Taylor Swift saying the narrator of 'Betty' is a 'boy' doesn't negate LGBTQ fans' interpretations of the song

cahlgrim@businessinsider.com (Callie Ahlgrim)
·7 mins read
Taylor Swift's "Cardigan" and "Betty" are the same story told from opposite perspectives.
Taylor Swift's "Cardigan" and "Betty" are the same story told from opposite perspectives.

Taylor Swift/YouTube

  • "Betty" is the 14th track on Taylor Swift's new album, "Folklore."

  • The song is told from the perspective of 17-year-old James, who cheated on Betty and wants to make it up to her.

  • Many fans latched onto the song as a queer masterpiece, interpreting James and Betty as a lesbian couple and celebrating the song as an authentic vehicle of representation.

  • Swift recently said that she originally envisioned James as a boy — but that doesn't diminish the song's positive impact on LGBTQ listeners.

  • Artists sacrifice interpretive ownership of their albums and songs when they release them into the world. Music belongs to the people who listen, relate, and create their own meanings.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Since the abrupt release of "Folklore" in July, Taylor Swift fans have celebrated, dissected, and agonized over one song more than any other: "Betty."

The countrified folk tune tells the story of "Cardigan" from the opposite perspective. "Betty" is actually addressed to its namesake, and the narrator is revealed to be a high schooler named James.

Right away, the song resonated with Swift's LGBTQ fan base.

Hearing Swift serenade a girl named Betty — singing lines like "I dreamt of you all summer long" and "Will you kiss me on the porch in front of all your stupid friends?" — sparked an intense and emotional reaction from those who crave more sapphic love stories in music and the media. 

Indeed, Vulture's Madison Malone Kircher declared that "Betty" is "queer canon," and both members of Insider's music team — myself and my editor, Courteney Larocca — immediately latched onto the song's gay motif.

Small biographical details seemed to confirm our impression. Swift herself was named after James Taylor, and she named all the song's characters after Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively's daughters. 

However, this week, Swift broke her silence about the song's inspiration. When she made an appearance on country radio to introduce "Betty," she described it as "a song that I wrote from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy." 

The news broke gay hearts and wreaked havoc in the fandom. Queer Swifties mourned the loss of their lesbian heroines, and some even allege they were mocked by homophobic fans.

Of course, the disappointment is understandable. LGBTQ representation is still sorely needed in pop music, and "Betty" felt more authentic than Swift's previous attempts to display allyship. Rather than centering her own straight perspective, "Betty" made space for queer love stories that exist beyond Swift's personal worldview.

But that can still be true. Swift's original intent while writing the song does not negate the way it sounds or feels to her fans. Her vision of James and Betty can exist alongside yours and mine.

'These songs were once about my life. Now they are about yours'

As we all know, Swift is a sloppy love puppy who revels in romantic stories, moments of human connection, and generally being a bit emotional. And so allow me to recall the words of another such bestselling writer, who shares much of Swift's sentimentality and has weathered many similar accusations (of corniness, mostly): John Green.

Green argues that reading is, by design, an "act of empathy; it's always an imagining of what it's like to be someone else."

I would argue that listening to music — particularly music that's been carefully crafted by an expert, poetic, detail-oriented songwriter — boasts the same purpose. Putting on a Taylor Swift album is a practice in feeling her emotions and, more often than not, of applying her words to your own memories and experiences.

"Standing in your cardigan / Kissin' in my car again."
"Standing in your cardigan / Kissin' in my car again."

Taylor Swift/YouTube

Ever since the publication of his debut novel, "Looking for Alaska," Green has argued that "books belong to their readers." Again, I would argue that this extends to music. Songs and albums belong to their listeners.

As Green explains: "Whether an author intended a symbolic resonance to exist in her book" — or her song — "is irrelevant. All that matters is whether it's there."

"The book does not exist for the benefit of the author. The book exists for the benefit of you," he says. "If we, as readers, can have a bigger and richer experience with the world as a result of reading a symbol, and that symbol wasn't intended by the author, we still win."

In other words: By reading books or poems, looking at paintings, and listening to songs, we don't find meaning. We create meaning.

Art may resonate with us in many-varied, multi-colored ways that the original creator didn't intend, but that's OK. Once the art is made available to the masses, it takes an infinite number of forms in the hearts and brains of all who have graciously consumed it.

And, by the way, Swift agrees.

In her "1989" album foreword, she summarized this concept very poignantly, as she tends to do: "These songs were once about my life. Now they are about yours."

Biographical details and authorial intent do not inherently give a song meaning — the listener's experience is more important

We tend to get caught up in the biographical details of our favorite artists: Who is this song about? When did they write it? Does this devastating song mean she's broken up with her boyfriend?

This is especially true of Swift, because she's known for pouring diaristic details into her music and leaving Easter eggs for fans to find and obsess over.

But Swift didn't become a defining artist of her generation because every single person who listens to "All Too Well" is obsessed with locating the scarf she left at Maggie Gyllenhaal's house (allegedly).

Her power lies in her ability to communicate ideas, images, and emotions that resonate with listeners, no matter who they are — to tell a story that feels real and true. It's fun to speculate about the origin of Swift's words, but in the end, it doesn't really matter.

Whether Swift imagined James as a boy or girl (or both, or neither) while she was writing "Betty" does not diminish the version of their story that exists in my heart and brain, which is that both characters are girls.

If my version is similar to yours, rest assured that your interpretation is no less valid than anyone else's — including Swift's.

For me, hearing Swift serenade Betty — in her airy, girlish voice — colors the song far more vividly than one brief moment in the bridge that includes a stereotypically masculine name.

I also refuse to believe that Swift neglected to give James an in-song gender pronoun by accident. The intentional vagueness makes it easier to pour your own experiences into the song, to visualize your own versions of the characters. By definition, folklores are stories with shape-shifting details, passed from person to person by word of mouth.

Indeed, Swift was clear about the creative roots of "Folklore," which was largely inspired by fictional narratives and imagined images. Swift has also said that she's an ally, not a member of the LGBTQ community, so this was never a question of whether "Betty" signified Swift's "coming out."

Hearing a girl sing about wanting to kiss another girl can still be meaningful, moving, and needed without being strictly biographical. 

I don't need to believe the speaker in "Betty" is Swift herself in order to create meaning from that listening experience.

The song sounds like two girls falling back in love. The gay mood eclipses the semantics.

Read the original article on Insider