From ‘Tim McGraw’ forward to Folklore, Taylor Swift’s songs have come back to the same few feelings, the same few themes: jealousy, ways to express it and ways to combat it; brittle superiority (she doesn’t care what you think, and she feels compelled to tell you she doesn’t care); wild energy, more than she knows how to handle; and nostalgia for childhood (so common in country-flavored pop that it’s hardly worth noting, except that Swift goes there so hard). Combining almost all of the above are her songs that appear to track close female friendship: fierce BFFs, allies, partners in crime, in songs about going out clubbing (‘22’), about identifiable real-life besties (‘Fifteen’), about leaving, or refusing to leave, a shared girlhood (‘It’s Nice to Have a Friend’).
This last group of songs dovetails nicely with Swift’s public profile. Interviews emphasize her close, loyal girlfriends (in the slightly obsolescent sense of ‘girls who are friends’) over her one-at-a-time boyfriends. Australian Vogue in 2018 even published ‘A Guide to Taylor Swift’s Clique’; Swift’s own lovely 2019 essay for Elle admitted regret, not about the intensity of her friendships, but about how she made them public: ‘I shouted it from the rooftops, posted pictures, and celebrated my newfound acceptance into a sisterhood, without realizing that other people might still feel’ left out as a younger Swift did.
Of course, you can – many girls and women do – cherish same-gender friendships above all else, while only falling for guys. Not all close bonds are romantic, and not all romantic bonds are erotic. At the same time, some of Swift’s words, and gossip around her, have for years led some fans to believe she’s dating women, or has done, or might soon. There are Gaylors (as in the excellent Twitter feed @Gaylor_Is_Real) and there are Kaylors (conspiracy theorists of sorts who believe she’s been dating the supermodel Karlie Kloss). The Pride-themed video for ‘You Need to Calm Down’ (2019), if it wasn’t just Pink Pound-seeking and bandwagon-jumping, suggested the kind of ingenuous allyship that can come from people who aren’t just straight allies.
Folklore, the indie-sounding, cottage-core, not-very-dance-friendly album Swift dropped in July, has delighted (as far as we can tell) every Gaylor on the planet. A terrific recent piece by Aja Romano at Vox goes some way to explaining why, with an embedded video summarising Swift’s ‘Gayest Moments.’ If you’re a Swift fan (like us), and if it’s important to you to see Swift as potentially gay, or queer, or bisexual, Folklore will certainly help you do just that: given how much else has been written (or blogged or tweeted or bruited on Explainer videos) you may not need our help to do that. There’s even a podcast.
You might, though, want help seeing one particular queer tradition in which Folklore lives and breathes. It’s the tradition celebrated by a T-shirt that reads ‘Not Just a Phase’; it’s the tradition announced, and also discounted, by stories set in girls’ schools, around girls’ crushes that they’ll (supposedly) drop when they’re grown. It’s a tradition reinforced – and belittled – every time an adult sees how close a girl and her best friend have become, how much their friendship involves sharing everything: information, clothes, schedules, fantasy worlds and roles, and bedtimes, if not beds. It’s in Shakespeare, when the probably-teenaged Celia says to Rosalind ‘I see thou lovest me not with the full weight that I love thee,’ explains that they live ‘coupled and inseparable,’ then spends the rest of the play hoping Rosalind will not abandon her by hooking up with a guy (spoiler alert: Rosalind does). ‘True love ‘tween maid and maid,’ says a character in Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, ‘may be/ More than in sex individual’ (ie more intense than what the straights must settle for).
You can find this tradition of girlhood intimacy in the first great novel of modern queer-girl YA, Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind (1982), when Liza falls for Annie, and vice versa, as the girls pretend they’re medieval knights and courtiers play-acting, the way kids do, in a museum. You can find it in the lives of real girls we knew, whose parents sent them to separate schools in eleventh grade because they were dating in tenth. And you can find it – alas – in Freud, and in American pop-Freudianism, where homosexuality – in boys and girls – is developmentally normal and OK up to a certain age: then girls have to give it up (or else).
It’s that tradition of girlhood intimacy that Folklore’s queer subtext – or text – celebrates and defends. And it’s an intimacy that speaks, not just to the lives whose stories Swift tells in songs, but to the lives and crushes among her fans, for whom growing up might mean not only giving up same-sex crushes and love and loyalty, but giving up on Swift herself.
