Taylor Swift has once again given us crackpot Swifties a puzzle to solve. On Aug. 5, she posted a cryptic video of a vault with a series of letters coming out with it. She also gave us the imagery of her “cackling maniacally” as she posted it, and referenced a line from her song “All Too Well.” She knows what she’s doing.
As a lot of intrepid fans have figured out, the letters were meant to be assembled like a crossword puzzle. They quickly uncovered secret details about her upcoming re-recorded “Red,” like a collab between her and Phoebe Bridgers (finally!), Chris Stapleton, and Ed Sheeran. Fans also found titles hidden in the crossword puzzle, like the long-awaited “All Too Well: Ten Minute Version,” which led them to believe that the crossword contains all the new titles that will be on the album.
She kinda-sorta confirmed it in her follow-up tweet, cryptically saying, “Your next clue will be in the spot where you hear red…” (The first time she says the word red in the song “Red,” it’s followed by a lyric talking about crosswords). If you go to redtaylorswiftsversion.taylorswift.com, you’ll find a bunch of blank spaces. If you write in the titles you got from the crossword, the site will tell you if you got it right or not. If you did get it right, you get access to a filter that says “I unlocked the vault” that you could share on social media.
All this leads me to say something that’s been on my chest for a while: Taylor Swift is an ARG.
If you don’t know what an ARG is, the acronym stands for alternate reality game. Think of it as a video game, but set in the real world. The people who create and control the ARG come up with an intriguing and mysterious narrative, and they leave clues throughout different kinds of mediums and even in the real world for the players to find so they can further the narrative and eventually solve the mystery. If you’re playing an ARG, you in essence become part of the narrative. You have stuff like Perplex City, which had players looking for real-world items and people (the “Find Me” mystery took 15 years to solve), and YouTube-based ARGs like Petscop and Ben Drowned, which required players to decode videos to discover the chilling narrative.
Yes, I am saying that one of the most popular and iconic pop singer-songwriters to come from this era is an alternate reality game in the vein of Perplex City, Petscop, and Ben Drowned.
I say this as a life-long Swiftie who’s spent too much time on Tumblr decoding all the little crumbs she’s left in her albums. I’ve read multi-page and layered theories on how the number of holes in a fence, steps, and palm trees in the background of her Instagram posts is a clue to when her next album is coming out, or how the colors of the new sweaters in her merch store were clues that we were getting another surprise album. (The five holes in a fence theory was the lead-up to “Lover,” while sweater-gate was the lead-up to “Folklore.”)
Taylor Alison Swift knows this and encourages this. After “Lover” came out in 2019, she reposted the photo of the fence and joked about the theory. And, well, she continues to drop all these easter eggs for us to find and obsess over.
On her Entertainment Weekly cover that year, she jokes that she’s “trained” her fans to be like detectives. “I love that they like the cryptic hint-dropping. Because as long as they like it, I’ll keep doing it. It’s fun. It feels mischievous and playful.” In the bonus video that came with the cover, she said, “I love to communicate through easter eggs. I think the best messages are cryptic ones.” (In the video, she also talked about leaving these easter eggs in her interviews. Surprising no one, her interview also dropped a ton of eggs. Very meta.)
This started way early into her career, too. I remember being a baby Swiftie and finding out that she hid secret messages in the liner notes of her albums. Since I was just, what, a 13-year-old at the time, I didn’t have the money to buy a physical copy of her album. Instead, I relied on pictures taken on the internet to find that she wrote the name Sam multiple times on “Should’ve Said No” and that she cried while recording “Fearless.”
Taylor Swift is an ARG, the narrative is her music and the Taylor that she lets us know, and all Swifties are the players. Being a Swiftie, or at least being a loyal stan online, doesn’t just mean loving her music. It also means being wrapped up in this game that our fave has made for us. (Who else does this? Your fave could never?)
A delusional fandom?
Which, of course, means that we could all collectively stand behind one theory that turns out to be disastrously wrong. When “Me!” came out and we didn’t yet know what the title of “Lover” was going to be, I backed the “Kaleidoscope” team (versus “Metamorphosis” and “Rainbow”) because of what I thought were solid arguments, never mind the fact that the music video quite literally spelled out the word “lover.”
But being wrong isn’t such a bad thing. It’s something we joke about as we cook up another crackpot theory and collectively lose our minds over another easter egg hunt. I sometimes wonder if we look as crazy as we feel, if other fandoms think we’re delusional. (And to be fair, it’s easy to feel like you’re the craziest, looniest person in the world when you’re explaining how this one butterfly mural—that no one had yet confirmed was linked to Taylor—has an exclamation mark on it, which is a confirmation that the upcoming single Taylor is releasing in, like, a day will feature Brendon Urie of Panic! At The Disco. Even when it turns out you were right, you still feel like you lost your brain! And, uh, I say this as a person who’s medically prescribed antipsychotics.)
When us Swifties call Taylor maniacal and deranged, it’s a loving (if frustrated and exhausted) acknowledgement of how much thought she’s put into her work. You can’t make easter egg hunts as sprawling as this without knowing what you’re doing. So many people have praised Taylor Swift as a businesswoman, but she’s also a damn good puzzlemaker. But more than that, it’s also an acknowledgement of how much thought she’s put into expressing her love for her fans. She makes stanning her so rewarding.
Featured photo courtesy of Taylor Swift’s Instagram