Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights,’ ranked by queer subtext

“Midnights” may not be explicitly queer, but trust that the gays will mine our own meanings

The Taylor Swift Queer Subtext Industrial Complex churned to life once again at 12 a.m. on Oct. 21 when Swift released her 10th studio album, Midnights (and then kicked up a notch at 3 a.m., when seven more songs dropped, because the devil works hard, but Taylor works at a fever pitch). 

Some listeners noted how the album unites the most melancholy moments of Lover and 1989 with the lyric sensibilities of Reputation. Others wondered how it fit into rumours of a secret, unreleased album. Still more asked: okay, but is it gay? 

Speculating about Swift’s sexuality has long been the hobby of a steadfast faction of her fan base. Some feel she owes it to her fans to be honest about her identity, especially if she’s going to continue leaning into—and profiting off of—those whose fierce belief in her queerness fans the flames of their fandom. Others point out how unfair and dangerous it is to force anyone out of the closet—even someone who lives in a tower made of money and summers in a different tower, also made of money, accessible only via private jet. Both groups should keep in mind the delightful breadth and depth of explicitly queer music available, by explicitly queer artists ranging from Lil Nas X, to Ethel Cain, to Kehlani, to Jake Wesley Rogers and so on to blissful infinity and beyond. 

Then there are those gremlins among us who honestly couldn’t care less about her actual identity, but are pleased to gleefully sift through every line of her lyrics for queer subtext. Swift’s music feels like it’s been with me over the entire arc of my life, from fearing my own queerness to finding joy through it—from the days of performative disdain, to the era of looping folklore and evermore ad nauseam. Listening to new Taylor Swift songs is like digging up an album of photos I’d forgotten about or maybe never really looked at before, and searching the pages for familiar faces. You might say tracing their contours in search of queerness has always been reflexive. 

Then again, you might say I am uncritically offering the engagement she craves: It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. Either way, I’ve ranked the 20 songs of Midnights (3 a.m. edition) from least-to-most queer, and highlighted some standout lines to help me make my case.

20. Lavender Haze

“I just wanna stay in a lavender haze”

When Swift began announcing the names of Midnights’ tracks, just this title alone was enough to cause a tizzy. Lavender is, obviously, one of the most Sapphic colours. But historical precedent tells us that using it to describe a straight relationship means the relationship isn’t straight at all. And yet, the “lavender haze” of this track is clearly being celebrated, and Swift has reiterated it’s meant to be a reference to a 1950s term for the honeymoon phase. Unless Swift is trying to tell us that she and boyfriend Joe Alwyn are in fact beards, this cultural mistranslation makes her look more unaware of queer history than queer herself. While many other Midnights tracks read as queer to a certain ear, this is the only one Swift has has countered queer rumours about, earning it the last slot on the list.

 

19. The Great War

“There’s no morning glory, it was war/ it wasn’t fair”

This song describes a relationship that’s been through the wringer, something a lot of people can relate to. But while many of us have had a hard-won love, this song seems to join a musical tradition of insisting that love is just kind of inherently painful—an idea known for trapping women in compulsory heterosexuality. Leave it to straight people to compare romance to war. Seriously, leave it to them. 

18. Labyrinth

“It only feels this raw right now/ Lost in the labyrinth of my mind”

This ethereal coping song sets one of my favourite “it gets better”-type mantras to a melody. Not particularly queer, but certainly worth listening to when you’re in need of comfort.

17. Karma

“Ask me what I learned from all those years/ Ask me what I earned from all those tears”

Now we’re getting into more colourful territory. Queer people often have more enemies per capita than the general population, due to the criminalization of our very existences—particularly those of Black and brown trans and gender nonconforming LGBTQ2S+ people—and who among us hasn’t been satisfied to see our enemies get their comeuppance? 

16. Dear Reader

“Desert all your past lives/ And if you don’t recognize yourself/ That means you did it right”

What do Taylor Swift and the gays have in common? Repeated self-reinvention and a penchant for editorializing about one’s own life are both at the centre of our Venn diagram, giving this song solid non-cishet undertones.

15. Paris

“I wanna transport you/ To somewhere the culture’s clever”

Like several other (gayer) songs on this record, this is a charming little love tune about an adoration so infectious it blocks out the rest of the world. This line about wishing to travel to another place with different cultural norms is what gives it its queer kick. 

14. High Infidelity

“Storm coming, good husband/ bad omen/ Dragged my feet right down the aisle”

This song is for anyone who’s ever found themselves bound to the wrong person; trapped in the wrong life. This song references a “picket fence [as] sharp as knives,” and the extramarital affair the narrator undertook to escape it, and if you ask me, it’s all sounding very prestige Sapphic miniseries.

13. Mastermind

“No one wanted to play with me as a little kid/ So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since/ To make them love me and make it seem effortless”

Many queer people share the childhood experience of other kids being total dicks to them (after all, what is schoolyard bullying but precocious reinforcement of societal norms?). As a result, many of us become chameleons, thinking five steps ahead and shifting shape to whatever might please others so we can feel safe and loved. Some might call it Machiavellian, but I’d say it’s also kind of impressive—and also that you deserve to live without camouflage.

