CULTURE

Growing up queer with Taylor Swift

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For the author, Taylor Swift emboldened a generation of queer kids around the world to own their identities and narratives, no matter how painful.

The first CD I ever bought was Taylor Swift’s “Fearless: Platinum Edition.”

It was on Sunday at the now defunct Odyssey — a video and music store at one of the only malls in Dagupan City. Every time we went to shop for groceries, I snuck out of line and ran to the store to look for the album. When it had finally arrived after weeks of inquiry, I had trouble explaining to my parents why I, a 12-year-old boy from Pangasinan, wanted to buy the album of an 18-year-old American female country artist. I smiled and said it was for my little sister who, by then, was a fan. They agreed. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the first of many of her albums we’d be buying throughout our lifetime.

When we got home, my sister and I rushed to our room and, taking our family’s small blue Daewoo radio, we began listening to it. Lying down on the ground as we pored over the lyric book in silence, we took note of which letters were capitalized; decoding a message we didn’t know was secret. The more I listened to her music, the more I realized how much I empathize with her: the feeling of being invisible, of not fitting in, of wanting to make it somewhere else, of wanting to be with a boy who was so desperately out of reach.

A boy.

***

Growing up, I didn’t have many people I could identify with. There were only a handful of gay kids in our provincial Catholic high school and I wasn’t close to any of them. I couldn’t connect to whatever was considered representation in the media in the 2000s: I wasn’t a Boy Abunda or a Chokoleit, nor was I an Anderson Cooper or a Ricky Martin. I didn’t know who to talk to about liking boys. In the absence of queer representation, I turned to the stories of women around me.

On paper, Taylor Swift and I couldn’t be more different. She is a straight white cisgender woman who had only grown more rich and powerful as the years have gone by, while I was, well, me. But her music was different: it felt close and raw, more like a diary entry than anything I’d heard before at the time. In her lyrics were all of the conversations I wanted to have with others but couldn’t for fear of outing myself. She articulated, in a language that was accessible to me yet still lightyears ahead of me, an important aspect of queer coming-of-age: longing.

Her music was a prism through which I saw myself reflected and refracted and through it, I was able to experience love and romance, or at least participate in the fantasy of it, without the consequences queer people often suffer from loving.

She detailed all the experiences that felt forbidden to live out at the time: pining after someone from afar (“You Belong With Me”), craving the highs of the honeymoon phase or a previous relationship (“The Way I Loved You”), and even confessing the insecurities that come with growing up (“The Best Day”). Her music was a prism through which I saw myself reflected and refracted and through it, I was able to experience love and romance, or at least participate in the fantasy of it, without the consequences queer people often suffer from loving.

Since discovering her music, I’ve found myself growing up alongside her, with her music being the backdrop of many of my personal milestones. “Teardrops on my Guitar'' played when I first realized I was in love. I incorporated the lyrics of “Long Live” into my farewell speech at my high school graduation. Her music was the anthem of my first relationship (“State of Grace (Acoustic Version)”) and the antidote for the subsequent breakup five years later (“Delicate”). She was there when I turned “22” and when I saw the sun rise after a long-depressive period (“Cruel Summer”).

Since then, I’ve discovered other female artists celebrated by the queer community who explored this emotional landscape too like Carly Rae Jepsen (“Your Type”), Robyn (“Dancing On My Own”), and even Mitski (“Your Best American Girl”). But it was Taylor Swift and her music who were the ones who were there for me at nearly every stage of my queer coming-of-age; who reminded me that happy endings were possible and that tragedies were survivable, even as her music shifted towards a less autobiographical tone.

Borrowing Taylor’s words: “People haven't always been there for me but music always has.”

***

Maybe this is why I gravitated towards her so early on and maybe this is why fans have been so galvanized around supporting her, especially the recent re-recording efforts (following the dispute with her previous record label, better detailed here). Though common in the industry, re-recording albums is often late in life endeavors used to cash in on an artist’s greatest hits, address artistic lapses, or spite record labels. Big names such as Prince, Def Leppard, Frank Sinatra, and even Jojo have had varying degrees of success with the effort.

Though Taylor promised additional tracks from “the vault” to incentivize the purchase, victory was not a guarantee. Since its release a week ago, “Red (Taylor’s Version)” and its centerpiece — the mythic 10-minute cut of “All To Well,” which also includes a surprise short film — have topped charts on several platforms, including YouTube and Spotify.

But what surprised me the most isn’t wasn’t the magnitude of the success, but the online response. When the news of the re-recordings were happening and albums were eventually released, social media was flooded with not only memes of Taylor’s pandemic productivity but with stories similar to mine from queer people all over the world: confessions of how Taylor’s music has held space for them when nowhere else offered refuge.

As the years have passed, it has become more apparent that her music is central to her process of self-ownership and self-assertion. Apart from being diary entries through which she expresses herself and gains better understanding of her context, it’s been a way for her to connect to others and to assert her identity. Through her music, she has owned and expressed her politics and declared her awareness of and fought back against how the media depicts her. By turning memories into lyrics and sublimating her emotions into chord progressions, Taylor has been able to successfully own — literally and figuratively — the narrative of her life.

In the past, Taylor’s success as an artist has been dismissed; seen by some as merely profiting off of the stories of her exes. Queer people’s lives have often had similar accusations of sexual promiscuity: demonizing our desire to fall in love; measuring us against the manner with which that love is pursued. But times have changed, at least a little bit. The re-recordings have provided both Taylor and her (queer) fans an opportunity to relive our deferred adolescence and reclaim the messiness of it but now with the gift of distance; without the weight of the guilt, shame, and fear that puberty often brings.

Hearing Taylor’s maturity on her re-recordings — the stability in her voice, the assuredness of the production — I can’t help but reflect on how I’ve matured along with her. I’m no longer a closeted boy from the province imagining what it would be like to fall in love freely. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten to this point without her. She has taken what was once sad, beautiful, tragic and reframed it into a glorious celebration of not only her legacy, but our collective memories of adolescence. Her work is not only a mirror of her life, but our own.