For LGBTQ+ kids growing up in the late 2000s, queer narratives in the music industry were just beginning to find their ground. From Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ to Sarah Bareilles’ ‘Brave’, every year brought with it new anthems that LGBTQ+ teens could identify with while going through the motions of adolescent crushes, confusing experiences with first relationships, and self-discovery. But often, we tried to claim gay anthems outside of the explicit ones, navigating through possible double meanings and reading between the lines. Artists like Lady Gaga, Kate Bush, and Nicki Minaj have become widely recognised as ‘gay icons’ – a title that has very little to do with their own sexuality. Over the years, their music has garnered a loyal and thriving LGBTQ+ fanbase.
With Taylor Swift, the story went a little differently. Through the course of her career, Swift has gone from being seen as the quintessential, all-American country star, to a serial dater with a victim complex. Her lasting image left little scope for her to be claimed by ‘the gays’ in the same way that Cher or Britney Spears were. To add to it, her refusal to make her political leanings publicly known gave LGBTQ+ fans reason to question their unwavering support for her. When ‘You Need To Calm Down’ was released as the second single from her 2019 pop album, Lover, it was met with mixed responses. Some fans lauded her for featuring several LGBTQ+ artists in the music video, while others criticised her for representing homophobes as uneducated and poor. It was in her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, that Swift finally vocalised her concerns around expressing her political views. The film discussed the hatred aimed at the Dixie Chicks in response to their comments against George W. Bush – a lot of which involved highly misogynistic language – as an example of how country musicians, especially women, are expected to keep their “controversial” political stances to themselves. Swift has since shed these fears, openly declaring her support for the Biden-Harris government.
Six months later, Swift’s surprise mid-pandemic release, Folklore, drastically changed direction after the upbeat and energetic vibe of Lover. Swifties were quick to spot queer subtext in ‘Seven’ – a song that perhaps deviates from her general vocal and production style the most. Gentle piano accompanies Swift’s soft, dreamy, vocals in this folk track, drenching it in nostalgia for a carefree childhood. She describes friendship and love in its purest form, not yet adulterated by the conventions and expectations that come with growing up. In the first verse, Swift addresses her friend’s abusive father, and asks her to be with her instead, where she won’t have to cry or “hide in the closet”. The song perfectly encapsulates the pain of being suffocated by “civility” and social norms as one grows out of childhood – an ache that is felt most deeply by queer kids when they begin to realise that their identities do not align with what is expected of them.
Swift’s second release of 2020, Evermore, was a bolder, fiercer take on its sister album and predecessor, Folklore. Track 8 on the album is ‘Dorothea’, a wistful ballad sung to the titular woman. It is written from the perspective of her best friend and lover, who she leaves behind in their small town for a glamorous career. Taylor Swift is first and foremost an exceptional storyteller, and her brilliance shines through as she chronicles Dorothea’s perspective on the relationship through Track 4, ‘’Tis The Damn Season’. “You can only run, but only so far. I escaped it too, remember how you watched me leave” could very well describe Dorothea struggling to repress her sexuality even after leaving her first love behind. Still, she continues to simmer in her closeted yearning, saying that she could be with her ex-lover, but only for the weekend, after which, she would return to L.A. And their lives would go on without each other. If ‘Dorothea’ is a whispered confession of friendship turned to love, ‘’Tis The Damn Season’ is a forceful, passionate longing for the “road not taken”. Together, they tell both sides of what could well be interpreted as a queer love story blossoming in a small town.
From ‘Love Story’ in 2008 to ‘Ivy’ in 2020, Taylor Swift’s forbidden love arc has come a long way. Invoking strong Romantic Era imagery (as also seen in The Lakes), Swift’s lyrics describe the predicament of being in love with one while being “promised to another”. It is reminiscent of famous literary lesbian relationships like that of Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert, who are hailed as queer icons today. To fuel this theory further, ‘Ivy’ was featured in the end credits of an episode of Apple TV+’s Dickinson, a light-hearted take on the life of the titular poet.
Those who have grown up with Taylor know that the journey from fearless ‘Fifteen’ to happy, free, confused, and lonely ‘22’ has been a tumultuous one. Taylor’s queer-coded lyricism and cottagecore imagery feel like an ode to the queer kid who screamed the lyrics to ‘You Belong With Me’ with the same passion they now cry to ‘Exile’ with. Because the musicians that we grow up with get inevitably intertwined with our journeys of self-discovery and identity. Miley Cyrus, for example, was first introduced as Disney’s beloved Hannah Montana to several of us before she became the musician that she is today. When she came out as pansexual, I couldn’t help but feel like my younger, closeted self, who idolised her on-screen persona growing up, had been validated.
Sometimes, identifying the ‘queer’ in work that doesn’t explicitly claim to be so feels like scavenging for scraps. But, it’s an important experience all the same – ask anyone who’s read Drarry (Draco Malfoy x Harry Potter) fanfiction as a young and impressionable teenager on Wattpad. In her future albums, I hope Taylor gives us the lesbian love story we so desperately crave, complete with a plotline and fitting names for each of her characters. Considering her diverse explorations of all kinds of love, I know she’ll put her heart and soul into it.