Taylor Swift is as much a force on TikTok as she is in music. The singer’s brand and relevance has only expanded across her nearly two-decade long career, and what sets her apart from many other artists (though certainly not all) is her uber-devoted fanbase—Swifties. Over the last few years, Swifties have been cultivating a raucous ecosystem on TikTok, “SwiftTok.” Users dedicate themselves to her music discussion and, more commonly, conspiracy theories about her.
Much like BookTok for bookreaders and CleanTok for those who love to clean (or watch other people clean), SwiftTok is a community on TikTok for Swift fans and Swift content. Participating Swifties may find themselves ranking some of her songs, reviewing her albums, or showing off their vinyls. On the surface, SwiftTok feels like a typical community of impassioned fans, but diving into deeper will reveal a dedicated collective that is hellbent on dissecting every word out of the singer’s mouth to gain insight on her upcoming projects.
An intensifying “stan culture” has helped bolster the fanbases of popular musicians everywhere, there’s a main distinction that separated Taylor Swift (and SwiftTok) from her contemporaries. Other modern, popular musicians don’t appear to make the same impression on TikTok that Swift does—there’s no EilishTok or TheWeekndTok. Taylor herself will sometimes respond to trending videos to encourage fans. While some of the content on SwiftTok is typical music fan fodder, some of the most prevalent content is conspiracy theories.
Longtime fans of Taylor Swift don’t just consume her music, videos, and red-carpet appearances—they dissect them with laboratory-grade precision. In a 2019 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Swift explained her love for leaving hidden messages—“Easter eggs,” to borrow a term from film—in different forms of media to her fans. “I love to communicate through Easter eggs,” she explained. “I think the best messages are cryptic ones.” Swift’s egg-laying truly began with her 2006 self-titled debut album—in the CD’s lyric booklet, Swift would capitalize different letters amongst the lyrics, which would spell out a secret message.
It wasn’t until 2017, though, when Swift began leaning in to visual Easter eggs in her music videos. “I really started doing this in music videos much more during the Reputation album. I wasn’t doing interviews so I still wanted a way to communicate with the fans” she said. “I think the most Easter egg-y video of my career is ‘Look What You Made Me Do.’ Literally the whole video is just an Easter egg. There’s like thousands of Easter eggs. There are some that people still haven’t found.”
While discussions around Swift’s hints was absolutely present on social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter throughout her career, Swift’s increase in posting Easter eggs, specifically at the beginning of the Lover era in spring 2019, dovetailed with the rise of TikTok in early 2020. As a result, Swift—whether intentionally or not—was able to accelerate the rabidity of her fanbase into conspiracy theorists intent on perpetuating her brand and name on the short video app.
Conspiracy theories on SwiftTok typically involve looking for clues to upcoming music releases on Swift’s merch or based on her social media posts on multiple platforms. Recent versions of this trend include trying to decode the meaning behind a charm bracelet added to Swift’s merch store and how her upcoming tenth studio album Midnights might resurrect the long-forgotten “Tumblr aesthetic” from the early 2010's. More intense and arguably invasive theorizing involves the assumption that Swift is secretly a part of the LGBTQ+ community—not so subtly codenamed “Gaylor”—and is simply pretending to identify as straight.
After Swift announced the upcoming release of a new album, Midnights, at the 2022 Video Music Awards, SwiftTok immediately began formulating theories on everything from what artists might be featured on the album, to what the songs would be titled, to what genre the record would dabble in. Just the crumb of an album title and release date led to widespread hysteria within the TikTok niche.
While Swift had been posting on her official TikTok account sporadically prior to the reveal of Midnights, the album announcement began Swift’s own marketing strategy on the platform. While a majority of the album’s specifics were kept in the dark, Swift began to reveal the unknown song titles one at a time, each with an individual TikTok posted at midnight every other weekday beginning on September 21. These TikToks are a part of a series that she has titled Midnights Mayhem With Me.
“I know that I have a habit of dropping cryptic clues and Easter eggs when giving you information about new music, and I am not here to deny that, but I am here to defy that,” Swift says in her first Midnights Mayhem With Me TikTok.
What SwiftTok suffers from is a clear case of confirmation bias. As users continue to assume that everything Swift says and does is an Easter egg, theories on her music will continue to run rampant. As SwiftTok throws every puzzle piece and thought-out theory at the wall, it’s clear that something, eventually will stick. That one-in-a-million hunch that proved to be correct emboldens SwiftTok to keep digging further and further into the singer’s portfolio of recent appearances and social media post captions to find some other clues that could lead them to their next “Eureka!” moment.
It’s manipulative on Swift’s part and obsessive on SwiftTok’s part, but both parties win: Swift is able to keep her fans engaged until the next album/single/music video drops, and SwiftTok is able to have some fun playing detective. Swift has fundamentally and ingeniously automated advertising to her loyal fanbase, because they are essentially advertising for her.