In July of this year, Taylor Swift surprise-dropped her eighth studio album folklore, which featured hidden queer references abound. The most obvious is the album’s fourteenth track, “betty,” in which Swift’s classic teen love song is aimed at the titular girl. Naturally, gay Twitter was in chaos. Taylor Swift?!?! Gay icon?!?!? Kaylor fans wept openly on every street corner. At last, she’s making music for the lesbians.
This isn’t the first time Swift has hinted at being queer. There is a long, lengthy, extended, prolonged, drawn-out history of fans seeing queer themes in her music. But to understand where it all started, we have to go back. Way back. To 1989.
In 2014, Swift’s album 1989 launched her fully into the world of pop, where artists like Beyoncé were pushing girl-power feminism into the mainstream. Swift’s way of fitting in was Feminism-Lite™ statements in interviews and creating her infamous girl squad. The girl squad consisted of glamorous models, singers and influencers with whom she was never seen without. It was out of this era that the Kaylor (Taylor + former Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss) fandom was born. Kaylor fans appear to have extensive evidence that Kaylor is real, including a photograph of them supposedly kissing. Even though the girl squad is largely disbanded now, and Kloss is married, there’s still an active community around the ship. For them, folklore is like meat to a starved dog. The references are more textual than they’ve ever been.
Like many queer fans, I’ve been a loyal Swiftie since my dad first dropped her album in my lap when I was twelve. I memorized her lyrics, knew who every line was about, and learned her songs on the guitar. I, too, had secret crushes on my best friends that I couldn’t talk about — but for different reasons. I wiggled myself into her narrative all the same.
LGBT+ folk are well-practiced in doing this. We’ve got to be — very few pieces of music, movies or TV shows actually want us around. If we’re not being killed off, we’re denying our actions as a phase. But, more often than not, we’re just left to be angsty and suffer through depressing storylines.
Perhaps this is part of why folklore feels so canonically queer in nature, and why I cried when listening to “seven” for the first time. To pine for something you don’t have, to be forced to speak in riddles just to live a normal life… it hits a nerve with sapphic listeners. It’s like the longing itself is queer.
Since the girl squad days, Swift has become expressly political about gay rights. Her 2019 single “You Need to Calm Down” has explicit references to everything from GLAAD to Billy Porter’s iconic Oscars red carpet dress. It features so many famous queer cameos you’d think she traded in her girl squad for a gay squad. Both the lyric video and the music video end with call-to-actions that encourage fans to sign petitions and politically engage with gay rights. Buried in the video is a shot of Swift dancing with her hair dyed in the colors of the bisexual flag. A juicy scrap of meat for hungry dogs.
By the time folklore dropped, Swifties queer and straight alike were primed to receive the gay references. Folklore alludes to living in the closet, sneaking around because your love has to be a secret, and wishing just one thing (gender?!) had been different so she could be with her lover. And to top it all off, she sings a love song to a girl. Where Swift usually makes us dig for Easter eggs, folklore feels like she’s handing them to us on a lavender platter.
“Betty” is the thesis statement to this queer reading of the album. Deniers might point out that Swift has also confirmed the song is from a boy’s perspective, but to them I say: Like that’s any less gay? We sapphics — and I’m including Swift in this — are narrative chameleons. Who among us hasn’t identified with the male singer of a love song or male actor in a romance because they held the same attitudes we had toward women, and the same roles we wanted to occupy in our lovers’ lives? Like Swift, I’ve written fiction from male perspectives because that was the only way I could access the feelings I had for girls that I couldn’t yet name. We live in subtext because we have to.
It is unlikely that Swift will ever publicly identify as being queer. It’s hard to expect that of an artist who is, honestly, probably not gay. She is much more likely to keep doing what she has built her career on — stringing us along with clues, letting us put the pieces together until we feel like we really know her because we were the ones who actually paid attention. It brings me back to opening the booklet of her first album as a teenager and counting all the capital letters in the lyrics until it spelled out the name of the boy she was singing about. This made me feel seen then, but my identity and life has changed. I’ll eat whatever scraps folklore gives me, because it hurts to be hungry. I’m not going to wait for a confession of queerness to start digging in.