Archive | 1:49 AM

Kelsea Ballerini talks to Taylor Swift, Figurative Homecoming Queen, About Coming Out

23 Jan

I know this song is probably about Kelsea, herself. But I found a lot of compelling call-backs to Taylor’s lyrics and life. I think lyrics can have a surface-level meaning, and a deeper, more hidden secondary interpretation. Given Kelsea’s lyrics and videos I also think Kelsea and Taylor were together in some capacity, so Kelsea might have written this song with Taylor in mind.

Hey homecoming queen

Before I get into my research I will tell a story about my high school’s homecoming queen:

My Senior year the school voted Stephanie (name changed to the most common female name in my school for privacy) as our Homecoming Queen. Stephanie had been on cheerleading all 4 years of high school, but she wasn’t the “typical” popular girl represented in movies. I hadn’t thought of her as the most popular girl in school either, though she hung out in the most popular group of girls in my high school. As a matter of fact when her and her sister moved to our small, rural town in seventh grade, everyone made fun of Stephanie (her sister was a grade below so I’m not sure what her experience had been). Stephanie was in my peripheral friend group in middle school and sat with us in English class. She seemed well-intentioned and considerate, but I never knew her very well, because she also seemed uncomfortable and shy. My small class had known each other since kindergarten so anyone new was an anomaly and outsider just because they had already missed so much. I’m sure she felt that. Also, the boys were dicks.

In high school everything changed for her. Stephanie was kind and unproblematic, so she was easy to like. We carpooled to cheerleading practice all summer, and our birthdays are only two days apart so we had that in common. She came to my sixteenth birthday party and was nice to everyone, but we were never the type of friends that told each other secrets or anything like that. I don’t think she got very close with too many people…

Though she was thin, she preferred to base stunts, showing her strength by lifting other girls high in the air. She was determined and practiced hard–she was not in cheerleading just to look cute or gain popularity-though she did both of those things too. Stephanie (and her sister) were the type of pretty that stood out in our year books. They were beautiful and probably could have even modeled if they had wanted to (and had the financial backing to do so). But Stephanie was not just gorgeous, at practice Stephanie was always strong and tough, and I think she had to be resilient outside of practice too. Stephanie’s parents were divorced but lived together for financial reasons. Once her dad came to cheerleading practice drunk and the vice principal had to tell him to leave. The sisters were devastated and embarrassed, but we never heard details or saw anything like that again. You would never know there were family issues or poverty or anything aside from that one small peek into their world. The sisters excelled at academics and participated in cheer, and were well-liked and never let on anything was wrong. Stephanie dated the star kicker on the football team long-term, and they both just seemed nice. I think she leaned on him for support and they were together a lot. Her mom asked him to buy her cigarettes because he was a bit older.

When Stephanie was crowned homecoming queen I was happy for her. I was glad a genuinely kindhearted person won the coveted title. And just to end this little story, based off of Facebook, I think her and her sister both have happy lives. Stephanie joined the Coast Guard (I told you she was gritty and fit!) for a bit and is now married and has at least one child. Her sister got married and looked very happy and may have children as well (IDK I deleted sketchy Facebook so now I don’t know anything about anybody anymore). To sum up, homecoming queens are pretty and popular, but I think they also have to be smart, involved in school, and personable. And they have problems just like the rest of us.

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Taylor Swift was never a homecoming queen:

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Taylor never got to experience many high school milestones because she was working on her career. Yet, Taylor’s career epitomizes what it is to be the homecoming queen. She is beautiful and popular. Also, Taylor’s celebrity is crafted on the every-girl image. She portrays herself as one of us, and has actually reached out to fans on a “personal” level. Taylor is smart and a role model. She told us in several songs about having the crown during her career.

Adjacent but related:

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Part of me feels sorry that Taylor had to miss milestones that mark an (American) teenager’s life. The other part remembers her career has been so exciting, acclimatory, and lucrative that it’s difficult to quite see her as a tragic figure.

Anyway, I can see why Kelsea, an underclassman to Taylor in age and career, might see Taylor as emblematic of a homecoming queen.

Why do you lie/When somebody’s mean?

Common word or intentional call-back to Taylor’s song, Mean?

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We know Taylor is afraid of criticism, and is fretful about her public image:

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Taylor and Kelsea are 4 years apart in age.

For example in 2003, this legislation was passed:

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Since Taylor was 14 years old, a teenager, this might have made an impact on her views of sexuality [socially unacceptable to be anything other than straight]. But Kelsea would have been in elementary school so this might not have even been on her radar. During Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out, and the backlash against her, Taylor would have been around 8 and Kelsea just a tot. Fred Phelps, of “God hates fags” died in 2014 when Taylor was around 24 years old and Kelsea was just getting signed as an artist. Kelsea wasn’t exposed to a lot of things Taylor saw and experienced just that short time earlier, which could explain the different mentalities about queerness. Kelsea sees coming out as something authentic and worth doing, while Taylor sees it as apocalyptic.

