History queer in Paris during the inter-war period, through Taylor Swifts’ “Paris”

I could talk about Taylor Swift for hours.

Maybe it is some sort of self-projection, but I feel like a mastermind at finding the queerness in her lyrics. Her writing is so full of emotion that it’s so easy to find yourself in her music, a universal sort of language of love. She may not be queer herself, but with her most recent album Midnights, her ability to depict yearning speaks to queer people around the world. 

One song of hers that can be seen through a queer lens is “Paris”, with astounding lyrics that are profoundly romantic, wistful - hopeful. Her ability to write about love allows everyone to feel it. When Taylor sings “I wanna transport you / To somewhere the culture's clever”, I assume she is talking about Paris itself (where the song is set). If this is so, the hefty queer history there is abundant! That in itself is what had my interest piqued. So, here we are. Paris’ queer scene during the inter-war period (so between World War I and II). 

Paris was known as a queer capital, following on the tail of Berlin. It became some sort of metropolis for queer people. Montmarte in particular, was known in the inter-war period for its thriving queer scene. Mostly due to the fact it was central to the world of starving artists, too. So, sure, Taylor could simply be singing about Paris because it's the city of love, but it was also the city of lesbian love. What’s incredible is that from any side, one can find themselves in her lyrics. If we run with a queer eye, we see the city of lesbian love, but it's also the city of all love.

So, this queer scene, most notably La Monacle, as well as regular apartments and lofts for parties and rendezvous. Hosting these parties for the marginalised in homes is common throughout history – they would frequently open their personal doors to keep culture thriving. This happens throughout time: Catholics in Ireland during the plantations, queer people's parties, entering queer spaces through side allies and tunnels, and so on.

Taylor’s lyrics of going somewhere where “the culture's clever”, to “confess my truth” in relation to Paris can be seen in many ways. From a queer perspective, we can see it as a confession in a safe space. Taylor may not be confessing queerness, but queer people are able to see their queerness in her lyrics, which is incredible. She can reach so many people, and even remind us of our history, too.

To go into the queer history in Paris, sapphism in particular was not a wholly hidden experience in Paris. Of course, wealth and security also ensured this, but one woman, Natalia Clifford Barney, did not hide her pursuits. She had myriad sapphic relationships with fellow aristocrats. Some may know the book The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall, in which Ms Barney herself is depicted! She was an enormous presence, not remotely hidden. Barney represents a vivid image of sapphism that was not cloaked. Although, we mustn’t forget that a large reason she could afford to be so open was her level of wealth.

Money is a large part of that freedom. That is non-negotiable. Underground queer bars were major, and a more hidden route to express your queerness in comparison to Barney’s tactics. Of course, queer bars exist in some form throughout history, but in Paris, they had and have such a thriving atmosphere that they are impossible to ignore. Especially when thinking with Taylor's lyrics in mind – drinking champagne, in Paris, with your lover(s), confessing feelings in swooping letters. It's such an applicable experience - loving people, wanting to love, be loved, profess it…everyone feels love in some way, platonic or romantic. Her song allows everyone to see that love. 

These bars, such as La Monacle, did struggle after the roaring 20s, and very little survived following the Nazi occupation. However, when it was alive, it was bursting. Many women in Montmartre could be seen in tuxedos, or squabbling together in cafes. The name La Monacle itself, to denote a lesbian bar, comes from the significance of the monocle to subtly state queerness from the person wearing it, alongside a white carnation. Similar to green carnation for queer men, or being a friend of Dorothy. 

History is enveloped in queerness, music becomes a language both private and public. This means when people listen to music, they apply themselves to it. They can feel their feelings through lyrics, and Taylor’s "Paris" allows many to revisit queer history, and feel seen by the song in their own way.