The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the search for clues in Taylor Swift’s music became all-consuming

As ‘Midnights’ nears release, her fans go down all the rabbit holes and work themselves into a frenzy

(Amy Sussman/Getty; Screenshots from Taylor Swift's Instagram, Twitter and TikTok accounts; iStock; Emily Sabens/Washington Post illustration)
11 min

Two years ago, TikTok creator Steven Sullivan had it all figured out. Something was going to happen with Taylor Swift on Dec. 4, 2020. Something big.

It made so much sense: Spotify had released a Swift-themed video that showed a pair of dice that added up to 13, which everyone knows is the singer’s lucky number. Swift responded to the video by tweeting that it was “cute cute CUTE,” similar phrasing to her 2012 song “Stay Stay Stay.” Not to mention that Paul McCartney, who had recently appeared with Swift for a Rolling Stone feature, mysteriously tweeted dice emoji. Oh, and Dec. 4 was National Dice Day, a thing that exists. What more evidence could you need that Swift was going to announce a major new project?

Sullivan posted a video of this theory on TikTok, eventually racking up about 250,000 views. On Dec. 4, the clock struck midnight and … nothing. Commenters encouraged him to stay up until 12 a.m. in the Central and Pacific time zones. Still, nothing. Sullivan — appearing half joking and half truly despondent — filmed another video, where he slammed his face into a piano. “I’m so sorry,” he told his followers, who consoled him. “It was a good theory,” one person wrote, adding a heart.

To those unfamiliar with the Taylor Swift world, this may seem like alarming and even troubling behavior. But for the pop megastar’s enormous and fiercely loyal fan base, such theorizing is both beloved pastime and standard daily activity. On her path to becoming one of the most powerful stars on the planet, Swift has taken great joy in building her own mythology as she embeds clues, hints and puzzles into her music, social media posts and even seemingly offhand comments during interviews. Fans have been conditioned to think that everything could have a hidden meaning, whether she’s revealing a meaningful fact about her life or announcing the date of a tour, and they can work themselves into a frenzy trying to figure it out.

Superstar Taylor Swift's music is a trove of hidden meanings tied to her love of numeric symbolism - and her tenth album, "Midnights," is no different. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Now, the tradition of trying to decode deeper meaning into what Swift does or says has reached stratospheric heights as she prepares to release her 10th studio album, “Midnights,” on Oct. 21. She has steadily dropped clues about the record on social media — revealing the track list one by one in individual TikTok videos where she plucks ping-pong balls out of a hopper like she’s running a bingo game — and the internet is ablaze with theories about what awaits within “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life,” as Swift has described it.

While even the most devoted Swift fans recognize this is obviously an excellent marketing strategy, they say it goes beyond other stars who have similarly passionate fan bases and leave cryptic clues on Instagram. This feels personal.

“She’s aware of the game, so if we play the game, it feels like we’re all doing something together,” Sullivan said in an interview. “From the beginning, that wall that used to exist between fans and artists — Taylor was slowly taking that wall down by sharing so much of her life. She’s definitely pulled back on that recently for good reason, but with how much sharing she did early in her career, she created a unique connection with her fan base.”

Since the start of her career in Nashville as a teenager around 2006, Swift has maintained an unusually close bond with her fans, posting on MySpace and later chatting with them on social media and leaving comments on their Instagram posts. Her seven-time platinum debut album set the stage for what was to come, featuring randomly placed capital letters within the lyrics in the CD booklet that spelled secret messages revealing hidden meanings of the songs. (The liner-notes hype only got more intense as the subjects of her songs appeared to be fellow celebrities.)

When asked about the origin of the CD booklet game, the earliest sign of the much more intricate puzzles that followed, Swift sent The Washington Post the following statement:

“I remember saving up to buy a CD when I was a kid, tearing it open, and laying on the floor reading every word of the lyric booklet. Reading lyrics and seeing which photos defined the album were two of my favorite parts of experiencing a record release,” Swift wrote. “I felt like some artists really leaned into their album packaging in a creative way. The Chicks ‘Fly’ album was my favorite because their photos depicted all the meanings of the word ‘fly’ in very theatrical ways.”

“When I was 15 and putting together my first album, I wanted to recreate the experience I used to have for my fans in a reimagined approach. I decided to encode the lyrics with hidden messages using capital letters,” she added. “That’s how it started, and my fans and I have since descended into color coding, numerology, word searches, elaborate hints, and Easter eggs. It’s really about turning new music into an event for my fans and trying to entertain them in playful, mischievous, clever ways.”

“As long as they still find it fun and exciting,” Swift concluded, “I’ll keep doing it.”

Swift’s love of hidden messages is now so well known that it seeps into the broader culture. Last month, the NFL announced that it was switching Super Bowl halftime show sponsors from Pepsi to Apple Music. Immediately, rumors swirled that Swift would be the headliner; not just because she no longer had a soft drink conflict as a Coca-Cola ambassador, but due to both the name of her upcoming album — and the time of day of the NFL’s news release.