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Kelsea asks Taylor why do you lie when somebody’s mean, and I think she’s talking about this exact situation. Why do you closet when someone questions your sexuality?

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Where do you hide?

Taylor has been indoctrinated by parents, career authorities, and society to hide her sexuality. Tolerate It talks about feeling othered.

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This man (her father? The studio execs?) covered up Taylor’s rough edges [barbed wire]. They hid the “bad” [queer] parts of her to make her more acceptable for public consumption.

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I wonder if the clues she didn’t see might be Taylor thinking about the gaslighting in Tolerate it— ‘it’s all in your head.’ Taylor shows she has internalized these men’s attitudes somewhat. She wonders if maybe she is interested in boys and just didn’t realize it or notice the signs. She says the narrative would be prettier if there was an invisible string tying her to a fated male soulmate.

Cuttin’ me open could be a cold assessment of Taylor’s attributes and flaws. The mistakes are PR blunders, the demons are her desires to touch women. After these men in authority scrutinize her they “heal” her. But the result isn’t good or great, it’s just fine. The corrections they made to Taylor’s image were OK, fair, tolerable to Taylor the individual…

The men in authority assessed her, saw queerness and deemed it undesirable, and “corrected” it by pushing her into relationships with men [Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve and You’re on Your own now Kid?]. These beards covered up Taylor’s sexuality, but with sharp barbed wire, and bulky chains. It’s not comfortable for her as an individual to wear. And this respectable, passable narrative of being in relationships with guys, tied her to (Joe?)

Do people assume/You’re always alright?/Been so good at smiling/Most of your life/Look damn good in the dress/Zipping up the mess/Dancing with your best foot forward

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Taylor hides her pain behind a smile and pretty dress. Her audience does not notice there is deception. The veneer wears on Taylor and she fakes it til she makes it until she can no longer distinguish what is forced upon her and what is her choice. The lines between what her team portrays about her as a brand, and who Taylor the person are get blurry. She’s faked it so long, that she’s made it, and it’s (her brand image) true(?).

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This is another statement showing Taylor hides her authenticity to give the people what they want. They don’t notice something is amiss.

Does it get hard/To have to play the part?/Nobody’s feeling sorry for ya

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Taylor tells her audience it’s a balancing act that she’s constantly attending to, and it’s not her natural state. But she would do anything, try everything, to keep her fans looking at her.

But what if I told you the world wouldn’t end/If you started showing what’s under your skin/What if you let ’em all in on the lie?/Even the homecoming queen cries

To Kelsea coming out doesn’t seem like a catastrophe. She suggests sharing inner struggles to show everybody has issues. But as Exile says, Taylor is reluctant to come out of the closet (directly):

Hey homecoming queen/How’s things at home?/Still walking on eggshells

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I think this is a technique to talk about her own childhood house, her own father, and her own life with plausible deniability. Taylor can distance herself from these statements of an angry father causing her to cry and hide her sexuality by portraying that it’s a friend’s life. Taylor learns at an early age that her dad finds her sexuality problematic so she has to keep that portion of herself hidden.

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This person is someone older, who causes Taylor to regress back to a child. The person is/was gone a lot, and she waits for them to return. She says the person is wise, and she seems to trust their take on things. Tolerate it tells us that Taylor’s dad thinks her queerness is a phase or that she’s mistaken. She says she accepts him despite his indiscretions (cheating on her mom?) yet he just tolerates her love.

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Because Taylor has been coerced to hide her sexuality from a young age she leads a lonely adult life. Her Dad and the authority figures from the studio taught her their love for her is not unconditional (contrasted to her mom in Sweet Nothing). Their love and acceptance hinges on her success and profitability. They think this sapphic stuff is all in her head and she’s got it wrong so if they just throw her together with a guy so her career (and their money) won’t get blown up. Taylor knows her sexuality is innate, but has to walk on eggshells to appease these men. So she closets and beards to assuage them, until she fakes it til she makes it and it’s true. Now she closets and beards because she’s afraid not to.

When that curtain’s closed

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Taylor has been indoctrinated that she can only love in private. When drama ramps up and Taylor feels comforted by another woman, she has to go inside and close the windows to love out of sight.

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Again, Taylor’s parents and the studio executives taught her to keep “undesirable” things private, behind closed doors. Even though Taylor is heartbroken and hurting she is still inside with boarded up windows getting drunk alone. She has to depend on her lover to come back to her, instead of chasing the lover outside where others could see. Taylor has to have a lover that agrees to remain invisible.

