“William Bowery” is credited as a co-writer on several songs across Taylor Swift’s upstate New York-themed albums folklore and evermore. The nom de Swift was the subject of immediate speculation from the singer’s fanbase, which theorized the person behind it was Swift’s boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn. During her Disney+ special Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, Swift confirmed it: William Bowery was indeed Joe Alwyn, and he allegedly wrote major chunks of a bunch of songs, most notably folklore’s “exile” and “betty.” He even nabbed a Grammy for folklore’s Best Album win last year.
Now, listen. I’m happy for Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn. I really am. It brings me peace to think of them relaxing in Taylor Swift’s Rhode Island estate, not a financial worry in their minds, their staff quietly tending to a roaring fire, their privately owned waves crashing just outside. I hope to one day house-sit there, for a stretch of several months. But I do not like being lied to.
Joe Alwyn did not write those goddamn songs.
(In my opinion.)
“It was really the most accidental thing to happen in lockdown,” Alwyn recently told GQ. He’s currently on a press tour for his role in Hulu’s upcoming Sally Rooney adaptation Conversations With Friends, and is being asked often, usually with a least a hint of incredulity, about his experience co-writing with Taylor Swift. “It wasn’t like, ‘It’s three o’clock, it’s time to write a song!,’” Alwyn said. “It was just messing around on a piano and singing badly and being overheard and then thinking, you know, what if we tried to get to the end of it together?”
As the story goes, Alwyn was sitting at the piano, playing and singing the fully-formed first verse of the song “exile,” when Taylor Swift overheard. She tells the story in the Disney+ special, and her co-writer Jack Antonoff, with a tinge of condescension, asks “Lyrics too?” “Yeah,” Swift says, “he was just singing it the way the whole first verse is.” “Wow,” replies Antonoff. Now, I am loath to agree with Jack Antonoff (he has bad energy) but here I am also saying, in a way that indicates I do not believe that story: “Wow.”
The story behind the creation of “betty” is similar. As Taylor Swift tells it, she overheard Alwyn singing the fully-formed chorus in another room while they were just hanging out. He discussed the song’s creation in a recent interview with Vulture. “I’d probably had a drink and was just stumbling around the house. We couldn’t decide on a film to watch that night, and she was like, ‘Do you want to try and finish writing that song you were singing earlier?’ And so we got a guitar and did that.”
These stories are unbelievable to me primarily because songs don’t often tend to spring fully-formed from even seasoned songwriters, let alone actors who just happen to have seasoned songwriters within earshot, but also because, particularly concerning the song “betty,” the song’s lyrics fit into an album-spanning narrative about a love triangle between three teenagers. We’re supposed to believe he was just singing from James’s perspective (“betty” is from the perspective of James) (James is one of the teenagers), over there in that other room? Come on …
Now, do I think Joe Alwyn thinks he co-wrote these songs with Taylor Swift? I am willing to believe he might. Like a child “making cookies” with mother, it is possible Joe Alwyn threw in a handful of chocolate chips, so to speak, and, when mother told the family “Joey made these!,” he beamed with genuine pride. Bully for him, but we all know if Joey were left to his own devices in the future, “making cookies” would likely end in either injury or house fire.
The bigger question is: Why does Taylor Swift want us to think Joe Alwyn co-wrote these songs? I have to imagine it’s because she loves him and wants her fans to like him, too. It’s even possible she, with her rosy gaze, believes Joe Alwyn’s piano-tinkering other-room singing actually, eventually, did lead to the creation of these songs, and she is giving him more credit than necessary out of gratitude and warmth. It’s also possible she wanted to launder his allowance through songwriting credits, or just give him a little fame boost. But it’s nicer to believe the other options. All are understandable.
Again, I am of course happy for Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn. I love the album folklore so much that I cannot listen to it without crying, and I look forward to the moment Alwyn becomes well-known enough that they can announce their engagement. I am once again also available to house-sit in Rhode Island beginning immediately. But I do not believe Joe Alwyn wrote these songs.
“exile” me if you must.