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The queering of Taylor Swift

Fans love to speculate about Taylor Swift’s queerness. Folklore only bolsters their theories.

Taylor Swift’s new album Folklore has sparked a lot of unexpected debate about its queer subtext.
Taylor Swift / UMG
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Taylor Swift’s new album Folklore dropped July 24, and despite the last-minute notice, it immediately became something of a pop culture flashpoint. The intrigue stems both from its high-quality songs and its departure from the blanket self-absorption found on previous Swift albums. Folklore, fans and critics agreed, is a stand-out in Swift’s catalogue and beyond.

Swift’s attempts to move away from lyrical navel-gazing resulted in an album largely focused on third-party narratives, which also serve as allegorical and metaphorical reflections on Swift’s own life and emotions. So, naturally, Folklore’s songs about other people are stirring up the biggest rumors and debate about Swift. Most of the album’s tales about other people also feel like coded confessions — the kind that Swift typically likes to offer about herself.

And a lot of those confessions, should you choose to take them as such, are really ... well ... gay. Or, rather, sapphic, as you might explain to your local Harold.

Fans have homed in on two songs on the album — track seven, “Seven,” and track 15, “Betty” — and declared them to be loaded with explicit and inferred queer symbolism. In particular, listeners declared “Betty” to be “queer canon.”

You may, understandably, have questions about this reading. Isn’t Tay straight? Isn’t she in love with that exhaustingly generic British guy she keeps writing songs about? Isn’t Folklore presumably full of songs about heterosexual romance? The answer to all those questions is an emphatic yes — but that doesn’t necessarily make Folklore any less gay.

In fact, despite its textual straightness, Folklore is burning up queer social media and reviving longstanding rumors about Swift’s own sexuality — especially the internet theory about her great secret lesbian love affair. Combining this gossip with Swift’s increasingly outspoken LGBTQ advocacy and Folklore’s witchy queer cottagecore vibe, we have all the ingredients for a steaming hot brew of queer subtext.

Rumors about Tay’s personal life have long been entangled with the sapphic themes of her music

The queering of Taylor Swift involves a combination of classic signposts: gossip, politics, and subtext.

Even as a Taylor Swift fan, you may have missed the mountains of internet lore devoted to the belief that Swift is bisexual. The primary fuel for this is the intense fandom conspiracy that Swift previously was in a relationship with her famous best friend, the supermodel Karlie Kloss. Kaylor, as the women are known as together, is an epic ship by any standards, and the rabbit hole of Kaylor “evidence” is duly intense. The two were first friendly on social media, then reportedly became friends at the 2013 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which was itself kind of a sapphic wet dream. Fans like to make much of Taylor behind the scenes that night, caught on camera gazing at Karlie in what looks like mesmerized awe.

Oh, girl, we know.
helplessgay / Tumblr

“I do feel confident that they at least had a fling,” Sarah Dickson told me of Kaylor. Dickson is a queer fan who started to pay more attention to Swift after 2014’s breakout 1989, which had a strong “queer vibe” that resonated with her. She quickly fell down the internet rabbit hole of speculation over which 1989 songs referenced Kaylor. As they’ve done with so many of Swift’s (straight) relationships, Swift obsessives have devoted reams of analysis to decoding the many alleged references to Karlie in Taylor’s songwriting. (There’s a 37-page PowerPoint just about possible hints of Kaylor on the album Reputation alone.) There’s also plenty of accompanying “evidence” that the two friends may have blurred the line between friendship and romance.

“I don’t know if they would have called each other ‘girlfriends,’” Dickson told me. “[But] it seemed to be more than just a really strong friendship.”

Despite years of a very public and intimate friendship, Kaylor has cooled off. Swift skipped out on Kloss’s two separate wedding ceremonies in 2018 and 2019, and a 2019 rumor held that Kloss had sided with the mega-producer and noted Swift villain Scooter Braun in Swift’s ongoing feud with Braun over the rights to her old master recordings.

And you can make the argument that trying to shoehorn Kaylor into a romance belittles the unique closeness of female friendships. “The thing that I have the most trouble with is that I don’t want to force this assumption [about Swift and Kloss’s sexuality] on people I don’t know,” Dickson admitted.

“I think sometimes that probably the reason [celebrity friends get paired together romantically] is because our culture strips us of the vocabulary to understand something like that outside of the context of romance,” my friend Stacey Lantagne, a longtime fan, reminded me. “Friendships [of all kinds] do not get cultural weight, because our culture places all of the value in a single romantic relationship that is supposed to sustain you over time.”

But such friendships frequently do get full attention in a Taylor Swift album. Whether Kaylor was ever real or not, the fact that so many Swifties (a.k.a. Taylor’s hardcore fans) believed it so intensely speaks to the larger, ongoing presence of sapphic friendships that fills her music. Much of that subtext is implied through things like her vague (and occasionally gender-flipped) pronoun choices, her music videos, and the rampant blurring in her songs between empowered female friendships and intimate lesbian ones.