Swift was no grownup when she started singing and writing: she was nineteen when she released ‘Fifteen.’ Like many pop songwriters in their twenties, or their seventies, she still sings about teens Unlike many of them, she’s recently written about teens and kids who don’t want to grow up, who dwell on what they have already left behind. That’s the burden of the warbling melody in her midtempo masterpiece ‘Seven,’ about her first big school-age crush: the topic – the lost queer-positive world of girlhood – has been a topos of lesbian and lesbian-adjacent folk music for decades (compare Dar Willians’ ‘When I Was a Boy’).
Swift’s persona ‘hit my peak at seven’ as a tomboy, ‘before I learned civility,’ climbing trees and feeling feelings about her then-best friend: ‘Cross your heart won’t tell no other/ And though I can’t recall your face/ I still got love for you … Your braids like a pattern/ Love you to the moon and Saturn/ Passed down like folk songs/ Our love lasts so long.’ It’s practically the album’s title track, and it celebrates a kind of connection that persists into adulthood as what Adrienne Rich famously and controversially called the lesbian continuum. The young Swift invited her young friend to run away together to India or ‘come live with me’ in a fantasy world, a forest of Arden, where – wait for it – ’you won’t have to cry/ Or hide in the closet.’ Swift’s song construction, tight on the verses, practically falls apart as she crosses this bridge (try to sing it yourself). Her intensity brings to mind the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton’s writing about how queer people, people who know we’ll grow up to be queer, feel about our own childhood: ‘maudlin, earnest, melodramatic,’ ‘desperately feeling there was simply nowhere to grow.’
Nor is ‘seven’ the only song to resist the myth that we all do, or all should, grow up. Swift has called ‘Betty’ ‘a song that I wrote from the perspective of a 17 year old boy,’ whom the song names ‘James’ (as in ‘James Taylor’). And yet the story in the song gets simpler, and easier to hear, if we imagine the singer as a girl, caught up in – and apologising for – the kind of social aggression and Mean Girl drama that her earlier, more plausibly straight songs showcased. The same song flaunts – alone on Folklore – the strummed and picked guitars, the background harmonica, that dominated Swift’s country albums: it’s a throwback in a musical sense, too.
‘James’ saw Betty dancing with a guy, pursued a romance with another girl (‘it was just a summer thing’), cut Betty out, and now wants Betty back: ‘I dreamt of you all summer long.’ James finds these feelings for Betty not only compelling and overwhelming but confusing: ‘I’m only seventeen/ I don’t know anything but I know I miss you.’ That’s the pre-chorus: the chorus (which features a trucker shift) asks if James can come to Betty’s party, and whether Betty would let James in.
This kind of loyalty, bordered by anxiety, devotion and apology; this kind of attention to what Betty might think; this kind of admitted obedience to social signals; this kind of wish for a girl to just let you back in (a kiss would be lovely, but that’s not the point) … everything in the song except the name James makes more sense, seems more plausible, if it’s about a high school girl in love with a girl. (It also lets us imagine Swift on a skateboard.) The first line even warns us not to make assumptions. (Madison Kircher draws similar conclusions in her own enthusiastically Kaylor-ish take.)
Of course, not all girls know they’re girls: James – a skateboarder consumed by worry about how girls see him – could be a trans girl who’s not out to herself. (Trans girls behave like that: we have diaries to prove it.) James fear not just that Betty won’t like James, but that Betty has outgrown James, has cast James out of her circle, has given up on their potential love.
If the country-pop arrangement for ‘Betty’ sticks out, the words link the song to other parts of Folklore: Betty’s known for her parties, but also for her cardigan, and ‘Cardigan’ is the first single from the album. In it a jaded Swift, surrounded by the single-note piano and open spaces of modern pop minimalism, explains how a lover reassured her after long walks on cobblestones, with lyrics that never specify a gender: ‘when I felt like I was an old cardigan/ Under someone’s bed/ You put me on and said I was your favorite.’ The magnificent video shows Swift climbing into a battered piano and emerging into a mossy Shakespearean green space, where spring and spring rains never end.
