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From ‘Fifteen’ to folklore: Growing up Queer with Taylor Swift

By James Barker, Contributing Writer

With the surprise release of Taylor Swift’s new album folklore, now seems a good time to reflect on what Swift’s music means for LGBTQ+ listeners and whether country is – or can be – queer. 

I am loving folklore and as Jillian Mapes at Pitchfork has described, it perfectly encapsulates this ‘lonely summer’ we’re in, with its wistful and whimsical tales and emotions. Thematically, the album covers a lot of ground. ‘mad woman’ and ‘the last great American dynasty’ give voice to women who become stigmatized as disruptors, ‘illicit affairs’ and ‘cardigan’ tell stories of complicated relationships, and songs like ‘invisible string’ are poignant and poetic. Each song is a testament to Swift’s stellar songwriting and singing, and creates an involving sonic landscape in which we can all find ourselves. 

Some reviews have described folklore as Taylor Swift’s best and queerest album yet. But as much as I love this new album, it is important not to dismiss Swift’s earlier work or reduce it to a hetero-normative contrast with her music today. We need to stop listening to country music straight! 

Take a song like ‘Fifteen’ from Swift’s second album Fearless. The song succinctly and compellingly describes the experience of starting high school and teenage relationships. The social situations it describes are undoubtedly heterosexual, but the song is much more critical of these than it is an endorsement of heterosexual love and marriage. In fact the song exposes the limits of these, and there’s a resolved optimism in looking ahead to greater things: ‘Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday, but I realized some bigger dreams of mine.’ Nothing conveys the tension between where we are and where we want to be better than country.

Response to Fearless at the time was generally positive, praising Swift’s songwriting for both representing the daily dramas of high school whilst also showing a self-awareness beyond her years. In so doing, Swift demonstrated that teenage girls and young women had a place in country. At the same time, misogynist and reductive takes on Swift had started, reducing her songwriting craft to mere diary entries. Yet those of us who listened to the music always knew that Taylor Swift was a major talent. For a generation who group up with her, this offered a promise that we too could belong in country. 

So if ‘Fifteen’ demonstrates the flaws in Swift’s unfair media coverage, the criticism that last year’s ‘You Need To Calm Down’ received was very much justified. Spencer Kornhaber’s piece in the Atlantic describes how Swift ultimately makes her pro-LGBTQ+ rights statement about herself (Musicology Researcher Valerie Abma has described this as an example of ‘commodity allyship’); and in comparing structural oppression and discrimination to ‘negativity,’ minimizes the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. (To be fair to Swift, the song and video did at least increase donations to LGBTQ+ rights causes.)

Another issue, as pointed out by Maeve McDermott in USA Today, is that the video visually represents homophobia through images of rednecks and hillbillies. The song itself is as far from country as Swift has ever been, so the narrative is perpetuated that LGBTQ+ acceptance is only possible outside of country music and working class communities. The video’s singular saving grace on this front is its setting in a multicolored trailer park. The video at least offers one ‘country’ symbol in Swift’s statement of LGBTQ+ allyship.

The image of the metropolis as the place of LGBTQ+ belonging appears a number of times in Swift’s discography. The first explicit LGBTQ+ lyric of Swift’s is in the opening of her first fully pop album 2014’s 1989 in ‘Welcome to New York’ where Swift sings summarizing what New York offers as: ‘You can want who you want: boys and boys and girls and girls.’ Swift’s explicit LGBTQ+ allyship again coincides with an embrace of Pop and the city, and at a clear distance from country. 

A more interesting and perhaps more positive example for us country queers is in the song ‘Mean’ from Swift’s third album 2010’s Speak Now. ‘Mean’ is an anti-bullying song; the music video features a teenage boy being bullied by some football jocks (in many ways this is queer coded) and Swift sings about ‘living in a big old city’ and being ‘big enough so you can’t hit me.’ Once more, the city is represented as the place of hope – at the end of the music video this is shown dramatically as Swift changes from her country outfit into a vintage flapper dress with the staging now New York’s Broadway. 

Yet ‘Mean’ maintains a number of Swift’s country elements. The banjo features prominently in the song’s instrumentation and in the music video. The song’s stripped-back production emphasizes the lyrics and the dynamic of Swift’s delivery, making ‘Mean’ in many ways the “most country” sounding song from Speak Now. Country music becomes the tool for articulating the protagonist’s experiences and aspirations. 

Released at a time of increased awareness around homophobic bullying and the It Gets Better campaign, as noted by Theon Weber in The Village Voice at the time, Swift’s song is a cathartic listen that resonates all the more for not trying too hard. Madison Malone Kircher’s piece in Vulture describes good allyship as ‘creating art where we’re just naturally part of the narrative.’ Swift achieved this with ‘Mean’ and ‘Fifteen,’ but unfortunately misfired with ‘You Need To Calm Down.’ 

Swift achieves this again on her latest album with ‘Betty’, her current single. ‘Betty’ forms part of folklore’s teenage love triangle. Kircher argues that since Taylor Swift is named after James Taylor, the James in the song refers to Swift herself, which queers this relationship between James and Betty. What I most love about this song is the way that the chorus conjures up the feelings of youthful excitement and heartache in the album’s most country sounding song (aided by the harmonica). In folklore’s finest moment, ‘Betty’ looks back on the precious time of being 17, and embraces both countrified reflection and queerness. 

If folklore’s queerest moment being the most country moment was not cause enough for celebration, ‘Betty’ is now being sent to country radio. Whether they play it is a different question. It’s up to country radio to decide if they want to be relevant. For LGBTQ+ fans of country music and Taylor Swift, we have a new anthem for our queerness in the city, in the country and everywhere in between.