Does Taylor Swift Have to Be Queer for “folklore” to be a Lesbian Album?

Taylor Swift in the “cardigan” music video (Photo credit: Taylor Swift/VEVO)

Taylor Swift sends the internet into a frenzy every time she releases an album, even when she goes on an extensive promotional run. So imagine the internet’s response to Swift dropping folklore, her eighth studio album, on July 24 with little warning. The album, which Swift created in quarantine, is more of an alternative folk album than her past work, featuring 16 dreamy, romantic songs that include a single guest artist: Bon Iver. As has become common with Swift’s recent releases, lesbians and other queer women have rallied around folklore, particularly homing in on the song “betty,” which Madison Malone Kircher dubbed “queer canon” in a close read of the song for Vulture.

On “betty,” Taylor sings longingly from the perspective of a male character named James who’s in love with his classmate named Betty. “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?” “betty” feels distinctly gay because there’s secrecy intwined in the pining lyrics. “The first thing you need to know is that Taylor Alison Swift is named after one James Taylor. So when she’s singing as James, telling a story about James, she’s telling a story about herself,” Kircher wrote. “Longing. Unrequited love. Skateboards. Gender bending. Rumors. A harmonica! Everything about this song screams queer,” she continued later in the piece, though she notes that it’s up to the listener to decide if “betty” is a “coded message from Taylor Swift about Taylor Swift’s sexuality.”

Because Swift has become more inclusive and spoken more about queerness and because Swift is someone who feels so close to fans that they feel they owe it to her to follow the breadcrumbs and figure out, with every song, what she’s really saying, many fans have spent hours diving into the meaning behind folklore. (The Advocate, for example, published a list of “lesbian Easter eggs” to be found in the album, and YouTube and TikTok lesbians responded to and dissected the album on video.) As of now, Swift is straight and has declared her straightness multiple times, even telling Vogue in 2019, “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of.” Despite her insistence on her straightness, Gaylor theorists still map queerness onto her songs, her albums, and her every movement.

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There are other, similar artists that are stepping into the space to do similar work: Take, for example, girl in red, a lesbian, who released chapter 1 in 2018. In 2019, alone, Som, who is queer, released Anak KoClairo, who is bisexual, released Immunity; and Sasami Ashworth, who is queer, released Sasami. Phoebe Bridgers, who is bisexual, released Punisher this year. All of these artists are actually out, so why do so many fans hope that Swift, specifically, is queer? The sense of longing crafted in folklore’s lyrics builds its bones and connects queer listeners intrinsicly to Swift’s work. Longing is, after all, queer. “For me and so many people I know, longing is a core theme of our queer experience,” Kate Browne, 36, a queer writer and musician from Illinois told Bitch. “Pop music is very hetero, and lots of women are socialized to believe that the only relationship they can have is as rivals for a man’s attention. As we start to realize the depth of our own longing, we search these songs (and their creators) for a new way to love and be loved. If I were writing songs for a straight man, I could come right out and say what I mean, but queer longing in music is more of a call and answer—I crave this new kind of love in my life; do you? And when listeners say ‘yes,’ it becomes queer music.”

For example, “illicit affairs,” another song on folkfore, is about infidelity, but it doesn’t take much for queer listeners to read into the idea that a secret lesbian relationship is the song’s true meaning. “Make sure nobody sees you leave/ Hood over your head, keep your eyes down/ Tell your friends you’re out for a run/ You’ll be flushed when you return,” Swift sings. “And you wanna scream/ Don’t call me ‘kid,’ don’t call me ‘baby’/ Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me/ You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else.” While it may feel like a stretch to listeners who are more accustomed to Swift’s heterosexual narratives, it wouldn’t be entirely out of the realm for Swift to find new ways to talk about love or for her to offer herself a new challenge as an artist. “What’s funny is that I don’t think that folklore is even the most longing of wift’s discography,” James Factora, a bi writer and singer/songwriter in Lavender Menace, said. Swift isn’t new to singing through her emotions; it’s her entire ethos. “I was telling a friend the other day that I really like the album because it feels like a grown-up Fearless,” Factora continued. “The longing and all of the other emotions in her earlier songs is so raw and unfiltered (like how in ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’ she has the balls to namedrop Drew), and here she’s talking about those same emotions but with a much more distanced perspective, and as a much more evolved songwriter.”

Swift has slowly but certainly rebirthed herself as an artist multiple times throughout her career, going from the doe-eyed country singer who released Fearless (2008) to a pop icon with Red (2012) and creating the statement-making reputation (2017), which, alongside her 2020 Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, shows Swift recognizing the larger context her work exists within. She still sings about love, but it’s not always her love; she’s still invested in coming across as kind, but she’s let go of the obsession with suffocating herself and her music in a film of purity. “A nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you. A nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views,” she explained in Miss Americana. Here, we see Swift longing for something else: freedom. She’s not just a teenager with a guitar turning diary entries into songs. She’s waving goodbye to her good-American-girl persona.