Swift’s lover in ‘Cardigan’ wears Levi’s and dances under streetlights and tries ‘to change the ending/ Peter losing Wendy, ah ah ah …’ Emphasizing the Peter Pan bit, Swift hopes to get back to the intimacies she lost, or never quite knew, when she was young: ‘When you are young they assume you know nothing,’ she breathes, at the lower edge of her range. The ‘I’ who sings ‘Cardigan’ could even be Betty, celebrating James’ delayed return. (Is James still living as a boy? Who knows?)
‘The 1,’ which opens the album, uses the same sparse piano-first arrangement to look back on a romance that didn’t come true. This version of Swift remembers her ‘roaring twenties tossing pennies in the pool,’ breaking conventions right and left, enjoying a now-lost ‘chosen family.’ If only, she thinks, she had come right out and pursued the one-to-one connection she could have had then: ‘persist and resist the temptation to ask you/ If one thing had been different/ Could everything be different?’: this singer has missed her chance to make same-sex friendship into something more.
Both the openly mournful ‘My Tears Richochet,’ with its swells of organ music, and the all-too-haunting ‘hoax,’ built on a piano loop, return to this scenario. Both songs – as close as Swift has come to Goth – imagine her afterlife as a possibly-lesbian ghost, haunting the person who would never love her as she wanted to be loved. Another queer theorist, Terry Castle, wrote a famous-in-some-circles book called The Apparitional Lesbian, about all the literary and historical lesbians who are invisible until you see them, represented as spirits gone away. Both these songs add to their number. So does ‘Seven’: ‘I think your house is haunted … I still got love for you.’
Our point isn’t just that Folklore feels super-queer, though of course it does. Nor are we claiming Swift’s romances with guys are fake: bisexual erasure is a thing we do not mean to perpetuate. Nor (finally) are we necessarily Kaylors, proponents of a particular real-life romance, though we’ve noticed how many lyrics on Folklore, from ‘Cardigan’ to ‘hoax,’ refer to a lover whom Swift left back in New York. (Swift’s tradition of slipping hidden notes and allusions to personal gossip into her liner notes does invite, or at least leaves space for, such readings.) Rather, what we see in Folklore is a particular pattern of queer devotion and queer eroticism: the cherished bond between two girls that’s not visible to outsiders (or not at first), not supposed to be erotic (but it is), not supposed to last until adulthood (but it does).
Observers assume this bond will take second place to guys, when the girls grow up and start dating guys (but it won’t, and they might not). The bond is overt – perhaps part of a trumpeted girl squad – but the romance is subtextual (until it’s not). It might be a school folly, or a summer fling (consider Swift’s ‘August,’ with its hints of birdsong and its invitation: ‘meet me behind the mall’). It might be a ghost: the queer child is the spirit who won’t leave the closeted adult alone, who wants her childhood and her first love back. It’s a kind of queer love that adults encourage the young to see as temporary, as a phase, or as a bridge to a more lasting, more physical, heterosexual bond: no wonder the strongest queer statements on Folklore tend to come within the bridges of songs. It’s a kind of love the world wants us to outgrow, almost as the adult world expects, or wants, fans to outgrow our own love for Taylor Swift.
But we won’t. More than once, in the age of Zoom, we’ve seen Swift posters in our students’ bedrooms; more than once, students have apologised, or looked sheepish about being fans, before we revealed our own shared admiration. Queer girls – any girls, and boys, and NB kids too – shouldn’t have to stop caring for Swift at a certain age. (You shouldn’t have to stop caring for anything at a certain age: as Swift insists in ‘seven,’ our love lasts so long.)
Nor should we ever have to stop loving each other. If Taylor Swift, the actual human being, never comes out – if Taylor Swift the actual human being has never identified as queer in any way, if she only dates men – that’s OK, and the art remains. She’s the consummate pop star, the champion of songcraft, the girl who used her advantages, who worked hard to get herself to the place where she can send overt messages about politics to tens of millions followers and semi-covert messages about queer coming out. And the people who heard those messages won’t give them up. Nor will we disavow our own queer identities, whether or not they’re the specifically queer neoteny, the attachment to girlhood bonds, that so much of Folklore at least appears to pursue.