“Blank Space, baby”, “classic lipstick”, “look what you made me do”, a million allusions to lost scarves – through subreddits and Twitter, Taylor Swift fans communicate in code . Lots of stans do. Mastery of an artist’s work is its own kind of currency in close-knit communities of enthusiasts. That’s why it was odd that Swift-speak ended up on the floor of the US Senate.
The Judiciary Committee last week questioned the chairman of Live Nation Entertainment on whether the concert giant was a monopoly, following last year’s internet crisis over Ticketmaster’s handling of presales for the Swift’s Eras tour. Throughout the hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made ironic references to Swift’s words. “May I suggest, respectfully, that Ticketmaster look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem. That’s me,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said, citing Swift’s recent hit “Anti-Hero.” As the moment went viral, it was met with joy and eyes on the internet. “Senators Citing Taylor Swift’s Words During Ticketmaster Hearings,” a Self-proclaimed Swiftie tweeted, “is both cringe and GOLD.”
The quote-laden audience and online response to it reveal a distinct characteristic of Swift’s fandom, and indeed many fandoms: they speak a language of their own. When fans incorporate her lyrics into the conversation, they do so with the context — Swift’s metaphors and double meanings, the situations and relationships the singer may refer to — intact. It’s authentic. When politicians do it, it makes people cringe.
Quoting song lyrics is a private way of speaking that binds Swift fans together, says Cynthia Gordon, who studies language and social media at Georgetown University. Gordon has spent years studying “lects,” or varieties of languages shared by a group of speakers, and sees one in the way Swifties communicate. In families, these are called “familects” and are developed from years of inside jokes or riffs on that thing someone said on that trip to Grandma’s. They’re like memes, but memes that are only fun for a very small group and probably seem unusual to listeners outside their homes. If families share the “familect”, then Swifties could speak a fanilect. “By using language in this way, we bond with people who share the credentials and understand what’s going on,” Gordon says. “If you quote Taylor Swift, it connects us.”
The specific linguistic mechanism at play when fans fight over Swift quotes is called intertextuality — basically, taking quotes and putting them into a new context, like a subreddit or a Senate hearing. “Each new iteration of a quote or word invokes and reanimates a shared set of meanings and experiences,” says Gordon.
The Internet serves as an accelerator for fanilects. Because song lyrics are readily available online, they have a characteristic that linguists call “persistence,” which means anyone can refer to and reuse them. And the web, especially social media, offers endless possibilities for intertextuality, recontextualization, retweeting, reposting, retaliating. If a familect exists within a family unit, then an online community’s fanilect grows exponentially, like invisible chains across distance and time.
Effectively invoking a fanilect can foster feelings of intimacy, shared memories, and collective appreciation. But this can come with social risks. Tell a Swiftie, “I knew you were ‘a problem when you walked in'” and they’ll laugh. Say the same to a stranger and he will miss the point. Joke with a Swift fan that you “never, ever get over” after a date ends, and he’ll be eager to see you again. Tell that to someone who doesn’t know the fanilect, and you’re in sociolinguistic trouble just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“If you quote Taylor Swift, it connects us.”
Cynthia Gordon, Georgetown University
A fanilect can make it clear who is in the group and who doesn’t “get it.” The limits become painfully obvious when an outsider tries to co-opt the language of the community. This is where the feeling of “grinding your teeth” comes from. When older lawmakers with political agendas quote Swift’s words, it’s seen as inauthentic. “It’s like a false understanding. You’re borrowing a language you don’t really understand,” says Gordon.
Not all linguists agree that Swift fans have a read. Gretchen McCulloch, linguist, occasional WIRED contributor and author of Because the Internet: understanding the new rules of language, says that a dialect is defined by new words and distinct pronunciations from traditional American English. So “Swiftie” marks a separate word, as does “Gaylor,” the neologism that describes fans who believe Swift is secretly gay and plant hints of her sexuality in her songs. But fans who quote lyrics aren’t reading, McCulloch argues. Camilla Vásquez, an internet linguist at the University of South Florida, says the art of quoting Swift is more accurately described as an “intertextual discourse phenomenon.”
Vásquez observes that Swift, in particular, is well placed to be at the center of such a phenomenon. “She is prolific. She produced a lot of music,” she says. The singer’s career now spans 17 years and 10 albums. There seem to be Swift lyrics for almost every occasion and every feeling. (This writer has a Spotify playlist that consists of only Swift’s albums, and it’s 12 hours and 57 minutes long, which rounds up to 13, a number that’s significant for any Swiftie.) Swift also presents herself primarily as a songwriter, almost presenting his lyrics, at least on his previous albums, as deeply personal journal entries designed to be interpreted and decoded by listeners.
Vásquez also points out that Swift’s carefully constructed persona belongs to a young woman who knows how to use her platform and tap into her time. This makes her an even more intriguing center of a linguistic phenomenon: she has proven herself well trained in using language to navigate scandals over a very long and very public career. So it’s entirely reasonable to believe that Swift is a songwriting mastermind who plants self-aware Easter eggs in her lyrics, engaging her fans in the fanilect. She may know that Gaylor fans will interpret her song “Lavender Haze” as an allusion to queerness.
Additionally, Swift is someone who, unlike a quotable book or movie, continues to generate material for the fanilect – each new song is a message in a bottle tossed into cyberspace to be endlessly recontextualized and richly, until it comes to you.