by Sydney Miller, Associate Editor
Even before Taylor Swift surprised-dropped another folk album this year, I was neck-deep in her music. I was in the top 1% of Taylor Swift listeners this year, and this week, Pudding’s AI bot that judges your taste in music let me know that my taste was “swift-fangirl” bad.
My colleague James Barker has already written a lovely tribute to growing up queer with Taylor Swift and the implications her songs had for them and for the queer community in general. But I want to take a closer look at the specific content of the songs from a sapphic point of view, from Taylor Swift to evermore.
Her first album, the self-titled Taylor Swift, starts out with the kind of innocence one would expect from a 16-year-old songwriter. But that doesn’t mean the songs are simple or basic — rather, her youthfulness is reflected in themes of hope and happiness.
Even though critics love to rag on Swift for using her songs to “get back” at exes — as if she’s the first artist to ever do this — she’s not really berating anyone on Taylor Swift.
Most of the songs are happy or bittersweet rather than angry (with the exception of “Picture to Burn”), and none of the songs are specifically directed toward other women. Even in “Should’ve Said No,” Swift doesn’t put any of her anger or resentment towards the girl her boyfriend cheated with.
We see the first seeds of bitterness towards other women in her sophomore album, Fearless. Again, the majority of this album is peaceful and sentimental rather than angry. “Fifteen,” “White Horse,” and “Breathe” are melancholy more than angry, and “Fearless” and “Love Story” are full of all the hope and joy that comes with young love.
However, in “You Belong With Me,” Swift turns her attention to the “other girl.” The whole song is about how Swift is “better” than her because she has a better taste in music and wears more down-to-earth clothes. The song is slightly problematic, a product of its time and an absolute banger. Swift sings her heart out, and the melody is almost too catchy for its own good.
But if “You Belong With Me” was the height of Taylor Swift’s “other girl” slander, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Two years later, she released Speak Now, where she takes her anger at the “other girl” to the next level.
“Better Than Revenge” is basically a rewrite of “Should’ve Said No” with the focal point on the other woman. Swift seems to completely ignore the man’s part in the cheating in this version of events, and instead turns to the girl who “stole” her boyfriend.
This song is particularly interesting because Swift is basically objectifying the man, as if he’s just a toy on the playground that the other girl stole. She ignores his agency in a way that’s reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” But the vitriol Swift directs at the girl makes this song almost impossible to cast in a sapphic light the way we can with “Jolene.”
Not only does Swift resort to slut-shaming — “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress” — she circles back to the holier-than-thou mindset from “You Belong With Me” that she’s above this girl because she isn’t as obsessed with material possessions: “they didn’t teach you that in prep school / so it’s up to me / but no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity.”
She continues with this theme in “Speak Now,” a song that’s about her crashing some dude’s wedding and convincing him to run off with her and leave his bride at the altar. But it’s okay, this doesn’t make Swift bad like the girls in “Better Than Revenge” or “You Belong With Me”: the woman he’s going to marry has a “snotty little family all dressed in pastel” and is yelling at a bridesmaid while “wearing a gown shaped like a pastry,” so she’s actually just a terrible person anyway.
I’m not trying to condemn Taylor Swift for these songs. For one thing, she was a young girl in the country music industry in the aughts, which cannot have been easy. For another, even if the song content is a little iffy, they go undeniably hard. I wouldn’t be taking the time to bring the content of these songs to light just for the sake of critiquing them, but it’s important to discuss them in order to show the immense growth Taylor Swift has in her relationships with other women in her songs throughout her career.
And for all the “other girl” songs Swift has, she’s got twice as many songs calling out men for treating her poorly. “Dear John” is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated songs in her catalogue — an epic six minutes that lays out exactly what it’s like to be young and in a toxic relationship.
In her next few albums after Speak Now, Swift drifted away from the “other girl” narrative and country music in general. By the time she released reputation, I was almost ready to give up on caring about Taylor Swift. Which is fine. People move on and make the music they want to make. I’m not here to tell you that Swift betrayed country music and that “Shake it Off” is the bane of human existence.
Besides, there’s not a lot of material dealing with other women from Red to Lover, negative or otherwise. So let’s skip over that era and move on to the sister albums of 2020, which are definitely the most sapphic records in Swift’s discography.
folklore and evermore
Let’s start with the song titles themselves. In folklore there is, of course, “betty,” which sparked a lot of rumors about Swift’s sexuality. She has that tiny moment where she slips in that the narrator is actually male — “she said / James get in” — but beyond that, you can easily take it at face value as a sweet and sapphic teenage love story with a harmonica riff to die for.
When I listened to evermore, the first thing I noticed was how many of the song titles were female names. While there’s no love song about a girl, there are songs about a “dorothea” and a “marjorie,” Swift’s grandmother. And even though they aren’t explicitly about one person with the name, “willow” and “ivy” are also female names (plus, Willow is pretty much the lesbian name).
In her first three albums, Swift offers prickly animosity towards other women. But in folklore and evermore, she shows an astonishingly nuanced and empathetic attitude towards women. “the last great american dynasty,” “mad woman,” and “dorothea” all specifically address the feelings and experiences of other women.
In “the last great american dynasty” and “mad woman,” Swift puts herself in the narrative as well, sympathetic and angry on behalf of women who’ve had to deal with the same shit as her. “Who knows / if she never showed up / what could have been” slips into “who knows / if I never showed up / what could have been,” and “no one likes a mad woman” is quickly followed up by “you made her like that.”
Unlike her first three albums, Swift is able to write songs directed towards women with love and kindness on these twin albums. She delivers a beautiful ode to her late grandmother in “marjorie” and has “nothing but well wishes” for a lost old friend in “dorothea.”
But the most drastic example of Swift’s sapphic songwriting evolution comes in “no body, no crime” featuring HAIM. In “Should’ve Said No,” the first in Swift’s trio of songs dealing with cheating, she takes a fairly middle-of-the-road approach. She’s pissed and hurt, and she wishes that her boyfriend would’ve just said no, but it stops there. Then in “Better Than Revenge,” Swift decides to take that anger out on the prep-school girl who “stole” her man.
But in “no body, no crime,” Swift’s pissed as hell and she’s not even the one being cheated on. It’s her friend Este, and after Este calls her husband out, she disappears. And even though his mistress moves into his house, Swift doesn’t really care about her all that much. Yeah, it’s nice that the mistress took out a big life insurance policy that makes the police think she killed him, but Swift’s focus is all on the man who hurt her friend Este.
It’s the kind of female solidarity reminiscent of The Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” and when you look at the evolution of these cheating songs along with the rest of her catalogue, you can clearly see how much Swift has changed since she began writing. She went from not even considering other women to judging and berating them to sympathizing and supporting other women with the kind of tender intimacy that is the hallmark of sapphic love.
I don’t know if Taylor Swift is queer. As of now, she hasn’t said so, and I don’t really see any point in rehashing her private life for clues about her orientation. But I do know that as a popular artist and an integral part of country music in the 2010s, her relationship with other women in her songs is significant.
For people like me who grew up with Taylor Swift and may have had some judgmental phases they weren’t proud of, it’s important to see that it is fully possible to grow, mature, and move on. And for society in general, it’s crucial to see — or hear — women having loving, intimate, and complex relationships with other women in the media.