Taylor Swift on Scrutiny, and Standing Up for Herself

IT’S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON in Tribeca, and I’m in Taylor Swift’s loft, inside a former printing house that she has restored and fortified into a sanctuary of brick, velvet, and mahogany. The space is warm and cozy and vaguely literary—later, when we pass through her bedroom en route to her garden, 10 percent of my brain will believe her wardrobe might open up to Narnia. Barefoot in a wine-colored floral top and matching flowy pants, Swift is typing passwords into a laptop to show me the video for “You Need to Calm Down,” eight days before she unleashes it on the world.

I have a sliver of an idea what to expect. A few weeks earlier, I spent a day at the video shoot, in a dusty field-slash-junkyard north of Los Angeles. Swift had made it a sort of Big Gay Candy Mountain trailer park, a Technicolor happy place. The cast and crew wore heart-shaped sunglasses—living, breathing lovey-eyes emoji—and a mailbox warned, LOVE LETTERS ONLY.

Swift and a stream of costars filmed six scenes over about a dozen hours. The singer-songwriter Hayley Kiyoko, known to her fans as “Lesbian Jesus,” shot arrows at a bull’s-eye. The YouTube comedian-chef Hannah Hart danced alongside Dexter Mayfield, the plus-size male model and self-described “big boy in heels.” The Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon served up icy red snow cones. Swift and her close friend Todrick Hall, of Kinky Boots and RuPaul’s Drag Race , sipped tea with the cast of Queer Eye .

The mood was joyous and laid-back. But by the end of the day, I wasn’t sure what the vignettes would add up to. There were shoot days and cameos I wouldn’t observe. For security reasons, the song was never played aloud. (The cast wore ear buds.) Even the hero shot, in which Swift and Hall sauntered arm in arm through the dreamscape at golden hour, was filmed in near-total silence.

For weeks afterward, I tried to sleuth out a theory. I started casually. There was a “5” on the bull’s-eye, so I did a quick search to figure out what that number might mean. Immediately I was in over my head.

Swift has a thing for symbols. I knew she had been embedding secret messages in liner notes and deploying metaphors as refrains since her self-titled debut in 2006—long before her megafame made her into a symbol of pop supremacy. But I hadn’t understood how coded and byzantine her body of work has become; I hadn’t learned, as Swift’s fans have, to see hidden meanings everywhere . For instance: In the 2017 video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” a headstone in a graveyard scene reads NILS SJOBERG, the pseudonym Swift used as her writing credit on Rihanna’s hit “This Is What You Came For,” a Swedish-sounding nod to that country’s pop wizards.

After an excessive amount of ad hoc scholarship—a friend joked that I could have learned Mandarin in the time I spent trying to unpack Swift’s oeuvre—I was no closer to a theory. Pop music has become so layered and meta, but the Taylor Swift Universe stands apart. Apprehending it is like grasping quantum physics.

My first indication of what her new album, Lover , would be about came just after midnight on June 1, the beginning of Pride Month, when Swift introduced a petition in support of the federal Equality Act. This legislation would amend the Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. (It has passed the House, but prospects in Mitch McConnell’s Senate are unclear.) Swift also posted a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, asking him to vote yes. The request, on her personal letterhead (born in 1989. LOVES CATS.), denounced President Trump for not supporting the Equality Act. “I personally reject the president’s stance,” Swift wrote.

Back in the kitchen, Swift hits play. “The first verse is about trolls and cancel culture,” she says. “The second verse is about homophobes and the people picketing outside our concerts. The third verse is about successful women being pitted against each other.”

The video is, for erudite Swifties, a rich text . I had followed enough clues to correctly guess some of the other cameos—Ellen DeGeneres, RuPaul, Katy Perry. I felt the satisfaction of a gamer who successfully levels up— achievement unlocked! The video’s final frame sends viewers to Swift’s change.org petition in support of the Equality Act, which has acquired more than 400,000 signatures—including those of Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Kirsten Gillibrand—or four times the number required to elicit an official response from the White House.

“MAYBE A YEAR OR TWO AGO, Todrick and I are in the car, and he asked me, What would you do if your son was gay ?”

We are upstairs in Swift’s secret garden, comfortably ensconced in a human-scale basket that is sort of shaped like a cocoon. Swift has brought up an ornate charcuterie board and is happily slathering triple-cream Brie onto sea-salt crackers. “The fact that he had to ask me . . . shocked me and made me realize that I had not made my position clear enough or loud enough,” she says. “If my son was gay, he’d be gay. I don’t understand the question.”

I have pressed Swift on this topic, and her answers have been direct, not performative or scripted. I do sense that she enjoys talking to me about as much as she’d enjoy a root canal—but she’s unfailingly polite, and when we turn to music, her face will light up and she will add little melodic phrases to her speech, clearly her preferred language.

“If he was thinking that, I can’t imagine what my fans in the LGBTQ community might be thinking,” she goes on. “It was kind of devastating to realize that I hadn’t been publicly clear about that.”

I understand why she was surprised; she has been sending pro-LGBTQ signals since at least 2011. Many have been subtle, but none insignificant—especially for a young country star coming out of Nashville.

In the video for her single “Mean” (from 2010’s Speak Now ), we see a boy in a school locker room wearing a lavender sweater and bow tie, surrounded by football players. In “Welcome to New York,” the first track on 1989 , she sings, “And you can want who you want. Boys and boys and girls and girls.” Two years later, she donated to a fund for the newly created Stonewall National Monument and presented Ruby Rose with a GLAAD Media Award. Every night of last year’s Reputation tour, she dedicated the song “Dress” to Loie Fuller, the openly gay pioneer of modern dance and theatrical lighting who captured the imagination of fin-de-siècle Paris.

Swift, who has been criticized for keeping her politics to herself, first took an explicit stance a month before the 2018 midterms. On Instagram, she endorsed Democrats for the Tennessee Legislature and called out the Republican running for Senate, Marsha Blackburn. “She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples,” Swift wrote. “She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values.”

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