Last night, hours before Taylor Swift would drop her second surprise album of the year evermore, I made a beeline for my favorite source for Swift insight. It wasn’t her Instagram, or her Tumblr, or the dozens of reputable music journalists and critics already drafting their reviews. I went to Swiftie conspiracy theorists.
On TikTok, Swifties were telling me that the song “Willow” was actually Swift’s wedding song, that the then-forthcoming video would be her wedding video, and that Swift and her boyfriend Joe Alwyn’s vows would make up the verses. Some believe she is actually already married, because in the recently re-recorded version of “Love Story,” it sort of (i.e. barely) sounds like Swift is singing “baby just said yes” instead of “say yes.” Fans were maddeningly analyzing why folklore promo photos were in black and white, but evermore photos were in color (the theory: folklore was sad, evermore will be happy.) Connections were made to Emily Dickinson, and National Horse Day.
There were less bonkers insights too, like the fact that Swift had mentioned song titles like “’tis the damn season” on her Instagram, or had put references to willow trees in many of her posts. Many believe that a third album is on the way, after analyzing the color of the confetti (white, blue, gold) that comes with buying folklore merchandise and the three different varieties of limited edition cardigans that were for sale on the site (though I personally can’t find all three). The subtle inclusion of the word “woodvale” on the cover of the “hide-and-seek” version of folklore was also interpreted as a clue that a third album would be coming. I saw someone point out that Haim, a collaborator on the album, is made up of three sisters. Three albums, three sisters, see the connection? Whoa. I saw another point out that a braid, which Swift wears on the cover of evermore, is three strands of hair, i.e. there will be three albums. Whoaaa.
So, in the light of day, album out, were they right? No, though that third album theory remains to be seen. Swift has gleefully encouraged this kind of thinking, though a dramatically less intense strain of it. Her confessional break-up songs have long left fans and critics scrambling to pinpoint which of her lovers have inspired which tracks, especially in a tabloid era that surveilled her every relationship. She delights in symbolism and easter eggs, her fans spending hours staring into album covers, music videos, Instagram posts like Magic Eye posters, hoping they can unlock the secret of her next release, her next era. It’s a move that makes fans feel like they’re creating something alongside Swift, that they’re a part of her artistic process and not merely on the sidelines as listeners. Often, she winks back.
But Swifties take a handful of playful puzzles and become detectives lining the walls of their apartment with crime scene photos and red string. Depending on whatever rabbit hole you fall into you, might find yourself entertaining the idea that Swift and her former bestie model Karlie Kloss were not only once a couple, but perhaps still in love with each other. Or perhaps you’ve suddenly discovered the conspiracy theory that Harry Styles and Taylor Swift accidentally killed a man while driving and have been sprinkling references to the deed in their songs ever since? “They’re joking,” I tell myself, scrolling through Tumblr posts, tweets, and TikToks, laughing at the increasingly absurd fan theories. “Or not?”
I’ll never understand pop standom. Stans can often be aggressive, as the extremely online cohort doxx and harass music journalists, critics, and even randos who come for their favorites online (or simply don’t repeat the praise of their press releases). And scrolling through devoted Swifties who invent elaborate scenarios in which Swift is secretly married or secretly pregnant and would be announcing so via her album was disheartening, as if Swift’s art alone wasn’t enough to get fans excited. They long for any nugget of information about her deliberately private personal life, filling in the gaps with fantasies. After watching a handful of videos articulating the same theory, each beginning with “I haven’t heard this theory before,” the competition of having the best new insight, no matter how wrong, becomes clearer.
This isn’t how anyone should listen to music, or consume any art really, decoding subjective work like it’s a math equation. But I admit I can’t get enough, scrolling through my feeds for the weirdest theories. Reading and watching them, I feel the same way I do when I’m watching Ancient Aliens, brain wide open to theories about how, actually, centuries ago extraterrestrials descended on to Earth and helped build the Egyptian Pyramids. Yes, tell me about how the photo on the wall in the back of Swift’s Instagram post foretold the themes of evermore. Yes, tell me about why you think this dress Swift is wearing is her grandmother’s. And if you catch me in a few days making my own TikTok about how “gold rush” is actually about a horse named Dorothea who is secretly pregnant and married to a willow tree, you know why.