Just under a week ago, Taylor Swift released her latest single, Look What You Made Me Do. It surprised people. We were prepared to hate it. In fact, we WANTED to hate it. She’s a frustrating pop culture dichotomy. She’s undeniably always made good music, but for some reason, she’s just never been very appealing. But there was something about Look What You Made Me Do. It threw us into a quandry. We found ourselves…liking it?
Much of the queer community have always actively disliked her, possibly because she reminds us of those girls at school who, as soon as they found out you were gay, would immediately try to appropriate you as an accessory.
“Oh em gee, you can be my GBF! Gay Best Friend! Babe, can we go to Claire’s Accessories at lunch? I like, REALLY need some new earrings.”
There’s always been something about Taylor that’s seemed disingenuous and snarky. And, for obvious reasons, the queer community is VERY in tune to disingenuous snarkiness, so we saw right through her. We knew she was trouble when she walked in.
The transparently staged paparazzi-baiting love life, the martyrish victimhood, the cringingly juvenile “girl squad” phase, the high profile attention-seeking spats, and perhaps most notably, the relentless corporate juggernaut that is Taylor Swift Industries. Savvily rinsing thousands of teenage girls (or rather, parents of teenage girls) out of millions of dollars worth of merchandise.
But it was more than just her public image. God knows, the gays forgive people for having dodgy public personas. In fact sometimes, it makes us love them even more (Hi Madonna!) We’d have been able to forgive her saccharine superficiality, if it had been backed up by music we could identify with. But it wasn’t.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Taylor Swift’s career was undeniably born of hard work. From her, yes, but also from her parents. Her mother Andrea had spent much of her life as a marketing executive while her father, Scott Kingsley Swift, was a well-respected financial advisor. They were affluent, intelligent and business-minded, so when Taylor expressed her dreams of becoming a country singer, the family were more well-equipped than most to make that happen.
When Taylor was just 14, they moved to Nashville, the world capital city of country music. At a showcase at the Bluebird Cafe, her saccharine voice and twinkle-eyed girl nextdoor vibes caught the attention of Dreamworks Records executive Scott Borchetta.
She came into most people’s consciences with the success of her second studio album, Fearless. The lead single, Love Story, was a Disney princess melding of bubblegum pop and doe-eyed country. It shot into the charts in twenty countries, and was acclaimed by both fans and critics. For the first time, people stopped referring to her as a country artist, and began calling her a pop star.
But unlike the debuts of other world-conquering superstars like Britney, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Beyonce and even Katy Perry, it failed, for the most part, to gain the adulation of the gay community. Undoubtably some gays loved Love Story, but it never became a part of the queer cultural lexicon. Do you remember ever hearing Love Story out in a gay club?
In comparison, Madonna’s debut single, Everybody, released in 1982, became an instant hit on New York’s underground gay scene, particularly among the club kid and ball subcultures. This was at least partly down to Madonna herself. She reached out to the drag queens and scene DJs she knew, urging them to play it at their nights.
Yes, it’s slightly unfair comparing the two. Everybody was a purpose-built club banger, produced by someone who grew up on New York City’s gay scene. Love Story was a sentimental midtempo ballad, produced by someone who grew up on a christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania.
But maybe that’s part of the reason many of us have never warmed to her. Far from being a member or even an ally of the LGBTQI community, she’s always seemed outside of it. In fact, particularly in the early years, she was about as far from ‘queer’ as it’s possible to get. She gave mainstream society exactly what it wanted, never challenging norms or making people think. Which perhaps, depressingly, goes some way to explaining her success.
Something that IS unique and impressive about her, is that she’s always written most of her own music. As we all know this is a rarity in the industry, and deserves a modicum of respect. There’s no doubt that she’s inherently talented. That doesn’t mean we have to like her though! In the age of synths and CGI, talent isn’t necessarily an essential component to success (hey Rita Ora!)
Taylor came closer to getting gay recognition with Red. The singles from the album I Knew You Were Trouble, 22 and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, were sassy pop bangers, and WERE played in gay clubs. Well actually, they were only really played at G-A-Y which, as we all know, isn’t exactly the pinnacle of good taste.
People liked the Red album though, because for the first time, Taylor was exhibiting bolschiness, personality and sass. But many of us still weren’t won over. Unlike the fierce independence of Beyonce, the unapologetic promiscuity of Madonna or the appealing vulnerability of Britney, Taylor just came across as, frankly, a self-indulgent brat. The songs were still superifical and childish, and the videos were annoyingly calculated and frustratingly self-conscious.
And this brings us to another reason why, at that stage, she was still unwelcome in the gay icon canon. She hadn’t been through enough. Life had been too kind to her, and we didn’t like that. We like our icons chewed up and spat out by society, in the same way society and chewed up and spat out many of us.
