music

FOLKLORE IS A GAY ALBUM WHETHER TAYLOR SWIFT INTENDED IT OR NOT

August 16, 2020

Markella Votzourakis

After the mediocrity that was Lover (don’t @ me), Taylor Swift has thoroughly redeemed herself. If Lover, reputation, and 1989 were pure pop, then folklore is on the other end of the spectrum: a series of whimsical, cleverly-produced songs that sucker-punch you with nostalgia whether you want it or not. If this album were a day of the week, it would be Thursday. Season? Autumn. Vibe? Forest, witch, youth, love, stories… the queer experience. Stay with me.

The theme of ‘folklore’ has freed Swift from the usual media frenzy that follows a Taylor Swift album release, because, in the folklore album prologue she published on Twitter, Swift establishes that none of these songs are directly about her. It allows us to interpret her work more freely than we would usually be able to (there is nothing worse than listening to 1989 knowing that most people think it’s about Harry Styles), and means that I can listen to every song with the sincere confidence that they’re queer-coded. I genuinely think I’m on the cusp of becoming a gaylor. If you want to suffer with me, listen to the gender-neutral demo of ‘Teardrops on my Guitar’ and consider why on earth they would’ve changed it from ‘you’ to ‘Drew’.

Arguably the best opener for a Swift album since Red’s ‘State of Grace’, ‘the 1’ is a rumination on lost love and what-ifs, with Swift singing “we were something don’t you think so?” over a gentle percussive beat. Following is ‘cardigan’, which opens with a dark, sensual piano, proceeding into a lilting beat that reminds me of fairytales with sad endings. Honestly, I kind of hate the metaphor of being an old cardigan (“do you ever feel like a plastic bag” anyone?), but this song is otherwise excellent, showcasing Swift’s emotive, cinematic song-writing with lyrics like “you drew stars around my scars / but now I’m bleeding” and “I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss / I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs”.

‘the last great american dynasty’ is delightfully reminiscent of Red’s ‘The Lucky One’ and ‘Starlight’, a rustic recounting of the story of the previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island home, an eccentric woman who “had a marvellous time ruining everything” and gave off major chaotic bi energy. Since listening, I have decided that this is the attitude I would like to carry with me throughout the rest of my life. In contrast, ‘mirrorball’ is a desperate, echoing, yet oddly reassuring ode to anxiety — Lover’s ‘The Archer’, but grown up, and with more reverb. Shout out to the lyric “I can change everything about me to fit in” which is a direct reflection of my teenage self when my friends would talk about their male celebrity crushes.

Possibly the best song on folklore, ‘seven’ is a recollection of childhood that makes you ache from the innocence of it. Rolling Stone and Pitchfork had the nerve to say that ‘seven’ should’ve been culled from the album and I’ve never seen such a blatantly terrible take in my entire life. The lyric “before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / any time I wanted”, sung like a soft, haunting scream, mourns the loss of the freedom of girlhood. ‘seven’ is queer in a way you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t paying attention, specifically the line “and just like a folk song / our love will be passed on” which can be interpreted as an allusion to how in the past, queerness only existed in stories, in whispers late at night, shared only in the safest of places.

Following is ‘august’, which is maybe the closest to a pop song Swift has gotten on this record. It’s sad in an upbeat, nostalgic way, and the desperate bridge reminds me of ‘Cruel Summer’ from Lover. The lyrics “I can see us lost in the memory / August slipped away into a moment in time / […]’cause you were never mine” are especially relatable — who hasn’t had an almost-relationship that ended badly but you can’t even be mad about it because you knew they weren’t yours in the first place? And now you just savour the memory of it sometimes as you’re trying to fall asleep, and think of what could’ve been. I might be projecting. Or is that a universal queer experience?

And now for the gayest song on folklore: ‘betty’. Sung over a country guitar and an unexpected harmonica, ‘betty’ almost made me cry on the first listen for two reasons: the way Swift sings about knowing that you’ve done someone wrong and desperately wanting to fix it (“I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / but I know I miss you”) AND because this song had my heart palpitating as I desperately tried to figure out if it was confirming gaylor. Listen:

  • Betty, one time I was riding on my skateboard / when I passed your house / it’s like I couldn’t breathe”? Gay!
  • At a school dance, “I was nowhere to be found / I hate the crowds, you know that / plus, I saw you dance with him”?? GAY!!
  • if you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it”??? “slept next to her, but / I dreamt of you all summer long”???? Fuck me up!!!!

Then, before my heart gave out completely, I remembered that these songs are meant to be about other people — but god, was it a ride. ‘betty’ is about a teenage girl being scared about her same-sex attraction, and that’s a hill I’ll die on.This isn’t a perfect album: it begins to drag by the second half, and logically, there are one or two songs it could do without (‘hoax’, ‘illicit affairs’ — still very much worth the listen), but ultimately, this album is great because it shows that Swift has grown up. It feels less like one of her reinventions and more like she’s taken this time of isolation to focus solely on the craft of music, and that, I think, is why folklore deserves our respect. Well, that and the fact that it’s incredibly — likely unintentionally — gay. Special mention goes to the spin put on a quintessentially Taylor Swift lyric in the delightful ‘invisible string’: “cold was the steel of my axe to grind / for the boys who broke my heart / now I send their babies presents”. That’s growth.