This was not an attempt to out a private figure. It wasn’t even an attempt to out a public figure.
Last week, the New York Times ran a nearly 5,000-word piece about Taylor Swift in its opinion section. The thoughtful essay, by editor Anna Marks, specifically considers the superstar’s creative output by asking the question: What if, as so many of the references in them suggest, some of Swift’s songs are about being in love with women?
Marks is only about the millionth person to suggest that Swift might be dropping clues that she is gay in her work, a theory known as “Gaylor”: Here’s a 2022 feature about the fan theory that ran in Jezebel; here’s an explainer from later that year in Vox that gets into it, which, oh, also references a Vox deep dive from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic on “the queering of Taylor Swift”; here’s a Rolling Stone piece pegged to the release of Midnights; here’s a piece that ran in Slate after the re-release of Red that explored similar theories. I could go on and on. You get it. The Times is not exactly breaking new ground here.
Marks’ piece does stand out in a few ways: It’s very long. It’s in the New York Times, the “paper of record,” and that apparently confers some vague special responsibility to every word it publishes. It does not report on what the fans are saying but instead identifies Marks herself as the fan with the corkboard and red string. If it’s even a conspiracy theory at all, the piece openly muses about its subject: “There are some queer people who would say that … she has already come out, at least to us.”
The opinion piece has “prompted a fair amount of outrage online,” writes Danielle Cohen in the Cut, “where even those of us who enjoy the occasional Gaylor theories found these assertions—and the fact that they were made in an esteemed national newspaper—a few steps too far.” Among the outraged are Swift’s “associates”: “Because of her massive success, in this moment there is a Taylor-shaped hole in people’s ethics,” a “person close to the situation” told a CNN reporter, noting that, were Swift a man, this article “wouldn’t have been allowed to be written.”
Leaving aside that this very same author wrote a piece about Harry Styles’ potential queerness, it’s true enough that Swift isn’t a man. But she’s a cultural phenomenon. Her songs were streamed over 26 billion times last year on Spotify alone. Her celebrity is everywhere you look right now. It has made her a billionaire, and boosted the economy to boot.
Swift is experiencing this level of fame because she is an incredibly gifted writer. She has also spent years weaving her work with clues about her personal life, and vice versa. Taylor Swift the person is not Taylor Swift the celebrity (who is, in turn, not quite Taylor Swift the protagonist, who shows up in her songs). But she has built her web of fame through plenty of self-reference to her own real lived life. She has complained about the external fixation on her love life, claiming that it reduces her songwriting to “a trick rather than a skill and a craft,” but she gets quite a lot of credit for her songwriting these days. And in any case, this piece is engaging quite specifically with that songwriting, not with her celebrity dalliances.
So, I’ve watched with some befuddlement the cascading reaction to this essay, even from apparently at least one person on Swift’s team. Many, many people have weighed in on the supposed inappropriateness of the Times’ actions here, and I would like to suggest everyone consider this entire situation with a little more chill, and a lot more grace.
Crucially, this was not the New York Times “outing” Taylor Swift. Marks, notably, does not launch an investigation into Swift the human person at the center of this, but Swift as she appears in her artistic output and public appearances. Sure, the piece might venture a little far into claiming we can know what Swift is really like, and what is in her heart, by examining this output at length and with such conviction. Marks even suggests that queer stars sort of “owe” those who are closeted a coming-out. This assertion is completely reasonable to disagree with. That’s one reason why it’s a good opinion piece! It’s true that the piece could leave people wondering if Swift is gay, or has had a relationship with a woman, or is even just … not totally straight. So what? Plenty of places have done this before, and it is certainly not a completely wild thing to speculate about, given the nature of Swift’s work (songs that are mostly about love, romance, and her life). If this suggestion is so horrifying to you, I have to ask: Why?
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This kind of close reading of songs and public performance of celebrity might feel less out of place happening in a group chat, on Reddit, or in another “lesser” publication, or if Marks had kept her subject at a journalistic distance, by sprinkling hedges like “some fans are saying” more liberally through her prose. Maybe your instinct is that the Times should be covering more important things than Gaylor theories (to which I say … that paper publishes a ton of things!). After Earth has turned into an uninhabitable climate hell and all living creatures have long since died, alien archaeologists may well dedicate entire academic wings to analyzing Swift’s work. She is an era-defining star. Her work should be analyzed, at length and through numerous frames, in an important outlet in the present day.
Swift the person is surely different and more complex and messier and more human than the glammed-up celebrity who shows up onstage. What she is selling—what all celebrities sell us—is a fantasy. And it’s worth thinking about a question Marks poses: “How might her industry, our culture and we, ourselves, change if we made space for Ms. Swift to burn that dollhouse to the ground?” The answer is not really about Swift at all. It’s about us.