Taylor Swift's new album "Folklore" blends fantasy and reality together for a masterclass in storytelling that can resonate with a diverse set of listeners.
For me, "Folklore" is a tribute to the experiences I've had as a gay woman, from my childhood to my first lesbian relationship and my present-day struggle with femininity.
I interpret the lyrics on songs like "Seven," "August," and "Mirrorball" with queer experiences like first love, being closeted, and gender presentation.
Released last week, Taylor Swift's surprise studio album "Folklore" has already become one of the best collections of her career, if not the outright winner. It's a winding, melancholy trip that Swift says blends together fantasy and reality.
It's well documented that Swift's strength lies in her lyrical storytelling, and her best deep cuts tend to revolve around the trials and tragedies of her romantic relationships. I've been a fan of her music since I was 10, and as a kid, I thought the love songs on "Fearless" and "Speak Now" foretold what my future relationships with boys would be like. But it didn't turn out that way.
When "Folklore" suddenly crashed into Swift's discography late last week, the album overwhelmed me. In it, I see bits and pieces of my gay reckoning. There's an ode to already knowing who I was as a 7-year-old girl; there are songs that get to the heart of the pain that comes with being closeted all this time; there are tracks that reflect the internal wrestling over my own femininity.
Swift's lyrics about youth and innocence recall my very first lesbian experience, even though I didn't know it at the time
On the first "Folklore" single, "Cardigan," Swift states plainly that "I knew everything when I was young." It contrasts with the idea that people "assume you know nothing," and it slots neatly into the expectation placed on young queer people, including myself.
Like many other gay people, I had known there was something different about me for a long time, ever since I had my first playdates with other girls in elementary school. I didn't know I was a lesbian, of course, because I didn't know lesbians existed.
I did know, however, that I pretended to marry my best friend in her parent's walk-in closet. I knew that we kissed during the play ceremony.
On "Seven," Swift captures that feeling of being a queer child perfectly. She says her friend with blonde braids would "hide in the closet," then follows up with "cross my heart, won't tell no other."
I finally learned what a lesbian was through Ellen DeGeneres. (There was a ride at Disney World in which DeGeneres and Bill Nye guided you through prehistoric times. There was something about her that made a lasting impression on me, I suppose.)
Later, I had to pick someone famous to talk about in front of my class. I picked DeGeneres. And then I was told I couldn't pick her, because she was married to another woman and some people didn't like that.
Cue the first real sense of anxiety I ever experienced, thinking back to my wedding in the closet. I couldn't watch two people kiss without feeling overwhelming shame, fear, and a pit in my stomach, for years to come.
After I had my first real relationship with another girl, I was told that I didn't have it all figured out yet; that I was mistaken. I wasn't gay, because I had dated boys before. I wasn't gay, because women are always at least a little bit straight. I wasn't gay, because I liked wearing makeup.
I heard every justification for why I didn't know myself, and they were all wrong.
Themes of infidelity throughout 'Folklore' resemble the emotions associated with being closeted and having relationships that aren't allowed
At the midway mark is "August," one corner of the fictional high school love triangle — "Cardigan" and "Betty" make up the other two — Swift sings about from each party's perspective. "August" plays out from the point of view of an unnamed character who we later learn "James" cheated on "Betty" with.
It's the first song on the album about infidelity, and the language Swift uses to elucidate unfaithfulness echoed my first queer relationship, which was trademarked by secrecy and guilt.
Hearing "August" yanked me right back to when I was 16, falling asleep in my first girlfriend's childhood bedroom, feeling the indescrible joy and relief of learning about your own sexual identity.
For the protagonist of "August," the fleeting summer love is something she "never needed more." She recalls "whispers of 'Are you sure?'" and "livin' for the hope it all."
There was so much hope in finally putting the pieces together. That's why I'd always been a little different from other girls — why I had to force myself to care about impressing boys or deciding which ones were cute. That's why I cried and felt my stomach twist after my first kiss with a boy, and why I only had crushes on the ones who turned out to be gay.
But we also dated in secret. At the beginning of our relationship, I had no idea what the people around me would think if I came out. I wanted to, but I was terrified of how the conversations would go.
My girlfriend knew that her parents were homophobic. They would never allow their daughter to be in a lesbian relationship. So we kept it a secret, using the veneer of friendship to date for almost a year.
When our relationship ended, it wasn't by choice. There was a record of everything stored on our phones and computers — through texts, emails, and Tumblr posts. All it took was the wrong person catching a suspicious text floating across a screen for everything to be exposed, and eventually, we got caught.
Secret relationships are explored even further on 'Illicit Affairs'
On "Illicit Affairs," the idea of meeting a loved one in "beautiful rooms," only to end with "meetings in parking lots" was a sharp reminder of the mechanism of sneaking around. Even after I wasn't allowed to see my girlfriend anymore, I had brief moments in my car with her in our high school parking lot.
Being closeted is one of the most melancholy states of being, especially as a young queer person, surrounded by non-queer people who are able to express their blossoming relationships without fear of scrutiny. Being punished for your "clandestine meetings" is even worse, and instills long-lasting anxieties and insecurities.
It's a weary feeling to have to hide the things that make you happiest from overly critical eyes and closed minds. While Swift hides from an unforgiving media and perpetual critics rather than homophobia, the substance of her songs and the darkness in "Folklore" offer a comforting sense of familiarity.
Even as I grew older, went to college, and had relationships that were a little more public, I still struggled — and continue to struggle — with hiding elements of my relationships and sexuality. I'm out now — but none of my girlfriends have been.
In one past relationship, my girlfriend was so afraid her conservative, homophobic parents would find out that she made up a fake ex-boyfriend for me and told them about him.
It goes without saying that I've never been able to post about my relationships online, because that would have outed my girlfriends. I've always played the role of a best friend in front of their families.
Queer identities extend beyond relationships, and 'Folklore' also captures the complexities and contradictions of femininity
On "Mirrorball," Swift talks about the role-playing inherent in being a woman. She talks about having to change everything about herself to fit in, which resonated with the casual acting I've trained myself to perform in the closet.
Beyond pretending to be straight, though, being a gay woman means existing to the contrary of traditional ideas of femininity. Women have long been defined by their proximity to men, and being a woman has often been moored to the concept of men as romantic and sexual partners.
My traditionally feminine gender presentation — I wear makeup and dresses, and often have long hair and nails — has often felt incompatible with my sexuality. Even as a teenager, I was uncomfortable with the way I was perceived by men.
Without the prospect of ever dating a man or needing to appeal to a man, there's a sense of freedom that can also feel like uncharted territory. I'm still mapping that no man's land out.
I've never felt confident about how I present myself to the world, whether I'm lying about who I am to protect the person I love, passing as a straight woman with my feminine gender presentation, or struggling to identify myself to other queer woman without feeling forced.
"Mirrorball" in particular emphasizes the way Swift chooses to embrace femininity. It's a song written for other women, and it doesn't care about whether men will enjoy it or not.
Swift singing "I've never been a natural/All I do is try, try, try" might be the point where I see myself clearest — it's no wonder she describes herself as a reflective surface.
It's incredibly gratifying to feel a little seen, and feel a little understood, by an artist whose presence has guided you from adolescence to adulthood, like Swift's has for me. In "Folklore," Swift rolled out a moody blue carpet that chronicles all the nuances of my life so far, and all the reward of having lived through them.
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