Taylor Swift - cardigan (Official Music Video)

Instead, Swift makes political statements, something she received great (and valid) criticism for remaining publicly neutral on, especially following the 2016 election. She’s become more (though not entirely) political, and, in turn, she’s become more inclusive, with 2016’s “You Need to Calm Down,” though critiqued for being classist, centering trans and queer people in its music video. As such, it’s unsurprising that her fanbase has come to include more and more queer listeners, many of whom grew up alongside Swift and have been excited to feel her support, which has been tangible in the form of donations and fundraisers for queer organizations. “I can’t imagine what my fans in the LGBTQ community might be thinking,” she said in the aforementioned Vogue interview. “It was kind of devastating to realize that I hadn’t been publicly clear about that.”

Now, LGBTQ fans are feeling more than just support. Some have decided she’s one of us. Morgan Rogers, 28, author of forthcoming lesbian novel Honey Girl, said Swift makes her and other queer fans feel seen. “I think folklore is queer or at least feels queer because it touches on a lot of important themes that are inherent in queerness. There’s longing, yearning, and quiet intimacy that flows throughout each song that feels to me, like that sort of wide-eyed sapphic feeling of looking at a girl standing in her cardigan and wishing she was the one or wishing you were the one for her. Swift manages to capture that feeling very easily.”

Hattie Hayes, 25, a New York-based writer and comedian, and Sarah Kennedy, 35, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based comedian and writer cohost Taydar, a Swift-focused podcast that analyzes her work through a queer lens. “folklore continues Swift’s tendency to leave out gendered pronouns in songs or, in others, to use exclusively female pronouns,” Kennedy told Bitch. “These songs deal with yearning and heartbreak and when she takes the opportunity to sing directly to the song’s subject and use you/your as the only marker, it easily allows for a queer reading.” Fans feel deeply invested in Swift’s sexuality not simply because of the increasingly invasive nature of fan culture but because their own stories feel so linked to Swift’s. “Swift has kind of cemented herself in pop culture as a love song, heartbreak, the highs and lows singer of romantic feelings,” Rogers said. “If she is queer, or her music is queer, her fans feel seen and heard and perhaps even validated by someone hugely mainstream, someone that consistently sings about love that could perhaps, this time around, include theirs too.”

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Swift has spent years actively cultivating closeness, publishing diary entries as companion pieces to albums and offering Easter eggs to give listeners an inside look at her writing and recording process. They’re not just fans; they’re friends. “To the fans who come to the shows and buy the albums, I just want you to know this one thing: You are the longest and best relationship I’ve ever had,” Swift said at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards. And that relationship feels very real to her listeners, who have, on some level, linked their own growth with hers. “There’s an investment from the fans who have had similar journeys of slowly waking up to their complicity in white heterosexual patriarchical power to see her keep evolving with them, to see her turn the last corner and abandon ship from being invested in existing to uphold male pleasure as a way of collecting your own power,” Eve Ettinger, a 31-year-old writer, editor, and educator in Virginia, told Bitch. “There’s a hope of, ‘we are divesting from this, maybe she will join us too?’ from those who didn’t identify with queer artists in high school or college, the late bloomers. As someone who came out at 25 after a divorce, coming to terms with ‘am I queer enough?’ if you didn’t always ‘know’ you were queer from a young age can be an extremely slow process.” Through Swift, fans can better understand their own relationship to the identities they share—or, in the case of her real or imagined queerness, feel they share—with her.

Whether simply queer-coded or Swift’s coming out, fans remain obsessed with sorting out that code. “In the ‘cardigan’ video, which she released alongside the album, Swift is depicted cozily playing piano in a cabin which we would all love to escape to with our forbidden femme lover,” Grace Weinberg wrote in Bust. “And then she’s transported to an enchanted forest? She has to know what she’s doing.” What is it that she is doing, though? When you’ve spent a decade sorting out the real meaning behind the lyrics of an artist who has admitted to feeling suffocated by expectations, and her own good girl persona, it’s a natural next step to wonder if said artist is queer and just having a really tough time admitting it to her doting, but equally as judgmental, public.

Still, there are so many explictly queer artists that it’s difficult to understand the reason Swift’s fans feel the need to read so deeply into her work. “Taylor has told us time and again who she is, which is not queer,” Aubrey Casazza, 27, an Ohio-based lesbian and illustrator, said. “I look at ‘betty,’ where she’s singing from the perspective of a man, or ‘seven,’ where she talks about perhaps a childhood friend, and there could be something there, but people can have strong platonic love for people and it doesn’t mean anything [romantic]. I do [agree] that the album feels queer in terms of a microcosm of millennial midwest queers who identify with her music in some way, and we pick apart lyrics to find something that may not be there.”

Lesbians are everywhere, existing in so many ways, so just because we see ourselves in Swift doesn’t mean she’s gay. But there’s a reason so many fans clamor to see themselves in Swift: It’s not vapid fluff for fans who have spent more than a decade with an artist to crave the ability to see themselves within that artist. folklore is a fantastic and memorable album, regardless of Swift’s own sexuality and of the album’s real or imagined queerness. We can appreciate the healing and connection it provides to lesbian and queer listeners while pushing ourselves to give out lesbian and queer artists the same devotion as we offer Swift. And if we find ourselves feeling extra seen by folklore, it’s a visibility we’ve more than earned after years of yearning in secret.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.