I remember the first time I knew people thought I was gay. It was the summer of 2013. I was at a “Center for Talented Youth” summer camp—about the nerdiest place I’ve ever been. I was out walking with some friends when the topic of conversation shifted to my outfit: a Taylor Swift T-shirt I got when her Red Tour played in Washington, D.C. At the concert I’d attended, Swift had thanked her fans for their endless support of her career. She said she still thought it was crazy that people would buy her CDs and wear T-shirts with her face on it. The shirt I was wearing on that day didn’t even have her face on it—just her name and the concert’s title. But that was still enough for my friends to look at me differently. Noticing their stares, I realized how they saw me. Effeminate. Girly. Queer.
Many members of the LGBT community have had these kinds of moments with celebrities: Madonna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga. These female pop singers tend to occupy a strange yet wonderful position particularly within the adolescence of young gay men. Asserting our appreciation, and love, for their music is one of the first things we can claim ownership over. The chance to be fans of their music publicly is one of our first opportunities to test the waters of appreciating specifically feminine things within a social setting. Lip-syncing, dancing to the beat, really feeling the emotions of a lyric: These are subtle but important affirmations of being who you really are.
I’ll admit, there was something liberating about wearing the Taylor Swift shirt. I was putting myself out there as someone who was different, who didn’t subscribe to stereotypical gender norms, in a clever, coded way. It was subversive in distinguishing myself from other guys but still secretive by stating my queerness in an easily digestible way. I could be different, but I could still chalk it up to just really enjoying Taylor’s music. It wasn’t really dangerous admitting I knew all the words to Swift’s songs. But it felt like it. Because, just maybe, I was trying to express something else.
But unlike Madonna, ’Yoncé, Perry, and Gaga, Taylor Swift has never really addressed the fact that so many of her superfans are members of the LGBT community. So much of her audience is grappling with gender norms and sexuality through her songs. And to use one of the slogans of the LGBT community, I don’t think her relationship with her LGBT audience is getting better. At all.
Swift started out young as a twangy country star—a persona that she’s spent the rest of her career distancing herself from. Her first album is about as simplistically country as it gets. She sings about Tim McGraw, slamming screen doors, and crying while playing her guitar. Growing up just on the borders of the South, I never saw much distinction between Swift’s ballads and the country music my dad would play on the radio. It was unassumingly fun to listen to and didn’t break the mold. The girls in Swift’s initial songs, like those in other country lyrics, have either just been spurned or are in the midst of falling head-over-heels. It was describing the kind of life I was surrounded by, but it wasn’t about me. That all changed once I got my hands on her follow-up, Fearless, where she began to toy around with the country music narratives I had grown up hearing. Suddenly, I began to see myself as the subject of my own song.
First of all, her songwriting became immensely more specific and finely tuned. Songs like “Fifteen” and “You Belong With Me” transcended her previously tame country tunes and became incredibly well-crafted coming-of-age tales. Swift then began positioning herself within love triangles. She fought against the popular girls. She was the real deal, the “authentic” one who was contrasted with ultra-feminine visions of the Other Woman. Still, though, her lyrics were working in a tightly gendered conventional framework that defined much of the late ’00s, as articulated in the lyrics of “You Belong With Me:” “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts / She’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers.” Swift’s conception of gender is still pretty limited, dividing young women into categories of “prude” or “slut,” and she makes little attempt to empathize with the experiences of the other women she’s deriding in her lyrics.
This was a dynamic seen through many of the theatrical pieces of art I consumed in my childhood. Would Troy choose the humble Gabriella over the vain, fabulous Sharpay in “High School Musical”? Would the quarterback Finn date Rachel, the overly ambitious singer with a stellar voice, over the blonde head-cheerleader Quinn in “Glee”? Would Fiyero date the perky Galinda over Elphaba, whose skin was literally green, in “Wicked”? Swift cast herself within this epic battle between the nerds and the popular kids—which was also a battle between the super-sexualized girls who could get any guy they wanted, and the more reserved girls who watched from a distance. She was the wallflower who knew her man better than anyone else. For these nerdy, wallflower, band-geek girls, singing was a way of constructing a romantic fantasy and coping with their longing.
This was also where the entry point was for her young LGBT fans, including myself. She didn’t speak in the dark club glamour of Britney Spears or Ke$ha. Her lyrics created a fantasy, like the forbidden romance of “Love Story,” and reframed it as a teenage daydream. Her world was one of high school lockers, talking to your best friend about your crushes, and jamming out to your favorite song in your pajamas. She was talking about my life. Or, at least, the girls who were growing up around me.
For me, and many other LGBT boys growing up, she was the only person we could identify ourselves with, bridging the gap between the country music of our childhoods and our emerging sense of being our true selves. For us, she was a touchstone of assimilation, but also of fantasy. If we were the girl Taylor was talking about, we could radically imagine that the quarterback guy really would choose us over the super feminized woman. Swift’s lyrics were working within a world that was familiar to me but extended further than I could have ever imagined. It took my world and told me that romance was possible. Not just that: romance with a guy was possible. Through Swift’s songs, I could both envision myself within a heterosexual context AND get the guy in the end.