12. Sweet Nothing

“You’re in the kitchen hummin’/ All that you ever wanted from me/ was sweet nothin’”

I love a pebble tiny as a firefly as much as the next gay whose pockets are weighed down with rocks after every walk. But beyond that, this mellow song portrays a relationship as a refuge, something many queer people who consistently face cruelty—ranging from microaggressions to the dismantling of basic rights—can relate to.

11. Glitch

“A brief interruption, a slight malfunction/ I’d go back to wanting/ dudes who give nothing”

This one’s for anyone who has ever tried to convince themselves that first queer experience that turned the world upside down was “just a one-time thing.” You know who you are.

10. Bejeweled

“Best believe I’m still bejeweled/ When I walk in the room/ I can still make the whole place shimmer”

To my ears this song is a cheeky reminder to young queers to respect our elders—we may have our shiny “new” ideas born of the internet age, but those who fought long and hard to get us where we are continue to dazzle and should always command our respect.

9. Vigilante Shit

“I don’t dress for women/ I don’t dress for men/ Lately, I’ve been dressin’/ for revenge”

Putting aside the lyrical heavy-handedness, this track is an aromantic/asexual-tinted anthem for those eschewing sex and relationships in favour of what really matters: obliterating your enemies. 

8. Anti-Hero

“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me”

Fellas, is it gay to feel like you’re the worst and marinate in your glittery misery about it? Something about this splashy track’s chaos and self-indulgence feels aligned with the queer community’s messier impulses. Put kindly, this level of introspection says, “Oh, I’ve been to therapy,” and nobody loves therapy like the gays. 

7. Bigger Than the Whole Sky

“I’m never gonna meet/ What could’ve been, would’ve been/ What should’ve been you”

This song aches with the grief of missing someone unjustly gone before their time, and for me, that’s what makes it queer. Far too many of us have had the experience of losing a beloved friend to the violence and pain that come when you live in a world that steadfastly refuses to allow you safety and peace. 

6. Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve

“Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first”

Yes, this song is (almost definitely) about Swift’s relationship with serial bad boyfriend John Mayer. But from references to lost faith, to the grieving for a time of happiness and innocence torn away, this song may also remind queer listeners of cruel attempts to change or erase their identities. It’s an ode to who the narrator might have been without this trauma; something many will find all too relatable.

5. You’re On Your Own, Kid

“You’re on your own, kid/ Yeah, you can face this”

The painful decision to leave an outgrown home is a recurring theme on this album, and it’s clearest in this bittersweet but ultimately uplifting track. Maybe there are things you once loved, or still love, about where you come from—but after a certain point, it hurts more to stay than to go. “You’re On Your Own, Kid” wants you to know that you’re ready. 

4. Midnight Rain

“He wanted a bride, I was making my own name”

If “You’re On Your Own, Kid” is a reflection on the entire aftermath of leaving your hometown (whether parting is triumphant, bittersweet or both), “Midnight Rain” zooms in on the complicated feelings for the platonically loving, safe, utterly unsatisfying heterosexual relationship you left behind.

3. Question…?

“It was one drink after another/ Fuckin’ politics and gender roles”

Okay, reader, bear with me. I am positive this song is about a “straight” couple realizing they’re both bisexual. Despite their mutual respect and affection, they find themselves unable to reconcile their full selves through the tangle of heterosexual gender norms and relationship expectations they’ve steeped in for so long. This song details alternate-universe Taylor swirling with questions about the women she’s dating, wishing she could talk to the person she used to go to about everything, but realizing you can’t ask the guy whose heart you broke for girl advice. Yes, I am reading a lot into this. No, I am not taking feedback.

2. Snow on the Beach (ft. Lana Del Rey)

“You wanting me tonight feels impossible/ but it’s comin’ down/ No sound, it’s all around”

This song rings of early days of self-discovery, when you’re convinced you must be the only person in the world with these feelings, so unfamiliar it’s like you’re walking through an alien landscape—only to discover that wonderfully, improbably, there’s someone there alongside you in this awe-striking new world. 

1. Maroon

“‘How’d we end up on the floor anyway?’ you say/ ‘Your roommate’s cheap-ass screw-top rosé, that’s how’/ I see you every day now”

Incense? Carnations? Rosé? Sitting on the floor?? Suddenly spending all your time with somebody you just met??? Folks, “Maroon” is a whirlwind tale of a magnetic friendship that quickly becomes something more and just as quickly spoils when the sun rises—making it this year’s angsty lesbian U-Haul anthem, and officially the queerest song on Midnights.

Agree? Disagree? Have an as-yet-unheard #Gaylor conspiracy theory? Either way, one of the best parts of speculating about the queerness of Swift’s music is the opportunity it provides for the silliest kind of community.

Lindsay Lee Wallace (she/her) is an English-speaking freelance writer and overthinker focused on culture, digital spaces, and health care inequity. Her work can also be found in TIMESlateSELF, and Bitch. She is based in New York City.

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