Sometimes I wish I had gotten the gay college experience I thought I would have – “experimenting” with girls until I figured out that, hey, they weren’t experiments at all. Instead, I figured out I was bisexual while sitting in my childhood bedroom during the deep quarantine of the early pandemic. It would be great if I could paint my quarantine as a beautiful, introspective time of self-reflection and challenging my internalized compulsory heterosexuality. And it was, to some extent — but mostly, I have to admit, I really just had a lot of time on my hands. Time to think and ponder and take “Am I Gay?” tests. (At some point I realized that if you take enough “Am I Gay” tests on the internet, it probably means you are gay.)
Most people can’t pinpoint the exact date they realized their own Queerness. As my own realization came during the internet-steeped pandemic summer of 2020, I guess it makes sense that I can. Specifically, my Spotify history indicates a slew of sapphic love songs, all liked on July 6, 2020. This includes gay girl classics like girl in red, Kehlani, Clairo, dodie and King Princess. Looking back, I can’t remember having one big revelatory moment where I decided that yes, I was Queer — but clearly, there was a day when I proclaimed (to my Spotify, at least) that I was.
So why were these songs so important to my Queer awakening? Music is obviously crucial to a lot of personal moments and revelations, so it’s not like this was special. However, given the quarantine, they were the only way I could connect to a larger community. I couldn’t go to Necto or hang out at the Residential College. I couldn’t go to the Kerrytown Markets and buy nothing but still soak in the Queer energy of other 20-somethings with tote bags. I was in my bedroom, the same bedroom in which I had considered myself “straight” for so many years. I felt like an outsider in my own life, unsure how to reconcile my Queerness with the purple walls of my childhood sanctuary.
This was where I listened to Taylor Swift and One Direction — staples of my tweens, teenagedom and current playlists — but in that music, there was no space for Queerness. The heterosexuality was overwhelming. When I played back “Love Story,” I remembered believing that — although I never dreamed of a big white wedding — the person I ended up with would unequivocally be a man. I never thought to think otherwise. Other people were allowed to be gay, and I wanted so badly to be one of them; but I thought because I liked men, there was no other option. There was no room for bisexuality until I got to college. In high school, even in my progressive college town, even if you were bi — you were gay: There was no space for any flexibility in identity. And flexibility was what I needed when labels felt so suffocating.
But even though that long list of sequentially-liked Gay Girl™ songs felt affirming, it wasn’t what I had always listened to. It was a freeing and exhilarating experience to sing “girls” by girl in red with the windows down in my mom’s car, driving alongside New Jersey farmlands. I felt seen by the longing Queer angst of “Ain’t Together” by King Princess. These all felt like me. But One Direction’s (albeit, strangely Queer coded) “They Don’t Know About Us” felt like me too. So did “Hey Stephen (Taylor’s Version).” I wanted to feel unified, not like there were disparate parts of me separated into disparate Spotify playlists.
But then there were two things: former 1Der Harry Styles’s Fine Line and Taylor Swift’s re-records. First, Styles was morphing seamlessly from boybander to rainbow-adorned popstar. After One Direction disbanded in 2015 and with the release of his debut self-titled solo album in 2017, Styles began coming into his own as a star. With 2019’s Fine Line, he embraced a campy, colorful musical and visual aesthetic. His songs used overwhelmingly gender-neutral pronouns. He released “Lights Up” on National Coming Out Day, complete with a music video featuring a shirtless Styles being touched by people of all genders. “Treat People With Kindness” is an explosion of joy and love that feels unequivocally Queer. Styles himself refuses to label his own sexuality, in a freeing expression of flexible sexuality that felt freeing for me — he could feel comfortable in his own skin without putting a label on that feeling for anyone else.
Taylor Swift, too, was reclaiming her old self and transforming it into something both entirely new and sweetly nostalgic. She released sister albums folklore and evermore several months apart in 2020, leaning strongly into the indie/folk genre and steering away from her previous pure-pop persona. On folklore, Swift sings “betty” near the end of the album, a song about a girl that uses feminine pronouns — one that still makes me shed a little gay tear if I’m in the right mood. After her indie-girl pivot, she began re-recording her old albums in order to take back control of her masters from Scooter Braun. The re-records include tracks “From the Vault,” which are songs that didn’t make their original albums, and recreate album covers in a way that is tactfully reminiscent of the original covers without being direct copies. Each song includes a (somewhat cheeky, very cute) “(Taylor’s Version)” addendum after every track title on her re-recorded albums. Swift stays faithful to the soundtrack of my youth while still feeling true to who she is now, years later.
Both Styles and Swift claim their past proudly; Styles consistently sings “What Makes You Beautiful” on tour and Swift faithfully re-records every song she put out when she was 18. There was room in both of these childhood playlist staples to grow into someone with a more flexible and informed identity, and I could grow with them. If Harry Styles still sings his big One Direction hit on stage with a pride flag around his shoulders, why shouldn’t I enjoy a little “Midnight Memories”? If Taylor Swift didn’t think it was embarrassing to re-record “White Horse,” why shouldn’t I listen to it to get a little weepy? There was room for me, all of me, on my playlist of music, both past and present.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.