Taylor Swift Loves Puzzles More Than You

The author, visiting a secret puzzle piece for The Tortured Poets Department release in Brooklyn

Back in the late 1960s, rumors started to circulate among Beatles fans that Paul McCartney died in 1966, and was replaced by a lookalike. While official sources refuted the rumors, fans poring through the Beatles’ discography started picking up on clues that seemed to support those theories, ranging from backmasked audio hidden in songs to secret messages inserted into the album covers for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.

Fans even managed to find a secret phone number written in the stars, if you held the Magical Mystery Tour album up in front of a mirror. According to some rumors, calling that number would trigger the cryptic message, “you’re getting closer…” The theory came to be known as Paul is Dead.

The Magical Mystery tour in its original form, and mirrored (with an emphasis on the “phone number”

Of course, Paul McCartney was (and still is, at the time of this article) very much alive. And there is minimal evidence to even support the Paul is Dead 2.0 theory, arguing that even though Paul was alive, the band intentionally sprinkled clues alluding to his death. The connections were likely a series of apophenic coincidence – with fans creating meaning out of nothing.

Paul is Dead may not have been a “solvable” game, but it still plays a formative role in the creation of alternate reality games. According to an interview with The Beast‘s lead writer Sean Stewart, The Beast‘s creative director Jordan Weisman was heavily influenced by Paul is Dead as he constructed what came to be credited as the first alternate reality game:

Jordan from the time he was very young had been obsessed with, among other things, the Beatles mystery…if you looked at the cover of Sgt Peppers there were clues on it that indicated that Paul McCartney was actually dead….Almost certainly none of that was true, but it was a very powerful urban myth and with the advent of the internet he was thinking, “I think we could do this now…but for real.”

No Proscenium Podcast, ep. 156

Alternate reality games would return to musical themes a number of times over the years, most notably with the release of Nine Inch Nails’ concept album Year Zero, which started with “leaked” USB drives left in the bathrooms of concerts and culminating in a secret concert raided by a (fictional) SWAT team. But one of the more impressive answers to the question “what if Paul is Dead was real” comes from outside the alternate reality gaming arena. Instead, it comes from the musical career of Taylor Alison Swift.

Taylor Swift Learns to Play the Puzzling Long Game
Taylor Swift’s lyrical puzzles started out relatively simple: for her first five albums, the song lyrics featured in her liner notes were all presented in lower case. The only exception to that rule? A handful of capitalized letters that spelled out secret messages. For instance, the message spelled out in the lyrics of Long Live spells out the phrase “for you”, drawing attention to the song’s role as a love letter to her fellow band-mates, and to her emerging fandom.

Speak Now liner notes, with capitalized letters (highlighted in red) for Long Live spelling out “FOR YOU”

Taylor Swift may have started with hidden messages in liner notes, but things quickly spiraled into deeper “easter eggs” hidden throughout her works. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, Swift explains:

That’s when it started [with the liner notes]…but when it got out of control was when I started to realize that it wasn’t just me that had fun with it, that they had fun with it too, and I should never have learned that. Because then I couldn’t stop, and all I started thinking of was how do I hint at things? How far is too far in advance? Can I hint at something three years in advance? Can I even plan things that far…

…and look. I think that it is perfectly reasonable for people to be normal music fans and to have a normal relationship to music. But…if you want to go down a rabbit hole with us, come along.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

Under that guidance, the puzzles started getting more considerably more varied and expansive. The music video for Me! wasn’t just filled with easter eggs when it dropped in April 2019…it also snuck in the title of her next studio album, which wouldn’t be formally announced until two months later.

Swift even started dabbling in more traditional puzzles through a series of “Vault Puzzles” in support of her album rereleases. Solve a puzzle, and unlock information about the coming release. For Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the vault puzzle was a relatively straightforward anagram. Red (Taylor’s Version) continued the tradition of anagrammed puzzles, but this time rewarded players to complete it with an image overlay to celebrate their accomplishment.

One of 90 Vault Puzzles leading up to the release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version)

The Vault Puzzles for 1989 (Taylor’s Version) ramped up the complexity to a whole new level. Swift’s team partnered with Google to hide a series of 89 different anagrammed puzzles in various Google search results. Fans needed to collectively solve those puzzles 33 million times to unlock news about the new album.

