Taylor Swift is the kind of lyricist that can crack your heart open like a geode, to reveal the sparkling crystals of emotion you never knew were inside of you. There’s a scene in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, released way back in January 2020, where she’s in the studio with Jack Antonoff and writing “Getaway Car” for Reputation. The words “put the money in the bag and I stole the key, that was the last time you ever saw me” tumble out of Swift’s mouth so fast, I’m not convinced they were not divinely delivered into her brain. What I’m saying is: This is a person who knows how to write a song, who is intentional in her word choice; a person who Jake Gyllenhaal kept like a secret, while Swift kept him like an oath. “You can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ‘me’” is a line we probably all could have done without ever hearing, but even in the candy-coated schlock of a song that is Lover lead single “ME!,” Swift understood the assignment. She is a songwriter that knows exactly what she is doing when she puts pen to paper.
To doubt that, at this point, is simply to hold onto an era from years past where hating Taylor Swift was a personality trait. Say what you will about her—though not to me, I don’t want to hear it—but the woman knows how to write exactly what she means in her songs. Which is why I can’t stop thinking about several lines from her new album, a re-recording of 2012’s Red. One of the songs”from the vault”—new tracks, for those who don’t speak Swift—on Red (Taylor’s Version) is a catchy number called “The Very First Night.” It’s about a secret love from the past and longing to go back in time, and at first listen, it’s a song that’s very fun to dance around to in your living room while jumping up and down as quietly as you can, because it’s 12:45 a.m. and you have neighbors.
The pre-chorus goes like this: “They don’t know about the night in the hotel/ They weren’t ridin’ in the car when we both fell/ Didn’t read the note on the Polaroid picture/ They don’t know how much I miss you.” The way the lyrics scan, my brain immediately wanted them to be a simple AABB rhyme scheme. Even without knowing the words to the song, I wanted that final word to rhyme with “picture.” What pronoun rhymes with “picture” you might ask? “Her.”
Didn’t read the note on the Polaroid pictures. They don’t know how much I miss her. Listening to it with that in mind feels like a fakeout, our ears led right up to an expected convention, only to have it ripped away at the last second. Swift does it a second time later in the song, rhyming “whispered” with “you.”
If you know anything about Swiftdom, it may not surprise you that there are two camps that are having it out over this particular song currently. These are the Hetlors (“het” as in heterosexual), who are fans that affirm Taylor Swift’s straightness and frown upon queer interpretations of her lyrics, and the Gaylors, who are, well, the opposite. (That’s “gay” as in … duh.) The first group is insistent in its belief that these lyrics don’t rhyme because that’s exactly how Taylor wanted them to be; some even think the song might specifically be about Harry Styles. The second group also agrees that the words don’t rhyme, but it’s because Taylor is hiding the song’s true message. (Swift self-identifies as straight, but for years rumors, fueled by clues seemingly left by Swift herself, have swirled about her sexuality.) On TikTok, queer fans have already edited the track to have what they deem the correct word in the lyrics, while questioning its current state.
What Swift is doing is employing a classic songwriting trope, sometimes called a teasing rhyme, which is a name that feels apt for what’s happening here. In Frozen, for example—another work that’s constantly pored over for its queer undertones—there’s a song sung by a talking snowman obsessed with summer and who has no idea he’ll melt in above freezing temperatures. “Winter’s a good time to stay in and cuddle,” he sings. “But put me in summer and I’ll be a … happy snowman.” “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, as pointed out on TikTok, offers a less G-rated version of a tease: “Now they’re going to bed and my stomach is sick/ And it’s all in my head, but she’s touching his … chest.” It’s a neat little trick to mess with a listener’s head to make us pay attention. We all know these words were supposed to be “puddle” and “dick;” doing it this way creates a little inside joke between artist and fan.
Swift knows the words“picture” and “you” don’t rhyme. She knows that you could fudge it and make them “pict-cha” and “ya,” to scan a little more cleanly. But she chose not to do that—which is, in itself, saying something. Parts of the fandom think it’s unfair to Swift to speculate about her sexuality, but Swift is an artist known for baking in codes and Easter eggs into her word and her brand. She’s known for everything from capitalizing certain letters in her liner notes spelling out secret messages, to wearing particular outfits to send signals about album releases. (A purple velvet suit worn at the premiere of her short film for “All Too Well [Taylor’s Version] [10 Minute Version]” has certain Swifties thinking the next album she’ll re-release will be Speak Now, because the original album art for that one was purple, while the 1989 model car used in the film itself has other fans thinking 1989 will be next up.)
During the Lover era, Swift debuted her single “ME!” on Good Morning America, following an interview with the one and only gay icon Robin Roberts. In the video for “You Need to Calm Down,” the album’s next single, Swift’s hair is dyed the colors of the bisexual flag, and the cast is chockfull of various queer celebs. (These were also the same colors of her short manicured fingernails, seen in a teaser for Lover she posted to Instagram.) As an artist who does, by her own admission, nothing unintentionally, it’s hard not to, as a queer fan, want to read those things as clues, too.
Maybe they are. In the deepest, gayest chamber of my heart … I want those clues to be real. But we just don’t know who or what Taylor truly is deep down, no matter the signs we think we see. But what we do know is that Taylor Swift wrote the lyrics to “The Very First Night” with lyrics that could be easily interpreted as teasing. I get a kick thinking about her sitting down and writing a verse she knew would drive a not-insignificant portion of her fanbase absolutely mad over its implications. (Yes, I know these “From the Vault” songs were ostensibly written pre-2012, but I am willing to believe they got a little zhuzh in 2021.) How nice to have a little joke just between me, Taylor, and a million of her other biggest fans. Even if the lyrics to this song left queer fans in dismay, one can’t deny Taylor Swift is … talented.