How Taylor Swift turned fandom into a scavenger hunt of clues

With the release of "Midnights," Swifties reflect on the singer's knack for keeping fans guessing and wanting more throughout the past decade.

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Taylor Swift fans all deserve a Ph.D. in sleuthing — full stop.

For over a decade, Swift has been keeping fans on their toes with unexpected career moves: dropping albums out of nowhere during a global pandemic, changing personal brand aesthetics, re-recording old albums as a way to gain control of her music and beyond.

Rather than address news headlines or relationships head-on, she embeds messages in lyrics and liner notes, music video imagery and outfits — all winking references to her devoted followers. By doing so, Swift creates a community among fans, who put their thinking caps on to figure out what exactly is happening next for the 11-time Grammy winner.

Thanks to the advent of social media (especially TikTok), theories proliferate even faster than Swift's own cryptic clues. Essentially, being a Swift fan sometimes feels like a scavenger hunt — combined with a dash of imaginative thinking.

Now that her latest album, "Midnights," has dropped, even more questions are swirling. Below, TODAY breaks down the history of Swift’s riddles over the years.

Where it all started: Hiding messages in CD liners

Melissa Duffy, a 24-year-old Swiftie, told TODAY that she’s been snooping for hidden messages and easter eggs for a long time — specifically within Swift’s CD lyric booklets, which often hold clues about her song’s subjects.

“I remember sitting down with my sister and picking out all of the capital letters that would form messages in Taylor’s CD lyric books,” Duffy said.

In her albums spanning from “Fearless” to “Red,” Swift would often capitalize certain letters in the liner notes to form a code — and for “1989,” she did the opposite, where fans were able to decode messages through uncapitalized letters.

For example, in the lyric sheet for “Fearless,” Swift capitalized letters that spelled out, “I CRIED WHILE RECORDING THIS” for the song “Fifteen.”

Or, on “Red,” she capitalized lyrics that spelled out, “ASHLEY DIANNA CLAIRE SELENA,” for the hit song “22” — likely a reference to her at-the-time BFFs Ashley Avignone, Dianna Agron, Claire Kislinger and Selena Gomez.

Swiftie Krista Holtzman, 28, told TODAY that her favorite hidden lyric messages were “Should’ve Said No” (the message is “Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam”) and “All Too Well” (“Maple Latte.”)

To this day, Swifties know to read the fine print. The credits for “folklore” and “evermore” held a subtle message: William Bowery is a pseudonym for her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, who co-wrote some songs.

‘I’ve trained them’: Taylor Swift’s history of leaving Easter eggs for fans

More of Swift’s devoted fans told TODAY they enjoy decoding the singer’s cryptic messages and riddles, and not just those pesky CD liner notes that Swift used to leave. As Swift's career progressed, she turned into a mastermind and was able to create a new brand for herself as not only an incredible songwriter but also a master of deception and surprise.

The best part? Fans are along for the ride and love to decode her hidden messages and clues — and Swift knows this.

“I’ve trained them to be that way,” Swift said to Entertainment Weekly in 2019. “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.” 

Swift definitely encourages the practice. “Happy decoding!” she tweeted in 2021, alongside a video of letter pairings against a gold backdrop. The code, when solved, spelled six unreleased tracks that would be on the re-release of her album “Fearless.”

Nicholas D'Amico at the Reputation stadium tour.Courtesy Nicholas D'Amico

Nicholas D’Amico, 28, a self-proclaimed Swiftie since 2006, told TODAY that he loves to theorize about Swift’s career moves. “It’s just part of being a Swiftie,” D’Amico said.

“Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?! Taylor Swift hinting at things that are to come in a music video or award show speech or magazine interview ... it’s just so iconic,” he added.

‘Reputation’ hearkened a new era of hidden meanings

When Miss Swift sang, “Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time,” in “Look What You Made Me Do,” she meant it.

Reputation,” which came out in November 2017, seemed to be a direct response to the events of Swift’s 2016. First, there was scrutiny about her love life: She went through a breakup with Calvin Harris and had a whirlwind romance with Tom Hiddleston.

Swift also found herself in headlines, yet again, with Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. Ye sang about Swift — and the incident at the 2009 VMAs in which he grabbed the mic during her acceptance speech — in the song “Famous.”

In a now-deleted tweet, West claimed he “had a hour long convo” with Swift and that she gave him her “blessings.”