1989 followed in 2014, and is regarded by many to be her first proper pop album. And actually, it was pretty good. Much more grown up and introspective than her previous work, it melded synthpop with disco, and flurries of electro, and took inspiration from artists like Annie Lennox and Madonna. Industry legend Max Martin (responsible for Britney’s Baby One More Time, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman, among others) has writer/producer credits on most of the tracks.
Interestingly, it also marked Taylor’s move to New York City – a physical move away from the twee, guitar-streaming South East, to the switched-on cultural melting pot of the East Coast, was very much reflected in the artistic shift in her music.
For the first time, most of us begrudgingly praised her. Blank Space was undeniably a great pop record, Shake It Off was undeniably and unavoidably catchy. She also addressed the gay community for the first time ever in opening track Welcome To New York. Mitchell Sunderland from Vice Magazine, wrote an article proclaiming that gay men had declared her “the queen of pop.” This proved a slightly misguided take, as many gay and queer men took to Twitter angrily refuting this assertion.
*Gay men declare Taylor Swift as the Queen of Pop* Gays: pic.twitter.com/VXPBmkHy0A
— Michael (@Opera_Singer_) July 4, 2017
NO WE DONT didn’t the same article come out a month ago claiming we declared Gaga queen? MADONNA is the only Queen. https://t.co/5dDxYS7fFI
— Blacksheep Barrett (@Dylan_Davis) August 30, 2017
“gay men declare taylor swift the queen of pop” pic.twitter.com/GgLMfltA7Y
— collin (@collinclouds) January 26, 2016
It’s probably safe to say that, at that point, none of us would have described her as a gay icon. None of us went on Facebook to confess our love for her, none of us clamoured to play her songs at house parties, none of us requested them over the DJ booth. Taylor was still someone who we enjoyed deriding, many of us still dubbing her basic, fake and annoying.
But on 24th August 2017, all that changed when she released Look What You Made Me Do, the first single from her upcoming sixth studio album, Reputation.
At first people were unsure what to make of it. Something that everyone agreed on was that it sounded a bit like Too Sexy For My Shirt by Right Said Fred. Then we found out Taylor had pre-emptively covered her back by giving them royalty rights to the track. For the first time ever, she was one step ahead of us.
Then, three days later, she released the video. And instantly everyone was living. Some of her most stringent queer critics and many well-known faces on the London gay scene did a total u-turn, taking to Twitter and social media to express their confused appreciation:
“Oh god I actually like Taylor Swift’s new song ffs…” – Munroe Bergdorf
“I…I really like Taylor Swift’s new single. I’m sorry. I understand if you want to unfriend me. #LookWhatSheMadeMeDo” – Virgin Xtravaganzah
“I have to admit that this is a banger and the video shits all over ‘Swish Swish'” – Keith St John
“Okay so this legitimately amazing.” – James Egan
“I’m sorry, but. FAB” – Jason Summerfield
“She may have mayo in her bag but I got mayo in my pants” – Scott Humphreys
“WELL DONE TAYLOR SWIFT 👏🏻 SHE 👏🏻 DID 👏🏻 THAT” – Smiley Vyrus
So what is it about Look What You Made Me Do that so vexingly appealed to us so much over everything else? Well, firstly, it’s queer. And before you roll your eyes, let me try to explain. It’s the first thing she’s ever released that’s atypical, confrontational and bizarre. It’s actually a very weird song. She defied conventions and expectations. And that, is a very queer thing to do. Taylor has done her first queer thing.
It’s also inspired by a queer artist. Particularly in the chorus, Look What You Made Me Do heavily draws on Peaches’ 2003 cult hit, Operate.
It’s a mystery why or how Taylor stumbled across this – Peaches is the complete opposite end of the pop spectrum to Taylor – until you know Operate features on the soundtrack to Mean Girls. One of Taylor’s favourite movies!
As well as sampling adventurous, cool punkpop like Peaches, it’s also reminiscent of the angsty pop we loved as gay teenagers. The bitchy lyrics and silly vocal bridges are like that slew of pop that emerged in the early 00s, from “artists” like Lindsay Lohan, Ashlee Simpson, and Ashley Tisdale.
And then there’s the video. Again, it harks back to the pop culture of the early to mid noughties; sparklingly glossy, with lavish, over-the-top CGI reminiscent of the videos for Britney’s Toxic and Gaga’s Poker Face.
The unsubtle and vicious references to other pop artists, particularly her arch rival Katy Perry, are delicious and shocking. She also savvily negotiates social media discourse, turning our own insults towards her back on us – in the video, a snake literally pours tea.
Taylor Swift is still certainly not a gay icon. And who knows whether anything she does is genuine. But in her latest incarnation, she’s proven she’s capable of being camp, self-referential, and a bit of a weirdo. And that’s something we can get behind.