“The league curiously dropped the news at midnight — something that’s been associated with Swift for YEARS,” TMZ wrote. This idea was quickly shot down when Rihanna was confirmed as the performer, another misreading of clues that weren’t actually clues.

“Taylor intentionally creates this image of a master plan, a deeper meaning that rewards paying this sort of attention to everything,” said Kristen Reid of Chicago, who runs the site Taylor Swift Scholar. Swift has such a controlled public image, Reid theorized, that even the tiniest piece of information gets overanalyzed.

The hunt for clues wasn’t always on this level. In her early days, fans were mostly the ones noticing that she painted the number 13 on her hand before every concert, or gave her songs 13-second introductions; her lucky number was 13, she explained, partly because she was born on Dec. 13. On tour in 2011, she wrote lyrics from other artists on her arm in marker before shows, giving concertgoers insight into what she was thinking about that day.

Things truly escalated with her “Reputation” album in late 2017, released after Swift’s much-documented feud with Kim Kardashian, who posted an edited version of a phone call between her then-husband, Kanye West, and Swift, and branded the pop star a “snake.” Swift disappeared from of the public eye and reemerged with a music video for new single “Look What You Made Me Do,” where nearly every scene had a reference to something the public had mocked about her: A headstone reading “here lies Taylor Swift’s reputation”; a shot of her dressed like her frenemy, Katy Perry, while holding a Grammy (something Perry has never won); and snakes.

“The rollout with that was so different than any other rollout she had ever done,” said Brittany Spanos, a Rolling Stone senior writer who teaches a New York University course about Swift, noting that the singer didn’t do any interviews leading up to the album release, letting the visuals speak for themselves. The “self-mythologizing elements,” such as the snake imagery, became a major part of how the album was presented, she added. It fueled Swift going forward, as the video became a pop culture sensation and fans spent hours dissecting every frame.

By her “Lover” album in 2019, Swift was drawing comparisons to “The Da Vinci Code,” as listeners spotted a mysterious butterfly stamp on April 13 on her official 2019 calendar, which they surmised meant a big announcement. Indeed, on that day, a countdown clock started on her social media accounts leading to April 26 (13 days later, of course) which wound up being the release of her first single. Swift soon appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in a jacket covered in pins that represented her most famous symbols, telling the magazine she wasn’t surprised by her fans’ aggressive hunts for Easter eggs within her work, saying matter-of-factly: “I’ve trained them to be that way.”

On Oct. 7, Zainub Amir of New York, whose Twitter account @SwiftNYC has more than 156,000 followers, had to be awake by 7:30 a.m. for her day job. But that night, Swift started posting one TikTok an hour, from midnight to 4 a.m., announcing the complete “Midnights” track list.

“I did lose sleep,” said Amir, who has been running the account for 12 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Incidentally, Swift has been fairly straightforward in her previews of “Midnights,” revealing the tracks without a word scramble puzzle as she did last year for her rerecorded “Red (Taylor’s Version).” She has posted short video explanations for the stories behind certain songs — including the first single, “Anti-Hero,” a track that she said explores her insecurities — and billboards with snippets of her new lyrics have been cropping up all over the world. She also announced a collaboration with Lana Del Rey called “Snow on the Beach.”

And still — Swift’s followers have been joking about being driven into madness by posts revealing the “Midnights” tracks, trying to figure out whether the handheld phone in the videos has a particular meaning and analyzing her clothes. In the TikTok where Swift announced that one track is called “Bejeweled,” fans noted she’s dressed in the same sweater as actress Sadie Sink in her “All Too Well” short film, which includes a lyric about Swift being a “jewel.” Could those things be connected?!

If you’re exhausted just thinking about it, you have nothing on the fans who will be staying up all night on Oct. 21 thinking about all that and more.

“It’s a two-way street, and you don’t get that with other artists,” Amir said. “For somebody at that level of success and level of fame to still stay connected and drop these theories and be interactive in the game with us — that’s what makes it so interesting.”

As the fervor has built even more, particularly with Swift’s surprise album drops “Folklore” and “Evermore” during the pandemic, frustration has come with it.

Sometimes it evolved into inside jokes within the fandom, such as a 2019 post from the pop star sitting behind a fence with five holes in it, an ultimately meaningless photo that some thought was leading to a countdown. In such instances, Amir said, fans are often good-humored and acknowledge “we’re literally being clowned.” Other times, people refused to accept that theories weren’t true, like the popular guess that Swift had a third pandemic album titled “Woodvale.” (Swift personally debunked this in a TV interview, but some are still true believers.)

Spanos recently wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about a widespread theory that Swift scrapped an album titled “Karma” that was recorded in 2016. She was surprised that while many fans thought it was fun speculation, some were upset, and felt that heated debates over such things “feed into the worst parts of the fandom.”

Some pointed out that certain fans can take things to the extreme, but many don’t take the theories too seriously, using them as a way to build excitement. Other singers have employed similar guessing games, Spanos said, but “no one is doing it as detailed or in-depth — and no one is on the level of Taylor.”