The tension between “friends” and “more than friends” fits right into Swift’s famously confessional songwriting, which is rife with intimate musings on love and loss. It’s no wonder fans have devoted lists and more lists to calling out the gayest lyrics in her musical pantheon. Among their strongest contenders for straight songs that are actually gay: 2009’s “You Belong With Me,” which famously spawned a version from a gay male perspective that reinforced Swifties’ belief that the song was about repressed homosexuality all along; and 2018’s “Dress” (“Our secret moments in your crowded room / They’ve got no idea about me and you ... I don’t want you like a best friend / Only bought this dress so you could take it off”).

“People say that you can find queer subtext anywhere, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Dickson said. “But there’s something about Taylor’s music [...] Even though she’s the epitome of popular music, she doesn’t seem that concerned with what gender roles she takes on in her writing. She’s not afraid to have her perspective take the ‘masculine’ role, while still being really soft, which feels very ‘woman-loving-woman’ to me.”

One can argue, then, that a subtle “queer vibe” has been present in aspects of Swift’s music all along. Only in recent years has that subtext gotten such widespread attention, thanks not only to Kaylor but to Swift’s growing political conscience.

Swift’s emerging political activism has only bolstered her queer vibe

Much like her celebrity persona in general, Swift’s politics used to be a confusing and even shadowy subject. Because Swift started out as a country music artist, many people assumed over the years that her personal politics, like those of many country music artists, skewed conservative. Her refusal to publicly endorse Hillary Clinton or even engage with the 2016 election at all even briefly turned her into a white supremacist icon.

Swift later explained her decision to say silent, saying that she thought an endorsement from her would likely turn more people against Clinton than help the candidate. Swift referred both to Trump’s anti-celebrity populism and her own reputation as a “snake” as reasons not to publicly lend support to Clinton; she was in the throes of backlash that year, due to Kim Kardashian West’s July 2016 release of a taped phone call appearing to paint Swift as a manipulative liar. (That same tape was reframed in Swift’s favor years later, in March 2020.)

After Trump won the presidential race in 2016, Swift decided it was time to use her platform for change. She incited fierce backlash in 2018 after she urged fans in her home state of Tennessee not to vote for the stridently homophobic senatorial candidate Marsha Blackburn. (Blackburn won anyway, perhaps proving Taylor’s point about people resenting and turning against her.) In her January 2020 documentary, Miss Americana, Swift tearily argued with her team about her desire to say something about Blackburn, a scene that seemingly confirmed that her newfound political advocacy was genuine and personal.

Yet despite her prior resistance against expressing herself politically, Swift has long been a subtle advocate for equality. Vogue’s Abby Aguirre pointed this out in a September 2019 cover story on the artist, noting that music videos and songs from as far back as 2010 have portrayed her acceptance of gay relationships.

This relatively rosy track record of inclusivity notwithstanding, many fans have been skeptical. “I think she wants to be seen as an ally,” Dickson said. She cited lines like 1989’s “you can want... boys and boys and girls and girls...” as some of the less effective moments from that album. “It was just very awkwardly performative.”

At times, this awkward performativity from Swift has overshadowed her music. With songs with titles like “Me!” and entire albums dedicated to processing her relationships past and current, Swift has always been pointedly self-interested. But throughout 2019, she added activism on behalf of gay rights to her list of showy traits. In June, she released her single “You Need To Calm Down” as a Pride month anthem for gay rights. This song’s accompanying music video was again awash in rainbow colors and featured a litany of queer and trans celebrities, from Laverne Cox to Ellen DeGeneres. For this stunt, she was met with heavy criticism from the queer community for appropriating and commodifying the cause — but she also drew praise from fans convinced that the song was part of Swift’s own gradual, ongoing, coming-out process. They pointed to what seemed to be coded references to Taylor’s bisexuality in the music video for the song, including a scene where she dyed her hair in what appeared to be the colors of the bisexual flag.

Barely two months later, Swift ignited more speculation that her advocacy and her sexuality were entwined like two girls in a hot tub when she posted an Instagram photo of her wearing a “PROUD” bracelet, using a filter with colors identical to those of the bisexual pride flag. That escapade led to headlines like “Fans are convinced Taylor Swift just came out as bisexual,” which resulted in Swift later clarifying that she didn’t consider herself a part of the queer community (though she didn’t address whether she herself identified as queer).

All of these contradictions make Swift a complicated ally to stan. “There are plenty of other, much better icons or people to look up to,” Dickson told me. “I don’t want to give her too much credit when I don’t know her.”

But Swift’s self-promoting style also makes the conscious decision to add queer-aligned elements into her art that much more significant.

“I think she’s a very smart person, because she’s managed her own image very well,” Dickson said, “so most things she does are very purposeful. Here’s this perfect straight white cis woman, this American daughter from a country [music] background, but when she does breach that image she’s created, it’s very intentional.”

In other words, this queer circus surrounding Swift is really due to her own occasional subversion of the carefully crafted American Girl persona she’s created. And that occasional deviance has led us right to Folklore, which takes all of this speculation — and arguably Swift’s subversiveness — to a whole new level.

Folklore is full of witchy lesbian vibes and a lot of outright gay symbolism

Because queerness is traditionally framed as something deviant, as a subversion of social norms, queer subtext in media usually goes hand in hand with some other kind of social subversion. In horror and fantasy, for example, villains and monsters are often metaphors for queerness: Vampires are homoerotic, werewolves are repressed, and witches are sapphic.

