THE PALM TREES ARRIVED IN FEBRUARY, seven in all, set against a pastel blue backdrop with superimposed stars. It appeared that a new Taylor Swift era was upon us — that the old happy-go-lucky Taylor was not, in fact, dead. Or did it? It was only an Instagram photo, just one more picture in an infinite content scroll. But it also came from a pop star known for prodigious hint-dropping, whose fans turn every piece of info into an online archaeological dig.
As expected, the summery post sent Swifties sifting through each detail with a fine-tooth comb. What did the trees symbolize? An overdue vacation? A recently purchased beach house? A secret palm-frond collection? Or maybe, as many surmised, it was new music. One Twitter user predicted that the number of stars in the background of the photo hinted at a single drop: “There’s about 60/61 [stars]️. There’s 61 days until April 26, FRIDAY, a SINGLE RELEASE day!” Another said it was the unofficial announcement of her next LP: “Okay so in this picture there are 4 palm trees on the left (4 country albums). There are two palm trees on the right (2 pop albums). There is one large palm tree in the middle. This represents her new album.” These may sound like ludicrous conspiracy theories — for the record, they were mostly correct — but they fit firmly within the Taylor Swift Musical Universe (it’s like the Marvel Cinematic Universe but with more guitars and fewer Stan Lee cameos).
“I posted that the day that I finished the seventh album,” says Swift about the photo. “I couldn’t expect [my fans] to know that. I figured they’d figure it out later, but a lot of their theories were actually correct. Those Easter eggs were just trying to establish that tone, which I foreshadowed ages ago in a Spotify vertical video for ‘Delicate’ by painting my nails those [pastel] colors.”
It’s now April, and the 29-year-old pop star is in a Los Angeles photo studio, giving her first sit-down magazine interview in three years. She wants to discuss the art of placing hints inside her work, as well as the upcoming record, which she recorded as soon as she finished the Reputation Tour. She’s also keen on detailing her own obsessions, talking up the TV shows, books, and songs that help shape her outlook on life.
Over the past 13 years, Swift has perfected the pop culture feedback loop: She shares updates about her life and drops hints about new music, which fans then gobble up and re-promote with their own theories, which Swift then re-shares on her Tumblr or incorporates into future clues. It’s like a T-Swift-built Escher staircase of personal memories and moments that tease what’s next. “I’ve trained them to be that way,” she says of her fans’ astute detective work. Swift is a pop culture fanatic herself (see: the jean jacket she’s wearing on the EW cover) and has an innate understanding of the lengths her audience will go to be a part of the original creation. “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.”
Through this approach, Swift has designed the ultimate artistic scavenger hunt — and it’s easy to get swept up in its drama, even if you don’t listen to her music. Her moments aren’t always hidden, either. Sometimes Swift highlights aspects of her world just so fans feel like they’re on the journey with her. Like the time in March 2018 when pop singer Hayley Kiyoko was accused of shading Swift after mentioning her name during an interview. On Tumblr, Swift re-shared a fan’s post, adding commentary that defended Kiyoko, which immediately dispelled any conflicts between the two artists; Swift’s post subsequently received more than 29,000 notes. Four months later, she invited Kiyoko on stage during the Reputation Tour to sing her hit “Curious.” Kiyoko returned the favor when she had Swift join her that December at a benefit on behalf of the LGBTQ organization the Ally Coalition to perform “Delicate.” Fans of both artists were elated by the mutual support.
The feedback loop also extends outside of music. In October 2018, Swift broke her silence about politics by publicly endorsing two candidates for office in her adopted state of Tennessee, while encouraging her followers to register to vote. She kept up the civic momentum through Election Day when she asked fans to post selfies after voting; Swift then eagerly re-promoted her favorites on Instagram stories.
This practice of sharing and re-sharing and sharing again is why listeners consider Swift one of the world’s most accessible pop stars, someone willing to not only interact with her audience but invite them to secret listening sessions, or make the occasional surprise visit to their wedding or prom. It’s a symbiotic relationship, one that, as Swift tells EW, helped her dig out of the darker era of reputation. “It’s definitely the fans that made that tonal shift in the way I was feeling,” she says. “Songwriters need to communicate, and part of communicating correctly is when you put out a message that is understood the way you meant it. reputation was interesting because I’d never before had an album that wasn’t fully understood until it was seen live. When it first came out everyone thought it was just going to be angry; upon listening to the whole thing they realized it’s actually about love and friendship, and finding out what your priorities are.”
Then, during the Reputation Tour, she had an epiphany: that despite the caricature that she thought had been created of her, there were many people who saw what others had simply refused to. “I would look out into the audience and I’d see these amazing, thoughtful, caring, wonderful, empathetic people,” she says. “So often with our takedown culture, talking s— about a celebrity is basically the same as talking s— about the new iPhone. So when I go and I meet fans, I see that they actually see me as a flesh-and-blood human being. That — as contrived as it may sound — changed [me] completely, assigning humanity to my life.”
At tour’s end, she channeled that positive energy into the studio, recording the new album in just under three months. But the fast pace won’t mean a short LP. Swift confirmed that her seventh record (she hasn’t announced a title yet; the working nickname among fans is TS7) will include more songs than any of her previous releases. “I try not to go into making an album with any expectation,” she says. “I started to write so much that I knew immediately it would probably be bigger.”
The project will also feature a mix of old and new collaborators (on the candy-coated lead single “ME!” Swift brought in Panic! At the Disco frontman Brendon Urie and coproducer Joel Little, both of whom she had never worked with), but she is unsurprisingly coy about doling out much more information, as if doing so would break the carefully honed T-Swiftian feedback loop. “There’s a lot of a lot on this album,” she says. “I’m trying to convey an emotional spectrum. I definitely don’t wanna have too much of one thing…. You get some joyful songs and you get the bops, as they say.” There’s also, she adds, some “really, really, really, really sad songs,” but “not enough to where you need to worry about me.”
She gives us one more clue: The true distinction between TS7 and reputation is in the delivery. “This time around I feel more comfortable being brave enough to be vulnerable, because my fans are brave enough to be vulnerable with me. Once people delve into the album, it’ll become pretty clear that that’s more of the fingerprint of this — that it’s much more of a singer-songwriter, personal journey than the last one.”
The past month has seen a deluge of Swift activity, from the release of the new single to dropping more hints in interviews about the record and its title, which is apparently hidden somewhere inside the “ME!” music video (current fan guesses include Kaleidoscope and Daisy). But if the Easter eggs from the pop star seem like a business-as-usual routine, she says this album does indeed mark a new era of her life, where she’s been better able to prioritize what’s important to her.
“Our priorities can get messed up existing in a society that puts a currency on curating the way people see your life,” she says. “Social media has given people a way to express their art. I use it to connect with fans. But on the downside you feel like there are 3 trillion new invisible hoops that you have to jump through, and you feel like you’ll never be able to jump through them all correctly. I — along with a lot of my friends and fans — am trying to figure out how to navigate living my life and not just curating what I want people to think living my life is. I’m not always able to maintain a balance, and I think that’s important for everyone to know about. We’re always learning, and that’s something that I also had to learn — that I’ve got to be brave enough to learn. Learning in public is so humiliating sometimes…. Do I feel more balanced in my life than I ever have before? Um, probably yeah. But is that permanent? No. And I think being okay with that has put me in a bit of a better position.” Strong words to live by, to quote, to re-share, to tweet back to her, and see if she’ll respond.