Swift denied that via her rep. “Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account,” the rep said at the time. “She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message. Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric, ‘I made that b---- famous.’”

After all that, Swift surprised fans with a personal rebranding, deleted all posts from her Instagram and released a revenge anthem, “Look What You Made Me Do,” in August 2017.

Swiftie Holtzman explained why the “Reputation” era kept Swifties on their toes.

“I remember logging into Instagram one day and seeing she had deleted her entire Instagram feed. I was not prepared for the style of that album both visually and sonically, but it was such a fun pivot from all of her previous albums,” she said.

“Reputation” marked a pivot. Not only did Swift take sartorial efforts to rebrand (suddenly she was wearing all-black everything) for “Rep,” but her music videos in this era, specifically “Look What You Made Me Do,” were full of references to headlines about her.

From this, a new era of Swift was born. People no longer regarded her solely as the heartbreak anthem princess — she became a deity for revenge hits and going-out bangers. What the kids are calling a "savage," if you will.

Here's a list of just some of the savage easter eggs in the “Look” video:

She sits on a throne of snakes, which is what Kim Kardashian, Ye’s then-wife, is thought to have called Swift in a tweet.

Was there astrological significance to the release date of "Midnights"?

There’s a dollar bill next to Swift when she’s laying in her diamond-clad bathtub, a likely reference to the sexual assault lawsuit that concluded in August 2017. Former DJ David Mueller had sued Swift for $3 million after Swift accused him of groping her at a photo op in 2013. Swift countered by suing him for a dollar. The jury sided in Swift’s favor and Mueller was ordered to send her that small sum.

Her backup dancers wear tanks that read “I ❤ TS” on them, a reference to the similar tank Tom Hiddleston wore when the two dated.

And who could forget the mountain of “old Taylors” that rebranded Swift stands atop in the video? We also see these “old Taylors” lined up at the end of the video, with one exclaiming, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.” Swift had written the same statement in a now-deleted social media post during her feud with Ye and Kardashian: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be part of, since 2009.”

"Her sound changed drastically, her voice matured and expanded and she was out for blood. It was magical."

Kristen jenningsON TAYLOR SWIFT'S REPUTATION ERA

Kristin Jennings, 23, a Swiftie who claims she could write a full dissertation about why she loves the singer so much, agreed with Holtzman that Swift’s “Rep” era definitely was unexpected.

“That whole piece of Taylor’s career was a huge shock for all of us, in the absolute best way possible. I didn’t even realize how special that era was until it was over. Her sound changed drastically, her voice matured and expanded and she was out for blood. It was magical,” she told TODAY.

How Swifties predicted ‘Lover’

When Swift released “ME!” as a single and music video in early 2019, fans got to their detective work on figuring out if Swift was prepping for an album release.

Julia Janis, 20, told TODAY that she was on high alert after the single.

“I remember during the Lover era when the ‘ME!’ music video came out, I got really into it looking for easter eggs on what the album title was going to be,” she said.

She, along with millions of other Swiftie conspiracy theorists, noticed that “You Need to Calm Down” and “Lover” were phrases that appeared in various ways throughout the “ME!” music video. Janis said she correctly predicted that the next album’s title would be “Lover” — which you can see at the 1:56 timestamp in the video.

The album drops heard ‘round the world: ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’

If Swift’s “Reputation” era came as a shock to fans, then “folklore” and “evermore” was a definite surprise.

“I was one of the many stunned and elated fans back in 2020 who did not see Taylor’s eighth studio album ‘folklore’ coming,” Swiftie Melissa Duffy told TODAY.

In April 2020, Swift posted an Insta selfie with the accompanying caption, “Not a lot going on at the moment.” That, too, is code: Swift wore a shirt with that phrase in the music video for “22,” and she uses the sentence when there is, in fact, a lot going on at the moment.

There wasn’t much talk of it — as it was the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone was isolated. So for most people, the message “not a lot going on at the moment” rang true.

As fans know, Swift posted a collection of images on Instagram that, when seen on her Instagram profile, create the album cover of “folklore.” Within hours, Swift announced “folklore,” an album completely written and produced in the height of the pandemic, would release at midnight that night.

Emily Duffy, 24, another lifelong Swiftie, said she used to joke that one day would Swift would release a surprise album, but never actually thought it would happen.


