Her album liner notes have always had hidden clues, as complicated as a Zodiac cypher, put there obviously enough for fans to figure out but never quite so obviously as to be confirmable. She’s known for naming names, but more often than not she has actually let fans do that last bit of work for her. On her 2012 album Red, she even didn’t have to say “Jake Gyllenhaal.” She said only “twin fire signs / four blue eyes,” left a liner puzzle that spelled out “SAGITTARIUS,” and appended a bonus track explicitly about being stood up on her birthday. Who else? Gyllenhaal’s birthday is December 19th; Swift’s is December 13th. Publicly, they broke up sometime in December 2010.
As the times shifted away from notes passed to fans on literal paper and Swift had to reckon with the impulsive rages of the internet, she stumbled. Last year, after Kanye West wrote the lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous” she used the Grammys stage to call out men who wanted to take credit for her success. It was a cloying, cheap speech even before Kim Kardashian stepped up to say that West’s phone call asking for permission for at least part of the lyric had been recorded, Swift’s laughter and acquiescence included. (To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Swift knew she was going to be called a “bitch.” But, to be fair, Swift also claims to be a omnivorous consumer of music, including rap, and it is odd to react so strongly to the word in that context.) She seemed to think the speech would travel well on a blogosphere invested in “girl power” rhetoric, misjudging the degree to which the culture of the internet had already become wary of empty grand-standing.
And in the wake of the phone call’s reveal on Snapchat, Swift’s (since-deleted) tweeted screenshot from the Notes app — now a standard move for celebrities embroiled in controversy — only made things worse. For one, the eagle-eyed quickly figured out that its placement in the app meant she must have written it well in advance, and for another, it had the type of specific and circular language that made it suitable to meme. “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009,” she wrote, and that first phrase became a standard Twitter joke, which is still in use.
Note: We’re setting aside Reputation’s unbelievably bad lead single for the duration of this conversation. Taylor Swift’s internet rules are a separate conversation from her songwriting rules, which she seems to have thrown out the window.
Having gone three years without releasing an album, and staying quiet on social media for months, Swift blacked out all her accounts last Friday, then returned to Twitter and Instagram this week with a soundless video of an animated snake. The snake video, unveiled in three parts (10 seconds, then 20 seconds, then 17 seconds, initially convincing fans to expect an October 20th album drop), is an obvious reference to Swift’s most recent public debacle. Last July, when Kim Kardashian posted the video that proved Swift was at least partially lying about her approval of West’s “Famous” lyric, she was bombarded by thousands upon thousands of snake emoji on nearly all of her Instagram posts.
But then, suddenly, they disappeared. It was unclear at first if Instagram had set up a special tool just for Swift. The company revealed, just two weeks later, that it had been working on a new system for filtering specific words and emoji out of comments. In a Wired profile published earlier this month, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom conceded that Swift’s personal problem had a lot to do with the cleaning up of his platform: the snake pit was the feature’s “first live test case,” even though it wouldn’t become available to the general public until September.
On Wednesday, BuzzFeed noted that Kim Kardashian seems to have filtered snake emoji out of her own Instagram comments. After finding that the little symbol that once plagued Swift had been turned on her, she took advantage of a feature that made its debut in protecting her nemesis. It’s a bitter little piece of irony. As for Swift, her revamped Instagram and 10 posts don’t have comments enabled at all. She’s apparently gone from soliciting major changes on a top platform to cutting us out.
Swift’s Tumblr account went black last week, too. She has unparalleled history there for a pop star. As an early adopter and personal friend of founder David Karp, she’s used the site for her most candid interactions with fans, establishing regular communication with a select few. One of the most well-known pieces of Tumblr lore is the story of Swift’s “No, it’s Becky” t-shirt, which she had custom-made as an inside joke about a meme that circulated on the platform for years. Tumblr taught her to wink at award shows, particularly after performances or speeches that may or may not have been shots at ex-boyfriends. Instead of posing for photographers, she was posing for GIF makers.
Most of the fans that receive surprise Christmas and birthday gifts, or invitations to private album-listening and baked good parties, are sourced from this Tumblr community. She’s been there long enough to know how it all works, so blacking out that page was as vital to stoking Friday’s frenzy as the Instagram and Twitter accounts that every major music blog took note of. In her absence, thousands of speculative posts popped up with the hashtags #TS6 and #TS6iscoming. For them, having gone long, lonely months without likes or reblogs from Swift, the black-out was the message. And since on Tumblr, users are defined exclusively but what they like and what they would repost as part of their own brand, the structure encourages enthusiastic, positive contributions by default — a snowball of delirious, delighted energy.
Swift fan accounts on Twitter strung together the pieces of the snake video, unbidden, and made it go another round of viral. When she finally posted the album art for her sixth album, Reputation, even non-fans put it next to Kanye’s Life of Pablo art — illustrating a petty potshot she couldn’t possibly cop to herself, but just might like you to see. It’s impossible to decipher how much of this is part of an intentional, studied plan to move forward on the web that’s burnt her.
There’s obvious strategy and then there’s all the little things. Why isn’t the video of Swift’s oft-ridiculed 2014 Grammys performance available in any official capacity anywhere on the internet? If Swift’s team is so well-known for sniffing out the slightest copyright infringement, why ignore a mash-up of her 2014 Harry Styles-centered track “Style” and the 2015 One Direction song “Perfect,” combined to show the later song’s damning structural similarity to the first?
In “New Romantics,” a somehow overlooked bonus track from her 2014 album 1989, she stacks verses about mascara and castles and fantasy and magic on top of each other and punctuates them with jarringly candid, braggadocios admissions about the whole game: “We play dumb / but we know exactly what we’re doing,” and “You can’t see it in my face / but I’m about to play my Ace.” And finally, “The rumors are terrible and cruel / but honey, most of them are true.”
Yikes! The two-faced cartoon pop star flashes a grin, then a sneer, as if she really is pulling an unexpected card out of her sleeve and laying it down. I’m a little scared of her, even if Swift would tell me she’s just a character in a song.
Anybody’s biggest secret is their personal rulebook, the key to how their brain ticks and their shots get called. And Taylor Swift has always carried a reputation for being a mastermind, whether that be of blowing up a foe’s career, catering to the grossest paternalistic impulses of white America, or spring-boarding off of Harry Styles to craft a pop persona where there was once none. That makes it easy to see everything in her orbit as part of a game of a chess.
She took awhile to get around to it, but now, the internet — with its many platforms so susceptible to the desires of nefarious actors big, small, or Grammy-winning — is part of the game too. If she can ride out the latest meme.