I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a large portion of quarantine renting my headspace to Taylor Swift. With a constant stream of her albums on repeat, I’ve inadvertently converted multiple people in my life into Swift fans purely because I talk about her so frequently. And I’m not ashamed to say it anymore—one night, I spent four hours reading in-depth fan theories outlining Taylor Swift’s alleged secret relationships with women.
Then, as any women’s-college English major inevitably would, I found myself wondering whether Swift’s work was inspired by sapphic situations. I decided it was finally time to turn my analytic eye to her lyricism—after all, pop music is just poetry put to melody.
When analyzing art, the audience tends to look to the artist’s lived experience for context. The simple version of the equation is this: artist intention + audience perception = interpretation of art.
Considering that it’s one part of the equation, it’s important to really understand the artist’s intention. Through the course of my academic studies and my own experience as a writer, I’ve found that a common motivation to create art is the desire to share a story, and for that story to be embraced. Often, the stories artists share are those that they have lived through, or ones that they have fictionalized in order to convey the central themes of their experience without sharing exact details.
So, how does an artist’s experience influence their work? Well, for example, unrequited love involving two straight parties, unrequited love involving one straight and one queer party, and unrequited love involving two queer parties all contain disparate subtext about the obstacles in the romance’s path. To help determine their interpretation of the artwork, the audience instinctively looks to the lived experience of the artist for context.
Now, back to Taylor Swift: In my opinion—and remember, I am only one fan amongst millions, so opinions vary—her “man-eater” reputation peaked around her Red era, roughly 2011-2013. It was during this time that Swift served the notorious 2013 Grammys performance of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” during which she spoke part of the bridge in a British accent—causing everyone to flip their shit at this obvious dig at her recent ex, Harry Styles. When Swift released 1989 in 2014, the public generally believed the album was written about Styles.
It wasn’t until 2018 that I began to question whether Swift was as straight as the general public believed her to be. At this point, I followed a few dedicated Swiftie accounts on social media, so the Gaylor Swift theories had begun to circulate around my cyberspace. By the time folklore was released in 2020, I was familiar with and unsurprised by the rumor that Swift had secretly dated her self-pronounced BFF, supermodel Karlie Kloss. Once I listened closely to the album, devoting special attention to Swift’s lyrics, I became convinced there was no heterosexual explanation for some of the songs. To me, the subtext was undeniably queer, and my belief was reinforced when I found that many of the metaphors scattered throughout her discography were commonly recognized queer codings.
Some of her most blatant queer subtexts have appeared in folklore and evermore, such as the line “Then you won’t have to cry / Or hide in the closet” in “seven,” and the thinly veiled “You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else” in “illicit affairs.”
Swift filled “cowboy like me” with lines such as “You asked me to dance / But I said ‘Dancing is a dangerous game.’” Why is dancing a dangerous game for them? What knowledge does the narrator have that the audience doesn’t? Could dancing be dangerous because the parties are of the same sex? The song goes on to describe love being out of reach for both parties, noting that they will settle for financial security with others because society has denied them the possibility of romantic love.
In “Cruel Summer,” she sings to a hidden lover about their relationship, which would not bode well if disclosed to the public: “I don’t wanna keep secrets just to keep you and I / snuck in through the garden gate / Every night that summer just to seal my fate / I scream ‘For whatever it’s worth / I love you,’ ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” In an interview with iHeartRadio, Swift reported that the song is about how “romance can be layered with all these feelings of, like, pining away and sometimes even secrecy. It deals with the idea of being in a relationship where…you’re yearning for something that you don’t quite have yet.”
I certainly recognize pining and secrecy as historically common themes of queer relationships. Swift’s tendency to write about hidden relationships and the challenges of navigating love as a celebrity could easily cloak a more complex situation—that not only is she a celebrity navigating love privately, but that she’s a celebrity navigating same-sex love privately. Her queerness would certainly increase scrutiny and thereby add volatility to her relationships.
Additionally, she’s sung from a male perspective in recent releases, which could be her way of writing about WLW relationships while still allowing songs to slot nicely into her public heteronormative narrative. Honestly, it’s genius—Swift has managed to come out to those who will notice, and the only ones likely to notice are other queer people.
After diving deep into lyrical analysis, I continued down the “Taylor Swift is gay” hole and found myself reading a Tumblr blog titled “The Swiftgron Masterpost Remastered,” which purports that Taylor Swift dated Dianna Agron. One Swiftie named Cam has compiled comprehensive evidence to track the progression of the relationship—a timeline of the women’s friendship including not only the public spottings and social media interactions of Swift and Agron, but also taking into account previous relationships to establish both parties’ supposed queerness prior to their involvement. She references the mutual friends who likely brought them into initial contact with each other and social media posts that might refer to one another up to the present day. (Yes, Cam continues to actively track their interactions.)
The sheer amount of energy Cam has poured into proving a relationship that could very well be nothing but a close friendship is absurd. Cam herself even admits it’s a bit overboard. The majority of people would likely stumble across her blog, think her overly invested in the life of an unreachable celebrity, and maybe feel weirded out by the lengths to which fans are willing to go to create these theories. I mean, if someone were to dissect my social media presence like that, I’d probably feel like my privacy had been invaded. But then again, I put all that content out there, and I chose to let people have access to it.
At the end of the day, Swift and Agron made these public posts of their own volition, and most are still viewable on their accounts. Is it, then, unethical for Cam to be doing what she does? I’d argue no—because these people did share these posts not only with the understanding that they would be seen, but with the intention for them to be seen. If they want to be more private, they can share less on social media (and in recent years, both Swift and Agron have done just that).
How, then, does this connect to the interpretation of art? Well, Cam runs a second Tumblr, primarily to answer questions sent in by visitors and analyze Swift’s work through a queer lens. Cam is lesbian herself, and like many other queer Swift fans, she has found Swift’s work to be more personally meaningful when she considers that Swift may be writing about WLW relationships. The blog has become a safe haven for Swiftgron shippers and curious fans alike, all of whom express interest in experiencing the artwork with a queer perspective. Cam’s analyses facilitate this space, while her investigative work provides validation for queer fans.
At the end of the day, the interpretation of art is all about balance. It’s important to consider the artist’s intention and respect their wishes. It’s also important to read into the art itself and discover what it means to you. Taylor Swift is queer to those looking close enough and to those who want her to be. She is straight to those who are content with the heteronormative narrative and the way the heteronormative narrative serves them.
Do I think it’s wrong for fans to speculate about Swift’s personal life? No. Is it then Swift’s responsibility to take accountability for fan-made theories? Absolutely not. Will the audience respect her enough to allow her subtext to remain subtext as long as she desires? Well, that one’s up to you.
By Kalena Chiu
Illustration by Seb Westcott