From Emily Dickinson to Joe Alwyn, Taylor Swift is a master of misleading messaging

As you can’t have failed to notice, last week it was reported that Taylor Swift and Emily Dickinson are sixth cousins three times removed. shared the blessed news – in no way, I am simply certain of it, prompted by team Swift as promo for her forthcoming album, The Tortured Poets Department. Call it the Tortured Promo Department – fans who crunched the numbers worked out that Swift probably has 3.3 million sixth cousins thrice removed. She is just as likely related to Ayn Rand, enslavers or any number of unsavoury people – as millions of people are – but naturally there’s no Today Show exclusive on any such tenuous links. “How’s this for a coincidence?” the broadcaster asked. Telling, and not in the way the Swift operation would doubtless like you to think: less indicative of a handy lineage of literary greatness than a taste for plausible deniability in a well-maintained void of information.

The Dickinson link is mostly harmless fun, if over-egging an already considerably egged pudding. (And hardcore Swift fans already knew: it was discovered in 2020 when she released the folksy Evermore album on Dickinson’s birthday, because she does nothing by accident.) But there are riskier ways that Swift plays fast and loose with inference, especially given the fact that she has previously said she’s “trained” fans to look for clues and connections in her work. What started as a cute treasure trail that revealed genuine information about the subjects of her songs and approaching release dates – what do the highlighted letters in these liner notes spell out? How many holes in this fence? – caught on like wildfire, turning her admirers into sleuths and Swift’s every knowingly constructed outfit, nail polish colour and Instagram caption into grist for their conspiracy mill. Given her relative retreat from traditional media in the past five years, it’s a smart way of having fans carry out promo for her – but at this point fans can’t be expected to tell the difference between genuine clues and promo hints, and this level of interactivity has created entitlement among some factions, who assume responsibility to carry out attacks and smear campaigns on her behalf.

Two months prior to its release, would-be doyens of Swift’s Tortured Poets Department have taken its barbed track listing very literally, leading to intense, often nefarious speculation regarding Swift’s six-year relationship with the British actor Joe Alwyn, which seemingly ended in early 2023. The album’s title, revealed onstage at the Grammy awards, was quickly linked to a December, 2022 interview with Alwyn and Paul Mescal in which they revealed that Andrew Scott started their group chat, the Tortured Man Club. (“It hasn’t had much use recently,” Alwyn said: you wonder if it’s undergone a recent revival.) Swift revealed the leading track list a day later: My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys, So Long, London, I Can Do It With a Broken Heart, The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived, to name a few, sending fans wild with speculation.

Swift in a promo shot for her 2020 album, Folklore. Photograph: Beth Garrabrant/Stoked PR

Swift, obviously, has every right to sing about her relationships however she wants to (no apologies to Eamonn Holmes). But in the absence of any music, some fans have spread baseless, dangerous and even libellous allegations about Alwyn’s conduct (which, for obvious reasons, I can’t repeat). Last month, a brief fan-shot video of them dining in a New Orleans restaurant in December, 2022 was recirculated online with AI-doctored audio that made it sound as though Alwyn is saying “you don’t get to tell me about sad,” a line printed on the back of one of the new album’s four physical editions. When Swift recently told a crowd that she was “lonely” when writing her 2020 album Folklore – some of which was co-written with Alwyn during the pandemic, a lonely time for most – fans took that as further confirmation of their theories. A live medley of three songs that all appear to reference cheating threw petrol on the fire.

Swift could make this stop. She is no stranger to airing her displeasure with the likes of Ticketmaster, Scooter Braun, Spotify and Apple Music, and, occasionally, politicians. Before she released Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) last year, she gave a veiled speech at one Eras tour date effectively asking fans not to go after John Mayer, whom she dated when she was 19 and he was 32 and is understood to be the subject of that album’s Dear John. “I am not putting this album out so you should feel the need to defend me on the internet against someone you think I wrote a song about 14m years ago when I was 19,” she said in Minneapolis. But for whatever reason – and obviously, no member of the public has any idea what transpired between her and Alwyn so far – this time she has opted to stay quiet. Establishing a baseline for conduct is neither commercially risky nor unprecedented: just last week, Ariana Grande said, after the release of her post-divorce album Eternal Sunshine: “Anyone that is sending hateful messages to the people in my life based on your interpretation of this album is not supporting me and is absolutely doing the polar opposite of what I would ever encourage”.

It feels like the endgame of a cat-and-mouse act that’s gone too far. Swift’s gestures towards meaning have led every single thing she does to be considered a kind of marketing, a clue to be solved. It leaves a superstar who’s usually hot on her messaging open to misinterpretation: hints about her personal life are turned by some fans into witch-hunts for anyone perceived to have wronged her; her current silence on politics allows politicians to invoke her name, from the New South Wales police commissioner quoting Swift’s anti-haters lines while defending police to Joe Biden joking that the matter of her apparently much sought-after endorsement is “classified” on Late Night With Seth Meyers. When Swift made a blandly neutral handwritten post encouraging US citizens to register to vote on Super Tuesday, some fans speculated that her unusual left-leaning handwriting was the real indication of her loyalties – suggesting they’re so starved of substance that they’re reading into empty messages because of this dynamic she has established. (The more likely explanation is the insane way she holds a pen.)

For Swift to only direct fans as to her wishes when it suits her, it weakens her status as a truth-teller. If the comparisons with Dickinson mean anything, she might remember that nothing in the world has as much power as a word.

This comment piece is taken from the Guardian’s weekly Swift Notes newsletter – our comprehensive email on all things Taylor Swift. Sign up here

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