From high-school quarterbacks and girl-next-doors to “James Dean daydreams” and “good girl faiths,” Taylor Swift’s lyrics have routinely capitalized on heteronormative tropes throughout her discography, but with her recent engagement in political activism, particularly with supporting the LGBTQIA community, and her newest, gender-neutral songs from the album Folklore, her persona and her music have been viewed and analyzed through a queer lens. This new facet of Swift’s persona has drastically shifted her image, with many now hailing her as a queer icon.
Over the past few years, Swift’s melodramatic lyrics and camp performances have garnered a large queer following. Her once innocent country-girl persona has transfigured into a self-aware diva, who addresses public criticism as a way to reclaim control over her narrative, and that is enticing to many gay Swifties. For much of her career, Swift has been noticeably silent on political issues, including LGBTQ rights, a silence she was routinely critiqued for.
In 2018, when she endorsed political figures like Phil Bredesen and claimed that “any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG.” Shortly after this new politicization, she then proceeded to speak up further, such as urging her senator and her followers to support the Equality Act in 2019.
In a recent interview with Variety, Swift said, “Using my voice to try to advocate was the only choice to make because I’ve talked about equality and sung about it in songs like ‘Welcome to New York,’ but we are at a point where human rights are being violated.”
Her rapid engagement with queer issues seemed to come out all at once (no pun intended), as her song “You Need To Calm Down,” intentionally written as a gay-pride anthem, elicited serious criticism regarding her advocation and questions about the authenticity of her allyship. As some people were ecstatic that an influential artist like Swift was bringing these issues to mainstream media, other critics cringed at how a cis-gendered, white straight female, had positioned herself as the center of the LGBTQ rights movement. Furthermore, the song was viewed as a blatant attempt to co-opt and capitalize upon the LGBTQ movement.
The flamboyant visuals for “You Need to Calm Down” feature a myriad of queer public figures, who dance and perform one-dimensional displays of gay culture for straight consumption, while Swift remains at the forefront and takes up most of the video’s screen-time.
Swift also exhibits images of a religious protest, resembling ones executed by the Westboro Baptist Church, asking them “Why are you mad, when you could be GLAAD?” This particular scene almost downplays the grave dangers queer individuals face every day, as homophobia is something that cant “just stop” and “calm down” because Taylor Swift said so.
At best, the single is a clumsy act of allyship, at worst it is a calculated, performative move to gather support from the LGBTQ community and tap into the queer market. Yet, even without the single, Swift’s music has long attracted a queer following. Part of this is her camp aesthetic; queer icons such as Judy Garland utilized techniques such as “irony, aestheticism, theatricality and humour.” These elements are strong aspects of Swift’s work, she delivers a special brand of theatrical irony and heartbreak.
While we cannot generalize and say that these appeal to everyone in the LGBTQ community, they are certainly an aspect of her popularity. Her most recent album Folklore, which is a divergence from the camp aesthetic as well as her earlier work, has been cited for its queer icnonography, longing, and its unflinching honesty. It is difficult to pin down what exactly makes a queer icon, especially without resorting to stereotypes. Swift’s unabashed focus on desire and its ramifications, which in Folklore is not romanticized or dramatized but real, certainly adds to her appeal.
Lauren Broadwell, 22, has been a dedicated fan of Swift since 2007 and has followed the entirety of the singer’s career and claims that they “find so many of their queer struggles into her songs.”
Songs like “I Know Places” and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” carries the themes of lovers hiding, which Broadwell reads as “closeted anthems.” The Swift-connoisseur interprets lyrics from “Dress,” such as “I don’t want you like a best friend…only bought this dress so you could take it off,” as a secret affair between two female companions.
“I feel all these songs are up to interpretation, and because I myself am queer I could find more of myself in them,” Broadwell states, “but I think her past albums, as well as her most recent one, possess queer themes.”
Many fans speculate Swift herself being queer and theorize that her lyrics subtly represent her own queer experiences. These postulations derive from the circulating stories about Taylor being in a romantic relationship with her close friend, Karlie Kloss. As the duo was seen together on road trips and magazine covers while also living closer to each other, fans were quick to perceive their intense relationship as a queer one.
However, Swift had confirmed their relationship was exclusively platonic in 2014 and reaffirmed her heterosexuality when talking about the LGBT community in Vogue, saying “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of.” Here we see Swift repeatedly denying any rumors about her sexuality, yet the rumors still persist.
“Part of me just desperately wants her to be queer because she is my icon,” Broadwell stated, “which would help me relate to her more.”
Although some exist, there is a low number of queer female artists represented in mainstream media, and many LGBTQ listeners ache to hear their own realities being included in the everyday discourse music provides. Nevertheless, just because Taylor Swift identifies as straight, does not mean her songs cannot encapsulate queer experiences.
Folklore also supplies gender-neutral lyrics, sung from multiple points of view that can be rendered as queer. For example, one song “Betty” is composed from a male perspective, singing to his female lover, but as there is a lack of he/him pronouns, fans are provided more freedom for queerized examination. Most love songs written by commercial artists never progress beyond the scope of heterosexual romance, which limits queer imagination. Queer listeners are typically encouraged to listen but are positioned as an outsider, excluded from the narrative.
Moreover, Swift embraces gendered ambiguity within her lyrics, which unveils a parabolic mirror that reflects queer existence. LGBTQ fans are permitted to not only relish in the tales and theatrics performed by Taylor Swift but also to feel seen—and that certainly can qualify her as a queer icon.