I don’t know about you but I am, generally, very depressed. Things are bad. They don’t look to be getting much better anytime soon, though I was somewhat heartened this week to hear that an elderly man in the U.K. named William Shakespeare was one of the first to receive the vaccine. No, that’s not factually relevant here, but this is a piece about Taylor Has Definitely Read Romeo and Juliet or at the Very Least Seen the Movie With Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio Swift, so please allow me this seeming non sequitur. Baby just say yes, if you will. I have been spending a lot of days sitting by my Christmas tree feeling quite down. Which is why I must immediately thank Ms. Swift for providing me with the one thing with a snowball’s chance in hell of raising my spirits … queer subtext.
At first listen, track four, “tis the damn season,” off Swift’s second surprise album of the year, evermore, sounds like it’s just the story of going home to your parents’ house for Christmas and hooking up with a high-school fling. I say “just” like that’s not an excellent concept for a song, but in isolation it sounds like that’s all it is. Which, frankly, might have been enough for me. (Admittedly, I come from more of a fuck your old biology-lab partner the night before Thanksgiving kind of hometown, but spiritually it’s similar.) Much of evermore sounds like folklore’s more upbeat sister, the one who has got her SSRI’s sorted out. That’s a mood, but it’s certainly not the mood I’m in. “tis the damn season,” however, strikes just the right chord. Angsty. Festive. It snowed this week and for a brief moment — before everything melted in five seconds and snapped back to terrible reality — my windows were all foggy and cold and just right for staring out of in a fit of romantic yearning. I wish I could have blasted this song when it happened.
But then you get to “dorothea,” four songs further in, and it all clicks together. Classic Swift, a song couldn’t just be a song, existing in a vacuum with no relation to anything else. Frankly, shame on me for even thinking it could be so. At this point, in the post-“betty” economy, I find myself listening to Swift’s songs holding my breath, waiting to hear if there are male pronouns. In “dorothea,” you’ll find none. Instead, it’s a story told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator in Dorothea’s hometown. Dorothea moved away to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. “Hey, Dorothea, do you ever stop and think about me?” the narrator sings. “You got shiny friends since you left town. A tiny screen’s the only place I see you now.” Over on Twitter, a chorus of shouts emerged. “dorothea,” they claimed, was for the sapphics.
By verse two, I was yelling right with them. In it, the narrator talks about how Dorothea skipped prom to piss off her pageant-loving mother. Blowing off heteronormative tradition? Interesting, interesting. “And damn, Dorothea, they all wanna be ya/ But are you still the same soul? I met under the bleachers,” narrator Swift sings. During the lead-up to the release of the “willow” music video, Swift answered questions over in a chat on YouTube. She told fans “there’s not a direct continuation of the betty/james/august storyline, but in my mind Dorothea went to the same school as Betty, James, and Inez.” What is in the water in this town? At any rate, I love this clearly very gay high school where women are just secretly making out under the bleachers left and right. It’s got me rethinking Taylor Swift on the bleachers singing about the girl in the short skirts in “You Belong With Me” in a real way. (The Prom was released on Netflix at the same time as evermore, and there’s a scene in it featuring the lead queer couple under the bleachers that will make you wonder if this particular “dorothea” lyric isn’t a Ryan Murphy brand activation.) “There’s an ache in you,” the narrator sings. “Put there by the ache in me.” What’s gayer than shared trauma, I ask you? Nothing.
With “dorothea,” Swift revives the same narrative device she employed on “betty.” She’d later say the song was from a male perspective, but her gender-neutral lyrics leave a hole so big in that argument you could drive that stupid, old pickup truck Taylor Swift hates and never gets to drive right through it. Like “betty,” Swift’s co-writer on the track is a man — in this case, the National’s Aaron Dessner. (For “betty,” it was “William Bowery” a.k.a. her partner Joe Alwyn who, according to Swift’s folklore concert film, plays the piano “just beautifully” and roams the house singing fully formed songs. Honestly, I love this for them.) Which means, sure, you can beg out on that being the so-called “male perspective” in the song. But when you boil it down, it’s Swift doing the singing. She’s the one calling after Dorothea, reminding Dorothea that if Hollywood doesn’t feel like home there’s a spot right next to her that always will. At the very least, it’s Swift singing in drag. Which, well, while we’re talking about specific high-school experiences, may I summon up my best 16-year-old boy in 2007 voice and yell, “Gaaaaay.”
There aren’t a ton of clues in the song about the identity of Dorothea, if she is or was a real person. (And it’s that vagueness that makes “dorothea” a beautiful Swift classic. She leaves space for the listener, so many different kinds of listener, to find themselves in the song.) But there’s one line in particular that feels a little on the nose, if you keep up with the many rumors surrounding Taylor Swift alleged romantic entanglements. “You’rе a queen sellin’ dreams, sellin’ makeup in magazines,” she sings to Dorothea. “From you I’d buy anything.” I’m not sure, but I think maybe there might be a famous woman once connected to Swift who might fit this bill? She might be tall and professionally attractive? And maybe one time they took an infamous road trip that you can read about on a specific Tumblr where you’ll fall down a rabbit hole until you spin out of control reading conspiracy theories? Who could that be?
“I guess I’ll never know,” the narrator sings, answering their own question about whether or not Dorothea is still the same girl from under the bleachers. “Ooh, and you’ll go on with the show.” Is “the show” perhaps the lie you’re living, Dorothea? The act, the fakery of a life you’ve concocted for yourself? “It’s never too late to come back to my side. The stars in your eyes shined brighter in Tupelo,” the song concludes. “And if you’re ever tired of bеing known for who you know, you know, you’ll always know me, Dorothea.” “My side.” Also known as the queer side. The side where you can really “know” someone in that all-consuming way that nobody else does or ever could. (Track five, the slot reserved on her albums for a song Swift knows will go right to your heart, is a song called “tolerate it.” It’s haunting lyrics about laying out fancy paints for a portrait and sitting and watching another person longingly — again, no pronouns — give me reason to believe Swift absolutely watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire during quarantine.)
Which brings us back to “tis the damn season.” Listen to it again. Dorothea has come home for the holidays and she’s begrudgingly and temporarily hopped back into bed with her former paramour. (This is not required, but to enhance your listening experience, I highly, highly recommend imagining the high school friend and annual holiday hookup here is Aubrey Plaza in The Happiest Season. Does this make any sense in the context of the film? No, absolutely not. But will it bring you mental joy? Yes.)
“Time flies, messy as the mud on your truck tires. Now I’m missing your smile, hear me out,” Dorothea sings. “We could just ride around, and the road not taken looks real good now. And it always leads to you in my hometown.” Of course, this teenage love drives a truck! It’s in the bridge of the song, though, where Swift, true to form, delivers the emotional heft. Dorothea admits it’s more than just a hookup of convenience. That she might stay if asked, might not go back to L.A. and her “so-called friends.” That the lover who knew her all those years ago is “the only soul who can tell which smiles I’m fakin.” “And the heart I know I’m breaking is my own.” Ahem, you’re breaking your gay heart and mine, Dorothea.
That Swift has been able to be productive in this period might make me irate if these songs weren’t gifts that are going to sustain me through a long, bummer of a winter. Productive enough to weave beautiful narratives across songs and through albums, thinking, as always, five steps and ten hidden clues ahead of the rest of us. Remember that annoying tweet back ten thousand years ago in March that said Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine? Turns out, somebody (Swift) really took that to heart. See, Shakespeare was relevant here.