I thought the first time I heard “Dress” off Reputation was the loudest Taylor Swift could make me gasp in lesbian. I was wrong. Swift’s latest album, folklore, has a song so palpably queer I believe it could singlehandedly resurrect Lilith Fair. It could open for an Indigo Girls show and then just never cede the stage. It could dethrone King Princess.
“Betty,” track 14, tells a story from the perspective of James, a teenager in love with a classmate named Betty. Ok, so?, you might be thinking. Swift writes fictional songs all the time or songs that aren’t totally based on her own life. I’m pretty sure she borrowed that Romeo and Juliet idea from somebody else. Here’s another one about a boy and a girl. Wrong. 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. (This would not be the first time she’s used a male pseudonym in her music. Ahem, Nils.) So this is a story about James (Taylor) and Betty. Which is, not for nothing, just a very queer name. This is simply a fact. Toward the end of the song, James, heartbroken, gets picked up by another woman who drives by. “Slept next to her, but I dreamt of you all summer long,” Swift sings. The “you” is Betty. James is still a woman, lest the curse of compulsory heteronormativity try to convince you otherwise.
In the first verse, Betty switches homeroom classes. James assumes this is because of her. The song itself has a little “Kiss Me” Sixpence None the Richer energy, complete with a harmonica. (Neither here nor there, but Swift has said this was the first song she learned to play on the guitar.) “Betty, one time I was riding on my skateboard. When I passed your house, it’s like I couldn’t breathe,” she sings. Okay, so what we’re getting here is Betty dipped from their homeroom class because she didn’t want to be associated with James. James who skateboards. Interesting. Let us continue.
We meet Inez, the class gossip. (Inez and James are also the names of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’s daughters. As though we could ever forget those infamous fourth of July photos during the “I Heart TS” Tom Hiddleston era. Mostly though, this is another compelling reason James is, in fact, a woman.) “You heard the rumors from Inez. You can’t believe a word she says, most times, but this time it was true.” The rumors. This feels familiar. Suddenly it’s 2014 and Taylor Swift has just pivoted to pop and released 1989. “The rumors are terrible and cruel, but, honey, most of them are true.” The rumors about Swift’s sexuality, and her purported not-just-a-friendship with Karlie Kloss, have run rampant for years. And maybe, just maybe, she’s been trying to tell us we should believe them. Here again, Swift does what she did on “Dress,” where she perfectly encapsulated an incredibly gay experience. On “Dress,” it’s what it is like to be falling in love with another woman. On “betty,” it’s the less pleasant feeling of being queer and closeted and denying rumors of your gayness even though you know you’re lying.
James somehow wrongs Betty, seemingly by not dancing with her at a school dance. James sees Betty dancing with another guy and leaves her there. That’s the end for them. Please close your eyes. Picture a sweaty high-school gym and underneath the basketball hoop on the other end of the court you see your crush dancing with someone who is not you. Someone who is not you and who is also a man. Of course you leave. Of course you’re hurt. Of course your feelings don’t just vanish the minute you walk past the teacher whose job it was to spot drunk kids at the front door.
Which brings us to a chorus full of longing. That achey, anxious feeling when you still love someone and you’re not sure it’ll be reciprocated but you feel compelled to give it a chance because if you don’t you might explode … and also you played your t.A.T.u CD so many times it broke so what else do you have to do, really. “But if I just showed up at your party. Would you have me? Would you want me? Would you tell me to go fuck myself?,” Swift sings, playing out one scenario in her mind. But in the other, Betty leads James to a secret garden. “In the garden would you trust me if I told you it was just a summer thing?” The narrator here is a teenager; she doesn’t know anything. The world is confusing and their emotions are terrifying. “But I know I miss you,” Swift sings.
In the end, James heads for Betty’s door. We don’t find out how it goes. The song fades out on James reminiscing about kissing each other in a car stopped at a streetlight. A streetlight! A streetlight! There’s a line in “Cornelia Street” about streetlights. “As if the streetlights pointed in an arrowhead leading us home,” Swift sings in a heartbreaker of a number about a very particular New York City Street. One where Swift herself used to live and was frequently spotted with Kloss. Or should I say Karlie ELIZABETH Kloss. Betty! Please picture that Pepe Silvia chart from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as you connect all these LGBT-clues.
Longing. Unrequited love. Skateboards. Gender bending. Rumors. A harmonica! Everything about this song screams queer. (If you don’t believe me please go directly to Twitter or Tumblr and search “betty gay.” Bring a snack and some water, you’re going to be reading a while.) But is this a coded message from Taylor Swift about Taylor Swift’s sexuality? Honestly, that’s for you to decide. There’s also an entirely different interpretation to be had if you listen to “betty” as part of a trio with “illicit affairs” and “cardigan,” where each song is from the perspective of a different person in a love triangle. Maybe she’s gay. Maybe she’s a capitalist who writes unimpeachably good music who has caught on to the whims of her fandom and is playing right into our hands. Maybe she wrote this one for the gays. We’ll take it.
Update, July 24, 3:31 p.m.: This story has been edited to indicate that Swift, not Kloss, once lived on Cornelia Street. We regret the error, but would also like to note it is hard to type while listening to “betty” on a loop until the early hours of the morning and repeatedly screaming “this is so queer!”