Did your daddy teach you/How to act tough?

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Taylor learned two things from this episode: Her father could be a ruthless defender of her career and money. And if you cross her father or are no longer useful to him, he’ll wrap you in chains and throw you away.

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Even as a teen, Taylor knows to hide her sadness and weak emotions. She models her conflict resolution after her dad’s example– aggression.

Or more like your mama?/Sweep it under the rug

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Taylor’s mom gave her a really good day. But her solution to Taylor being bullied was taking her shopping until she forgot their names. Andrea sweeps the central issue under the rug and distracts Taylor from her problems, instead of facing them head on.

Look damn good in the dress/Zipping up the mess/Dancing with your best foot forward

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Taylor combined the coping strategies of both her parents: Stuff down sad emotions and get revenge (her dad’s influence) and look pretty and go dancing to distract yourself (her mom’s way).

Did you want the crown/Or does it weigh you down

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When Taylor was young, she was excited to finally realize her dreams. She got off the sidelines and went to center stage, showing off her crown to the whole town.

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During Reputation era, Taylor realized how difficult the crown was to hold on to. One mistake and it was taken away. She learned people are fickle and it’s difficult to have staying power in the cut-throat entertainment industry.

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Taylor also figured out the crown was only given to one person, and that person needed to represent perfection. And she talks about the homophobes with their signs, knowing that her sexuality, if revealed, could get her crown taken away.

Nobody’s feeling sorry for ya

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The media used You’re not Sorry against Taylor. They turned a break-up song into a woman always playing victim narrative. [Sidenote- I am only talking about song lyrics here, not any other quotes or actions in Taylor’s wider life]. If a man wrote this would it be weaponized against him?

The big names on this list tell us that men are not held to the same lyrical standards. Men can play the victim to cunning, or gold-digging women, be openly misogynistic, and it’s written off. It’s just one song. Boys will be boys. But women are scrutinized and judged more.

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What if I told you the world wouldn’t end/If you started showing what’s under your skin?/What if you let ’em all in on the lie?/Even the homecoming queen cries

Kelsea tries to convey that times have changed, and coming out is no longer career ending. But Taylor knows love is conditional. She has been programmed to hide anything negative in order to preserve her fame.

The Archer substantiates that Taylor has struggled with her sexuality long-term, and she closets to cope.  “The room is on fire, invisible smoke” is talking about that struggle.  The fire is the worst outcome–It’s getting burned by coming out or worse, being outed.

The kiss in a crowded room was an important, life-changing event.  But it’s not the only event where Taylor was nearly or partially outed (a fire) and she panicked and shut it down to salvage her image and career.  Taylor spirals into the anxious thought that her sexuality will accelerate her losing everyone and everything

Yeah, what if I told you the sky wouldn’t fall?/If you lost your composure, said to hell with it all

Kelsea thinks Taylor’s fears are a bit dramatic. She articulates the ridiculousness of the notion that the world would fall apart if Taylor was truthful in public. Kelsea believes it would be relatable for Taylor to show her more authentic self. But Taylor isn’t just embellishing her fears to convey a more dramatic story. She actually has deep-rooted panic about what would happen if she was publicly sapphic.

Not everything pretty sparkles and shines

It’s a call back to Our Song, one of Taylor’s first songs. Kelsea is also pointing out their different perspectives. Kelsea says some pretty things aren’t sparkly, shiny, and flawless. There is beauty in the imperfection. Taylor was reared on idealized love fairytales and purity. She knows to hide undesirable things away.

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And even the homecoming queen cries/Oh yeah/Even the homecoming queen cries/Hey homecoming queen/Why do you lie?

Taylor lies and then cries because she has internalized the lessons from her parents and the (country) music industry. Renegade broaches the subject of Taylor’s internal homophobia. She fires off arrows and missiles because she hates her inherent queerness. Taylor’s attitudes damage herself and those in close proximity to her. The lover that sings this song says Taylor has come a long way, but gets weak and reverts to the negative thinking and closeting whenever she faces a perceived threat. The lover questions if Taylor’s extreme reluctance to open the blinds (come out) is due to anxiety or if she just doesn’t actually want a life with this person? Something is stopping Taylor from giving her lover the family she craves, and Taylor’s baggage is negatively impacting the lover’s mindset too. This girlfriend has no place carved out in Taylor’s life, but persists despite the invisibility. She begs Taylor to get her shit together so she can love her. But Taylor only squeezes the lover’s hand when the lover is about to leave.

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When somebody’s mean/Where do you hide?

And to finish off the song I give you the most obvious tie-in from Kelsea’s “where do you hide” choice of wording to I Know Places, a song about the panic of being outed. Taylor’s instinct is not to come out, but to take her girlfriend and hide from curious onlookers and intrusive questions.

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