But even the Vault Puzzles pale in comparison to the long road to the release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version), and the surprise announcement of The Tortured Poet’s Department. But to explain that, it’s first necessary to provide a brief primer to the Lover House.

Welcome to the Lover House: How Taylor Color-Coded Her Works
Shortly after Taylor Swift released the music video for Lover, fans noted that each of the color-coded rooms in the music video mapped neatly to each of her albums. As additional albums released, fans managed to locate the color-coded locations for Folklore, Evermore, and Midnights, completing the Lover House.

This color-coded mapping of albums came in quite useful with the release of the music video for Bejeweled, which reimagined the Lover House as an extravagant high-rise building. Using the same color-coded system, the floors perfectly recreated Taylor Swift’s release history, confirming the theory and teasing her as-yet-unannounced next album, the rerelease of Speak Now (Taylor’s Version).

The elevator in the Bejeweled music video, teasing the next album’s launch

And the color-coded hints didn’t stop there: a few months later, a scene in the music video for Karma locked down specific dates to be on the lookout for updates. During one particular scene, Swift is carefully carrying a latte with a clock face on it, mere minutes away from Midnight (fitting, for a single from the Midnights album). Notably, Swift colored the nail near the 8 o’clock position blue, and the nail near the 2 o’clock position black. Fans interpreted this to mean that an announcement relating to 1989 (Taylor’s Version) should happen in August of that year, with an announcement relating to Reputation (Taylor’s Version) due for February of the following year.

A seemingly simple coffee cup from the Karma music video: blue nail at 8, black nail at 2

Right on schedule, Swift announced the release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) on August 10th, 2023 leading fans to feel more confident that Reputation (Taylor’s Version) would have its own announcement come February 2024.

A Reputational Red Herring: Welcome to The Tortured Poet’s Department
One of the earliest opportunities for Swift to fulfill the prophecy of her nail polish came on February 4th at the Grammy Awards, where Swift was nominated for multiple awards. Taylor and her team had been seeding a number of clues that something big was coming. Those theories were further supported when Taylor Swift’s website went down, and was replaced by a suspicious error code page.

When fans looked up what “Error 321 Backend fetch failed” means, they learned it’s an error code thrown on fax machines with poor telephone connections – or, as the lyrics to the Reputation song Look What You Made Me Do say, “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now”. The only complication? An additional message, reading hneriergrd: an anagram for red herring.

Out of an abundance of caution, fans took a closer look at the website’s source code and found a series of words in foreign languages in the source code. Translated, they made quite an odd assortment of phrases:

Evidence. Muses. Bruises. Talismans. Tick, Tick, Tick. Love Bombs. Veins. Ink. Chairman. Apple Cake. Cadence. Fake.

These words didn’t neatly line up with Reputation, and there were enough of them that it didn’t seem like they would be representing “Songs from the Vault”, the additional songs Swift traditionally added to Taylor’s Version releases. When Swift used her acceptance speech for Best Pop Vocal Album for Midnights to announce The Tortured Poets Department, it came as a surprise but also helped set the clues in place – especially since most (but curiously, not all) of the words hidden in her website’s source code were featured in the introductory letter from “The Chairman”, teasing the new album.

Matching words hidden in the source code to our introduction to TTPD

Five Stages of Grieving Over A Particularly Compelling TTPD Fan Theory
The Grammy’s big reveal that the release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version) was the red herring still left a few questions in place: why would an album aggressively color-coded as a “white” album?

Once albums started to go up for preorder, fans thought they found an answer. Over the course of the next month, four variants of The Tortured Poets Department were announced, with each album cover getting progressively darker. And with the gradual transition of shades, the final album’s dark gray hue might retroactively explain why the “February release” puzzle clued The Tortured Poets Department as black, rather than white.

More importantly: each album featured a different bonus song, rounding out the 17-track lineup: The Manuscript, The Bolter, The Albatross, and The Black Dog. As these albums were released, fans speculated that the full set would be five albums, each loosely mapping to a different stage of grief.

The stages of grief theory ultimately proved to be false…but Swift’s team found the idea compelling enough that they partnered with Apple Music to release custom playlists mapping out prior songs against the five stages of heartbreak. More than a few of these mappings came as a surprise to longtime fans, as the seemingly romantic song Lover was categorized as a song of denial. This isn’t the first time Taylor acknowledged and recognized particularly compelling fan theories.