But this fantasy came at a price. In pitting different types of women against each other, the tropes that Swift was writing about veered easily into slut-shaming. In “Better Than Revenge,” from 2011’s Speak Now, Swift uses some choice words to express to a former lover the faults of his new romantic interest. With an adolescent snark, she sings, “She’s not a saint, and she’s not what you think, she’s an actress, whoa! / And she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress, whoa!” Aside from a few songs about friendship, all the women who weren’t the subjects of Swift’s songs were framed as brutal competition with the goal of getting the man.
Since the release of the album, Swift has been vocal about how she’s not okay with the message of “Better Than Revenge.” She matured, becoming much more confident in labeling herself as a feminist. Thus, her art similarly grew up out of the restrictive trope of the love triangle that pits the nerdy girl and the popular girl against each other. Likewise, other forms of entertainment aimed at adolescents settled their female rivalries: the last “High School Musical” movie bypasses any tension between Sharpay and Gabriella and instead has both of them independently grappling with their futures in college. In the “Glee” fandom, fans started seeing Quinn and Rachel not as mortal enemies, but instead expressing a newfound respect for each other and even venturing into the possibility of a lesbian relationship.
Swift never emerged prominently as a figure for lesbians: just because she wasn’t bashing hyper-feminized women doesn’t mean that she was falling in love with them. The majority of her songs are about her relationships with men, a fact that has served as the source of much of her appeal for the male gay community. But her relationship with other women, whether friendly or strained, became a cornerstone of her persona independently from men. She developed a squad: Cara DeLevingne, Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld. Swift famously declared, citing Katie Couric, that there was a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Part of her appeal became that of female solidarity: She was a mentor figure to other female actors, models, and singers. And she used them in her projects, too. During the tour for 2014’s album 1989, she surprised fans by bringing out the then-teenage singer Lorde to sing along with her, a duo that Washington Post critic Chris Richards likened to “the prom queen and the goth girl from third-period art class.”
This remark does something for Swift that would have seemed unthinkable in her past: It sees Taylor as the popular girl. Because she was no longer fighting a battle against the sluts and popular girls, she was liberated now to explore her sexuality and present herself in less traditionally “country-star innocent” ways. In “You Belong With Me” she was mocking cheerleaders. By the bridge of 1989’s “Shake it Off,” when she delivers an eye-winking cheerleading drill, she had become the woman she spent the first part of her career despising. While this was an incredible leap forward for Swift in the way she portrayed women in her songs, it also fundamentally changed her dynamic with her fans. Gay fans, in particular, were thrust into a strange new territory—one that Swift has been shaping, but never commenting on, ever since.
Although Taylor Swift’s career has been a musical one, it’s also always been one about images, both the ones she paints in her lyrics and various versions of her persona that have emerged throughout the years. The first time that the image of an LGBT person appears in her work is in the music video for “Mean.” “Mean” was the last full-on country song that Swift would release, and she performs her homegrown style to a max. She’s envisioned as a Southern belle, strumming the banjo and singing, “Someday I’ll be living in a big old city / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” It’s at once a playful taunt and a promise: One day I’m going to be so much more important than you, and I’m gonna prove it to you and to myself. In the music video, she portrays people who are bullied—a young girl who doesn’t wear the same clothes as her peers, a service worker saving up money to go to college. She also includes a representation of a young man. He’s shown being pushed around in a locker room by football players. His style is impeccable: Donning a polka-dot shirt, bowtie, and purple sweater, and clutching a fashion magazine, he’s completely coded as a gay man. And he lip-syncs along to Swift’s words. “Mean” becomes an anthem for the disenfranchised—for the rural kids dreaming of getting the hell out of their small towns and becoming famous. The end of the music video shows the same guy all grown up, accepting flowers and applause for his first fashion show. It’s a fantasy that I immediately could relate to and hold on to.
But it’s strange that this is as close as Swift ever gets to acknowledging how strongly young gay men identify with her music. This is by no means a gay anthem. For the first time, she acknowledges the young men who see themselves as the subjects of the songs she’s singing about. She creates a fantasy of success and adoration for them. But any traces of the real reason why the guy in the music video is being bullied, or any traces of his attraction to other men, are completely absent. She accepts flamboyant men as the possible subjects of her songs. But it’s all presented in a way that doesn’t dive into the real struggle of being LGBT. The song enacts a fantasy, but it doesn’t seek to understand the pain that leads to its creation. Is that asking too much to ask of a country song?
Swift’s male gay fans re-emerge in her video for “Shake it Off.” This single marks two turning points in her career, launching her firmly into a dance-pop sound while also setting itself aside as her first leading single not about a relationship with a man. Throughout the song, she traces the line between sincerity and satire: She makes fun of herself and her inability to dance, and yet immerses herself in the world of twerking and cheerleading formations unapologetically. Near the end, she includes what can only be fans out of their mind excited to be in a Taylor Swift music video: They’re dancing right alongside her, and they’re “shaking off” the haters. Many of the dancers are men, and they look like they’re having the time of their lives.
