Taylor Swift told us she’s straight. She said as much to Vogue last year after releasing her rainbow flag of an album, Lover. “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of,” Swift explained while discussing her foray into vocal LGBTQ allyship at the time. For months prior, rumors about Swift swirled around online — in media circles and Swift fandoms alike — that Swift was going to come out of the closet. Rumors, however wildly flung, only furthered by Swift’s own actions. (The downside of becoming infamous for breadcrumb trails, hidden easter eggs, and everything meaning something is that your fandom will come to assume that your every move is subliminal, whether it actually is or not.) The subtle: a short, blue and pink manicure. (Blue and pink are, notably, colors from the bisexual flag.) The less-subtle: The wording Swift chose to announce her first single off Lover — “‘ME!’ out now!” (“Me!” featured Brendan Urie of Panic! At the Disco, who came out as pansexual in 2018.) The beat-you-over-the-head: Swift debuting the single on Lesbian Visibility Day in an interview with Robin Roberts while wearing a sparkly, rainbow romper. And then, a surprise performance at the Stonewall Inn. Much of Lover felt like being trapped in a crowd of drunk, straight people during a Pride parade.
Her latest album, folklore, is a refreshing departure from all that. It’s a newish sound for her, but the narrative style she uses on some of the album’s best tracks feels at once familiar and novel. It’s a callback to some of her earliest work. It’s “Enchanted” off Speak Now with its neutral pronouns and lyrics about being kept awake until 2 a.m. plagued by the “lingering question … ‘who do you love?’” It’s “Breathe” all over again. It all set the stage for “betty,” a song about a love triangle which, depending on how you listen to it, could be about three women and absolutely zero men. To arrive at that interpretation, you need to know that, like much of Swift’s best songwriting, it’s all coded: Swift is named for James Taylor and all three of the names used in the song — James, Inez, Betty — are the names of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’s three daughters. James is a woman and Betty, the classmate she pines for the entire song, is too. When James skateboards past Betty’s house, she can’t breathe.
Real, useful allyship is hard, even with the best intentions. (Watching a tearful Swift argue with her management and her own father in Miss Americana over why she feels compelled to finally speak out about politics makes it apparent just how important this is to her.) While “You Need to Calm Down” starred a litany of queer celebrities and stylized the word “glad” as “GLAAD,” the overall effect made it feel like Swift herself was the one who needed to calm down. With “betty,” she does. Here she’s written a song full of universal emotion that leaves space for the listener to write themselves into the narrative. It’s like a lyrical Mad Libs. James can be you, if you want her (or him or them) to be. “The lines between fantasy and reality blur, and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible,” Swift said of the album on Instagram.
It still works even if you don’t subscribe to the theory that James is a woman. In that read, Swift’s still singing as James. She’s donning a male persona, embodying him in a sort of musical drag. It takes Lover’s “The Man” from hypothetical to very literal. William Bowery, a songwriter nobody has ever heard of, has a credit on the track. There’s some speculation that this is Swift herself, once again using a male pen name. (She’s previously written as Nils Sjoberg when she didn’t want anyone to know it was her.) It’s a heteronormative interpretation of the song’s love story, but one that doesn’t make the song any less queer. (Plus, if you listen to “betty” as a trio with “cardigan” and “august,” you’ll still find the supposed love triangle arc has no male pronouns.) Consider it a more fluid version of what Swift did with “Love Story,” a song that on its surface sounds like it’s about a straight couple, but if you listen more closely, if you want to hear it differently, a queer narrative reveals itself. A story about a father who won’t let Juliet be with the person she loves. A male name — Romeo, James — used as a cover story. In “Love Story,” Swift sings and writes as Juliet. What she does with “betty” is a savvy move that frees her up to weave plot from a whole new perspective and give her queer fans what they’ve been thirsting for, all at the same time.
Conspiracy theories about Swift still abound. The whole album is in lowercase save for Bon Iver’s name. His initials spell … you know. William Bowery is an anagram for “wow I’m really bi.” And in a real back-breaking reach, some stans say if you listen to “Mad Woman” around the 1:15 mark you can hear the phrase “Taylor Kloss come out” hidden inside the lyrics. (The actual words are “till her claws come out.”) In the lead-up to the music video for “You Need To Calm Down,” a rumor spread online claiming Swift and Katy Perry — who had famously feuded up until Lover — kissed (and made up) at the end of the video while dressed as french fries and a hamburger, respectively. (Allegedly, footage of the kiss had leaked.) In reality, the two only hugged. “That is ABSOLUTELY false,” Swift said of the rumor on Tumblr. “To be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting. Anyone trying to twist this positivity into something it isn’t needs to calm down.”
The funny thing here is that what initially drew me in as a Swift fan — the fact that the woman knows how to write a banger and a bop, notwithstanding — was that her songs were, almost accidentally, inclusive. I have a vivid memory of watching some popular girl in my 11th grade class spin around the empty dance floor with her boyfriend at our prom to “Crazier.” I remember distinctly thinking, this shit actually happens to people? I was lifetimes away from coming out of the closet, but the song, with its genderless paramour and dreamy violin licks, let me pretend I was the one doing the twirling. Years later, I’d listen to “Delicate” and “Dress” and find that same feeling. Ditto “betty.” Queerbaiting is creating art specifically for queer people, art that targets us for our clicks, our views, and our dollars. Allyship is creating art where we’re just naturally part of the narrative. With folklore, Swift finally gets it right.