch. Marks can be made by artists, or a teacher might mark your work with ticks to show that the work is correct and crosses to show when there’s a mistake. Sometimes we talk about events in a person’s life that leave a mark in a figurative way, they change the person somehow. A bloodstain is a mark. A stain is a mark that it is very difficult to wash away. A bloodstain is a mark left by blood. In this poetic use in the song, a bloodstain is the mark left after an injury, something that hurt Taylor Swift. 

The last two verses are:

I knew you

Tried to change the ending

Peter losing Wendy, I

I knew you

Leavin’ like a father

Running like water, I

OK – these are another couple of difficult verses to interpret, but the language is not that tricky, at least. The ending is the way that a story or film ends. You might tell someone – don’t tell me what happens I don’t want you to spoil the ending. Now in the stong, Taylor Swift’s partner tried to change the ending, the way their story ended. She describes it as Peter leaving Wendy. Now, this refers to a famous story called Peter Pan. At the end of the story, Wendy leaves Peter, I think.

Taylor Swift’s partner left: like a father. Now, I don’t know about her family life, but I feel this is a bit unfair on fathers. 

There is a slightly different structure to the next eight lines.

But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss

I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs

The smell of smoke would hang around this long

‘Cause I knew everything when I was young

To linger means to stay somewhere for a long time, longer than would be normal. It’s often used in a negative way. Bad smells linger and when people linger, it’s often because they are up to no good. This is not always the case. You might linger because you are enjoying being with friends when you should leave and go to work. 

A tattoo is a picture on someone’s body created by injecting ink into the skin.  A tattoo kiss means a tattoo in the form of the mark left when someone wearing lipstick kisses you. 

The verb to haunt is normally collocated with ghosts. If a ghost is seen in an old building, people will say that the ghost haunts the building. It means hang around and just be in a place. A what-if is a form of doubt. If you worry about something that happened in the past or in the future, you might think about hypothetical situations. What if it rains? What if he doesn’t come? What if … This is not a very common noun and it’s quite informal.

I knew I’d curse you for the longest time

Chasin’ shadows in the grocery line

I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired

And you’d be standin’ in my front porch light

And I knew you’d come back to me

A curse is a magic spell that causes bad things to happen to the person who is cursed. I’m not sure that people actually try to curse each other much in the UK these days, but the word is still used to say that someone would wish harm would come to someone. We also use the word if we suffer from a run of bad luck. Sometimes a project, perhaps a film production or a business suffers from lots of problems. People might say that the project was cursed.

I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired. To expire means to end, most commonly if something expires it means it is no longer valid. On bank cards, there is an expiry date which is when the card will no longer work. I guess this line is about the thrill of meeting someone new.

A porch is like a little room, usually at the front of a house. I have a porch and it’s where we leave our shoes and coats. In American films, lots of houses have a porch at the front of their house. The front porch light is the light at the front of a house.

Now, I’ve got to the end of the song, it seems to me that it’s the story of a relationship and not a very healthy one. Taylor Swift is complaining that this person who is standing in her front porch light treats her like an old cardigan. Throughout the song, she talks about being young and how their relationship began. Then, he tried to chase after other women and their relationship was difficult, but still, it might have been exciting and then she left him because he hurt her and now, he’s come back to her but she feels that he still doesn’t really respect her. Now, I might be completely wrong about this, but that’s as well as I can interpret these lyrics. If you think the song means something else, please let me know in the comments section on the page for this podcast on Learn English Vocabulary.

I have one last thing to talk about today. If you are still listening to this podcast, I think you must be very serious about learning English. I have a new project called English Focus which will be an online language school that’s based around speaking practice. I am looking for some people to try out the lessons. I need to test the lessons before I can open the first classes. If you help me, I will give you a free course when they are available. If you are interested, please send me an email at jack@englishfocus.com and I will get back to you with a time for the lesson. 

I hope you have enjoyed this podcast. As always, I love reading your comments so please leave me a comment on the site or a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts. I love to hear from you and any comments or suggestions you have. Thank you also to those of you that have bought me a coffee. I really appreciate it.

If there are any topics or songs or scenes from a film that you would like me to talk about or anything else you would like to hear, I would be delighted to make a podcast for you. So please visit LearnEnglishVocabulary.co.uk and say hello.

Thanks for listening.

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1 Comment

  • Udit Gogoi
    Posted 20/06/2022 at 2:51 pm 0Likes

    Thank you for your invaluable lessons. Really enjoying and benefitting from your podcasts. Jack, I have a request. Could you make a podcast of Green Day’s famous song Boulevard of broken dreams too?

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