“Shake it Off” is at once too universal in its dance-pop rhythm to be about small-town Southern gay kids, and also too specific in its call-outs against Swift herself. Swift has always written music from the position of someone being attacked, at first for not being the stereotypical cheerleader girl, and now, for being a celebrity put under an intense amount of scrutiny. Her songs have always been personal, but recently they’ve been about being the global superstar Taylor Swift instead of a small-town girl looking to make it big. Her LGBT fans are no longer the subjects of her songs: We’re now just people who were invited to her party.
This takes its synthesis in her gayest and most polarizing music video yet: “Look What You Made Me Do.” The song itself is a messy hodgepodge of electro-pop and the chorus has essentially no melody. But the imagery of the music video seems to be working directly out of gay lingo, as if Swift watched one episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and hastily took down notes. There’s discussion of “getting receipts” on social media. She’s seen drinking literal tea (“tea” being lingo for gossip), surrounded by snakes (a reference to emojis that pervaded a Twitter feud between her and Kim Kardashian). When she dances to her trap-infused beat, the level of ironic detachment is significantly lower than “Shake It Off:” Here, she really does want to look good.
This is all exacerbated by the prominent placement of Todrick Hall, a gay Black YouTuber, drag performer, and now Broadway star. Hall has worked with other pop stars in the past, notably Beyoncé for her “Blow” music video. But here, he’s paraded around with a bunch of other dancers, most of them people of color who are also coded as gay. But they don’t dance with the reckless abandon of the “Shake it Off” fans. Their movements are tightly controlled, they wear heavy eyeliner and cut-off tees, and they are, in every sense of the word, Swift’s backup, flaunting “I <3 TS” crop tops and mirroring her movements in unison behind her. Hall’s immense talent is thrust into the background; the sole purpose of his presence is to support Swift. The LGBT representation in her music videos has gone from empathetic subjects of the songs to people ecstatically dancing with her, to people dropped into the background to make her look good. As she’s increased the level of participation of LGBT people within her videos, she’s excluded their narratives from her increasingly self-centered lyrics and offered them no way to enter into the narratives she’s crafting.
As Swift matured and progressed past her adolescent “good girl versus bad girl” mentality, she’s shifted the way her LGBT fans are interacting with her work. The result is something disappointingly conventional: diva worship. Instead of providing a space for young gay men to explore their sexuality, romantic fantasies, and complex feelings, we’re instead being used as props within a white woman’s narrative of obsession and self-empowerment. This wouldn’t feel as manipulative if Swift’s new music wasn’t so explicitly drawing upon gay culture. She’s using us to heighten her fantasy but not allowing us the space to feel like a part of the narrative. It feels like we’re supposed to be the ones saying “Yaaaas queen!” instead of actually singing along or identifying with the song.
Swift’s newest album, Reputation, comes in the wake of a significant amount of criticism, mainly centered around her lack of involvement in the political sphere. Vulture critic Mark Harris even extended her problematic disengagement with the current political condition to a pretty valid claim that the feud-fueled quality of “Look What You Made Me Do” epitomizes Trump’s self-obsessive denial of personal responsibility. At a time when many pop stars (even Miley Cyrus!) have embraced or returned to embracing country and folk music, Swift is leaning even further into pop, abandoning any connection to her past. She’s an incredibly jarring pop star, creating musical worlds and concepts every few years before completely blowing them up at whiplash-inducing speeds. Sometimes this works in her favor, but it also means that she’s losing the elements of her music that made her unique, like her singer-songwriter ballads and her blend of acoustic and pop sounds. Her fans, who latch on so completely onto her albums, have to totally readjust how they think about Swift with each album release. And sometimes pieces of her identity get lost along the way.
But that’s also kind of the point. Reputation is about, well, her reputation. It’s an exploration of her position as one of the biggest pop stars of the planet, and by addressing pretty much all of her critics in the songs, she makes herself strangely immune from any kind of criticism.
However, the way she toys around with gay culture so thoughtlessly, particularly in the “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, is enough to make me question my entire relationship to Swift. I first saw this in the way in which her music was built upon deeply problematic love-triangle tropes, which she’s since replaced with diva worship. She’s hinted at the possibility of gay men being the ones to sing her songs, but she’s subsequently regressed her representation to gay men merely filling the role of her backup dancers. Yes, she’s releasing expertly made pop songs now. But it seems like she’s completely abandoned the kind of musical storytelling I could relate to my own LGBT experience. The thing is, I’m not sure that she ever really cared about my experience as an LGBT man. Maybe I was just projecting what I wanted to see onto her lyrics this entire time, and the faults of this projection have just recently become painfully obvious.
It breaks my heart to think of all the young men will be confronted by their friends for wearing Taylor Swift T-shirts in the future. They deserve someone who will explicitly work as an advocate for them, and someone who takes a stand when it comes to LGBT fans. I’ll still listen to Reputation and admit that there are some solid, catchy pop tracks on there. But I don’t think I’ll ever regain the kind of transcendent feelings I had about her music growing up. Look what you made me do, Taylor.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.