It was July 24th — not so very long ago. Summer was hot, quarantine was slogging along, and news was grim. I was on my daily masked walk, doing my damnedest to socially distance, take in the trees, and not look at my phone. Failing miserably at the last one, I saw the news pop up on my social media: Taylor Swift had unexpectedly dropped a new album, “Folklore,” written and produced entirely in this crazy time of Covid-19.
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Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen. And that thing is my 8th studio album, folklore. Surprise 🤗Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into. I wrote and recorded this music in isolation but got to collaborate with some musical heroes of mine; @aarondessner (who has co-written or produced 11 of the 16 songs), @boniver (who co-wrote and was kind enough to sing on one with me), William Bowery (who co-wrote two with me) and @jackantonoff (who is basically musical family at this point). Engineered by Laura Sisk and Jon Low, mixed by Serban Ghenea & Jon Low. The album photos were shot by the amazing @bethgarrabrant. Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed. My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world. That’s the side of uncertainty I can get on board with. Love you guys so much ♥️
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been pretty “meh” on Taylor Swift. I respect that she’s a pop music phenomenon who’s been writing songs since she was an East Coast teen whose parents moved her to Nashville. I think that over the years, she’s gotten a lot of crap she doesn’t deserve (that Kanye moment was a lot), simply for being young, female, and talented. I mean, what artist doesn’t write about their exes? I’ve even danced around my apartment to “Shake It Off” more times than I’d like to admit.
What’s held me back about Taylor Swift is this: her music always struck me as overwhelmingly straight. No offense to my hetero kin, and hey, as a bisexual lady I’ve cried over my share of cis dudes. Those feelings are legit. I just could never quite relate to Taylor’s more heartfelt jams that, at first listen, appeared to be entirely about boys.
But whatever. It was hot, it was quarantine, and I couldn’t read yet another “the world is on fire” headline. I put on “Folklore.“
I know almost every pop culture news outlet has processed ad nauseum the potential queerness of “Folklore,” but it’s been a few months and I seriously can’t get over it. In fact, now I’m an unapologetic Swiftie. I follow her accounts (it helps that she really loves her cats). I have long, passionate conversations about her with my straight and married sister, who’s a fan from way back. I’ve contemplated ordering the cardigan. And most of all, I’ve listened to Taylor’s latest, surprise album more times than I can count.
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As my sister eloquently put it, Taylor Swift is a star because her music is just so goshdarn relatable. With any given song — but especially the slower, more thoughtful tunes — you swear she knows just what it’s like to be you. As a casual Swift listener before this summer, I never fully appreciated that.
Until the first song of “Folklore,” “the 1,” kicked in and I had to sit down.
In case you haven’t listened yet, “the 1” is an elegy for love lost. As Taylor looks back on her past relationship, she wonders what the ex in question is up to and reflects on the progress she herself has made. What sets “the 1” apart, however, is the longing.
“We were something, don’t you think so?” is the first line of the refrain, and the bridge looks into a parallel life with a happier ending: “If one thing had been different/Would everything be different today?” We don’t know the specifics of the relationship itself — it could have and probably did end badly — but the wondering, the contemplation, the going over every last detail for maximum “coulda-woulda-shoulda?” It’s incredibly queer, all of it.
And that’s before we hear the lyric: “rosé flowing with your chosen family.” First, rosé is the most bisexual alcohol known to the LGBTQ+ community. It’s pink and chaotic — what more can I say? And second, the phrase “chosen family” is used by gays everywhere to describe the core group who truly understands you. It is not a straight term, period. My queer ears (quears?) perked right up, and didn’t go down until the last notes of “Folklore” faded out.
“Folklore” has queer code after queer code. One of my personal favorites, “The Last Great American Dynasty,” chronicles a wild woman of the past who likely had a few lesbian affairs of her own. But I’d be remiss not to talk about one of the later tracks, “betty,” which may go in the hall of fame as one of the Gayest Songs of All Time.
Ostensibly, “betty” is told from the perspective of a teenage boy named James, who has a summer fling with an amazing girl (the titular Betty). He subsequently screws her over and regrets it, while Betty moves on and becomes even more awesome. Nothing wrong with singing from a boy’s perspective, but because it’s Taylor’s voice, my mind immediately went to two high school girls in love, one of whom is less sure of herself and self-sabotages in the name of her reputation. Also, let’s face it, teenage boys are not that contemplative, while teenage girls are all contemplation. “betty” is a queer YA novel in the form of a very catchy jam that Taylor recently rocked live at the Country Music Awards, and you will not convince me otherwise.
Let’s get this out of the way: Like the rest of the world (except possibly Karlie Kloss, and yes I did take that deep dive), I’m not sure of Swift’s specific sexuality. And really, it’s none of my business. She can be in the closet or out of it, she can be figuring things out as she goes along, she can be gearing up for a Big Reveal in the near future. You do you, TayTay.
But I’m not alone in my speculation. For years, much has been made of Taylor’s, er, close female friendships, and at least one publication has done a song-by-song breakdown of “Folklore”’s inherent queerness. However, as a bi lady who doesn’t have a ton of out celebrity role models, I acknowledge that my theories about Taylor Swift might be wishful thinking.
But thanks to “Folklore,” I now see myself in Taylor’s music. The moony aesthetic of the album speaks to me in a way that most pop music doesn’t, and I long for the cozy cottagecore vibe of the “cardigan” video. My piano skills are rudimentary at best, my hair is barely long enough to braid, and I live nowhere near a forest. But I do own a lot of flowy garments, and as a queer person, I have angst to spare. No matter her IRL sexuality, I’m grateful to TayTay for giving me the most mainstream of representations, for pivoting to moodiness and angst and longing in very gay ways, and for making navel-gazing in cardigans cool again.
I’m off to listen for the ten-thousandth time while sobbing into my cardigan.