Folklore doesn’t feature any outright witches, but it does have a strong cottagecore vibe, and it’s teeming with women behaving badly, a theme perennially tied to witches. The album’s best song, “The Last Great American Dynasty,” is all about the story of Rebekah Harkness, the scandalous Rhode Island heiress whose huge coastal mansion Swift bought in 2013. Harkness, like Swift, had her own titillating “bitch squad” and a bad reputation. She wasn’t a witch, but it’s easy to imagine Harkness and her gang hexing the moon and accidentally enraging some brawny male god.

Musically, Folklore eschews the radio pop earworms of Swift’s more recent albums and returns to the primarily country-influenced, more acoustic sounds of her earlier days. That sonic palette leaves the impression that Swift is looking into the past to gain insight into her future. Swift uses the stories of other, often fictional people in Folklore to reflect indirectly on her own life and identity — and while not explicitly queer, Swift’s storytelling veers toward the consciously homoerotic.

The song “Seven” is about an intense friendship between Taylor’s narrator and a childhood friend, who seems to have been an abuse victim. Though she can no longer remember her friend’s face, Swift still longs to protect her. There are no gendered pronouns given for Swift’s friend, but between references to the other girl’s “braids” and “dolls,” the assumption is there. “

And I think you should come live with me

And we can be pirates

Then you won’t have to cry

Or hide in the closet

And just like a folk song

Our love will be passed on ...

Even though the characters in “Seven” seem to be kids, the narrator’s adulthood reminiscence is laced with queer symbolism. “This truly sounds like an ode to a childhood queer girl crush,” Dickson told me. In addition to the obvious closet metaphor and the references to a secret love, Swift sings about wanting to escape with her friend to India, and loving her “to the moon and to Saturn” — Saturn being, according to some astrologers, a trans and lesbian deity in Hindu astrology. Fans have read other coded queer references into the song, all while pointing to the song’s overall theme of yearning and idealized love as the most obvious example of all.

Betty” is even more explicit — so much so that the track’s apparent queerness took social media by surprise, instantly becoming the track no one could stop talking about. “Betty” is the last of a triptych of songs on the album outlining a fictional love triangle between a teen girl named Betty, another girl, Inez, and a 17-year-old boy named James.

Swift, in narrating a far more nuanced portrait of infidelity than she’s ever told before, appears to have put a little of herself into all three viewpoints. In “Cardigan,” the first of the three songs, Betty looks at her relationship with James both before and after he cheated on her with Inez. “August” sees Inez plaintively describing the summer fling she knew wouldn’t last; and finally, in “Betty,” James looks back on his decision to cheat on Betty as “the worst thing I ever did,” describing how “I dreamed of you all summer long.”

On one level, Swift’s character of James reads like a typical teenage boy, brash and malleable. But because Taylor is named after James Taylor, some Kaylor truthers are reading the fictional James as a stand-in for Swift herself — which would make the entire song overtly queer. So lines like the following suddenly become not Swift’s typical straight teen love story, but a subversive exploration of queer desire:

But if I just showed up at your party

Would you have me? Would you want me?

Would you tell me to go fuck myself

Or lead me to the garden? ...

Yeah, I showed up at your party

Will you have me? Will you love me?

Will you kiss me on the porch

In front of all your stupid friends?

Yeah, all of this seems really, really gay. Suffice it to say that “Betty” has sparked a deluge of queer Taylor fans claiming the song as their own.

The song has galvanized all the Kaylor shippers — because, come on, which other girl but Karlie would Tay still be pining over years later?

Of course, believing that “Betty” — and Taylor — are queer requires ignoring the song’s text that it’s a song about a girl and a boy, and jumping ahead to the subtext. It’s entirely possible that all of this is just in our intense imagination (and in the imaginations, apparently, of most of the internet). As we’ve noted, “Betty” is far from the first example where Swift’s lyrics have proved to be fertile ground for queer interpretation, however unintentional.

It’s also fully possible that Swift is intentionally writing queer subtext to give her work an added layer of tension and nuance. After all, lots of writers do exactly that; writing queer subtext doesn’t make you queer any more than writing a male/male romance turns you into a gay man.

What the addition of subtext does do, as Swift is undoubtedly aware, is allow more people to see themselves in, and relate to, the music and the storytelling. Not only does a queer reading of Folklore further validate all the earlier queer readings of many of Swift’s other songs, it also opens up possibilities for more nuanced, equally rewarding readings of Swift’s songs:

Sadly for gay America, none of this brings us closer to Taylor Swift coming out as queer and re-recording all her songs with all the appropriate gender-swapped imagery. And while Swift’s storytelling has undoubtedly grown, it has at times been regressively straight, and her allyship so far is flawed at best.

But if Folklore is all about the way other people’s narratives can tell you something about your own story, then perhaps the ultimate reading of Folklore is as a prism through which queer people can glimpse a fragment of themselves. We may not be able to claim Swift as our own — but we can claim her songs. And that makes them mean more for everyone.