Taylor Swift on April 28, 2016 in Los Angeles, CA.JB Lacroix / GC Images

“I was always so used to (Taylor’s) rigid album release schedules and her masterful publicity build-up for each one. A surprise album drop was always something my Swiftie friends and I joked about, but I never expected that she would actually release an album with no warning. I’m so glad I didn’t sleep through the announcement — I think I would have had a heart attack if I woke up to the news,” Emily Duffy told TODAY.

Just about five months later, Swift posted a pic of lounging in some cozy pajamas, and captioned it, “Not a lot going on at the moment”

This set off a firework display of speculation amongst Swifties — because, as you may recall, she posted the same caption just a few months before the release of “folklore.”

Lo and behold, Swift took to Instagram in November 2020, revealing that “evermore,” her ninth studio album, would be released at midnight that night.

“Don’t even get me started on ‘evermore’… To have not one, but two surprise albums is something I never would’ve guessed to happen, especially in the same year! Truly not even sure I’ve fully recovered from these two beautiful albums,” Swiftie D’Amico told TODAY.

Everything Taylor Swift revealed with the release of 'Midnights'

Swift called "Midnights," her 10th studio album, "a collection of music written in the middle of the night, a journey through terrors and sweet dreams," on her Instagram.

Although most of the promotion for this album was straightforward — especially compared to the surprise drops of "folklore" and "evermore" in 2021 — Swift touted some surprises that came for fans in the days before and after the album's release.

Swift posted a video to her Instagram on Oct. 17 that featured a video of a weekly calendar filled with events all pertaining to the release of “Midnights.”

If fans looked closely at the calendar, which she called the “Midnights Manifest,” there was a “special very chaotic surprise” that came at 3 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 21 — which ended up being an extended version of the album, featuring seven more songs.

Also, on Oct. 17, she officially announced on her website that she would be doing a UK tour for "Midnights."

But, of course, Swift still had to keep fans on their toes ahead of the announcement. @TaylorNation, a verified account made for Swift's fanbase, tweeted at midnight on Oct. 17: "UK fans ... we'd head to the store now if we were you"

"Pre-order the new Taylor Swift album ‘Midnights’ on any format from the official UK store to get special presale code access for forthcoming and yet to be announced Taylor Swift UK show dates," the site reads.

And the announcement of the album was also a surprise: She dropped the news during a speech at the VMAs.

But could the announcement of "Midnights" have been predicted?

On May 5, Swift posted a trailer for "This Love (Taylor's Version)," a song to be featured on the Amazon Prime show, "The Summer I Turned Pretty," on her Instagram. At the end of Swift's caption, she said, "This Love (Taylor’s Version) comes out tonight at m i d n i g h t!"

Coincidence? The fans thought not.

And with "Midnights" came new theories about Swift's personal life, of course. "Lavender Haze," the first track on the album is a song about the publicity of a relationship — so naturally, Swift addresses what people are asking in the lyrics. And what the people are asking about is an engagement between her and her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn.

Are Swift and Alwyn getting married? She doesn’t say; only that she finds the question “dizzying.”

Aside from theories of engagement, fans also want to know more about the other tracks. Who is "Karma" about? Does the bonus track "Would've, Could've, Should've" revolve around a certain ex-boyfriend whose name rhymes with Shmon Shmayer? What was Swift doing on April 29?

Taylor Swift's staying power

For Swifties, Swift's appeal also comes through lyrics, which they say are relatable and poignant.

"She has this way of really capturing a moment, memory, lesson or time period in her life in the most moving and vivid way. She writes with such grace and intelligence — it’s so beautiful," Janis said said.

Swiftie Emily Duffy agreed with Janis' sentiment. "She approaches ordinary topics like falling in love, losing a friend, and growing older, and makes them so visual, catchy, and smart, that you can’t help but imagine the song in your mind while you listen ... Taylor can put into words so many feelings and experiences that are incredibly personal but have a universal effect," Duffy said.

Emily Duffy poses with Taylor Swift in New York City.Courtesy Emily Duffy

And the Swifties have proof to show their affection toward the singer: Holtzman has seen Swift live 17 times.

D'Amico said one of his life goals is to meet Taylor Swift and thank her for "playing a huge role" in his life. Jennings has been a dedicated fan since 2006. Duffy has a Taylor Swift tattoo.

For them, "Midnights" is just another chapter in a love story.