The Times Square billboard for TTPD: these lyrics were also revealed at an LA pop-up “library” event

A Cavalcade of Streaming Partnerships: From Library Popup to QR Billboards
Apple Music wasn’t Taylor Swift’s only streaming music partnership in the lead-up to The Tortured Poet’s Department‘s release: each of the album’s main easter eggs was done in partnership with one of the big streaming platforms.

Spotify’s easter egg came in the form of a Los Angeles based pop-up “library”, featuring a massive tome highlighting lyrics from the new album, rotating out to feature new lyrics every few hours. Lyrics were mirrored on billboard advertisements on Times Square. Curiously, fans who started bingeing the album for its midnight release might have noticed that some of the lyrics revealed through the Spotify easter eggs weren’t actually present on the album: notably, “Lost the Game of Chance / What Are the Chances” and “Even Statues Crumble / If They’re Made to Wait” were highlighted in high profile placements but absent on the album as released.

Apple Music’s easter egg hunt was relatively straightforward: calling back to Swift’s earliest liner note puzzles, Apple Music held a scavenger hunt in the days leading up to release, injecting capital letters into Apple Music’s lyrics to spell out “we hereby conduct this post mortem”. Curiously, this phrase also didn’t appear anywhere in the album, as it was released.

The full Brooklyn TTPD billboard, without my head obscuring the explicit TTPD branding

YouTube’s partnership was one of the more interesting easter eggs, as it involved a series of billboard advertisements scattered across the world, forming QR codes made up of the letters “TTPD” written in a seemingly typewritten font. Each QR code drove to a separate YouTube Shorts video that showed a single key typed on a black-and-white typewriter, with a click-tracker in the background indicating how to order the videos. Once the puzzle was solved (resolving to For A Fortnight), the URLs were reprogrammed to redirect to the answer: ForAFortnight.com, with a countdown expiring at 2PM EST, on the album’s release day.

Putting It All Together: Teasing the 2AM Surprise
A curiously recurring thread through the rollout of The Tortured Poet’s Department was that puzzles and easter eggs kept providing more information than fans expected. When Taylor Swift’s website started throwing error codes prior to the Grammy Awards, it gave fans three words that weren’t present in the Chairman’s letter, and countdowns set to expire after the album’s scheduled release.

When fans finally got around to their midnight listening parties, almost half of the lyrics so painstakingly collected from billboards, pop-up events, and musical scavenger hunts were missing from the actual release. Everything about the promotional lead-up to The Tortured Poet’s Department was designed to confound fans, by presenting extra pieces to the puzzle that just don’t fit. Could it be that there’s something more to The Tortured Poet’s Department release?

Instagram teased out a new swipeable profile feature to tease the final piece of this puzzle

The missing piece to The Tortured Poet’s Department‘s release was one final countdown. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account recently tested out a new profile feature, where swiping down on the bio pulled up a “secret” feature for The Tortured Poet’s Department, with a countdown leading up to 2AM EST after the release, and the encouragement to “[join] the conversation on Threads”. And once 2AM came around, Swift announced that the physical edition was only half of the release. An additional fifteen tracks were released as part of TTPD: The Anthology, including all four bonus tracks from the physical release.

Swift had done a similar surprise release for Midnights, which dropped additional bonus tracks the night of release for the 3am Edition, intended as a surprise. With The Anthology, her secret release came with bonus foreshadowing.

And finally, things started making sense again. The missing lyrics weren’t missing, they were part of a surprise release. “We Hereby Conduct This Post-Mortem” was the opening line to How Did It End, one of the tracks from The Anthology. Spotify’s featured quote “Lost the Game of Chance / What Are the Chances?” came from the same song, with the line “Even Statues Crumble / If They’re Made to Wait” coming from The Prophecy, another song from The Anthology. As for the For A Fortnight countdown: while it didn’t tease The Anthology, when its 2PM countdown concluded it did confirm that Fortnight would be the first song off the album to get the music video treatment, and launched a challenge that would lead to a teaser clip of The Tortured Poet’s Department‘s introduction to the Eras Tour lineup. Even TTPD‘s integration into her current tour has been teased for over a year, with pictures of her themed microphone collection featuring a previously unused white microphone.

Only Scratching the Surface on Taylor Swift Easter Eggs
As is often the case when explaining how puzzles get solved, this article grossly oversimplifies the process of untangling the puzzle that Taylor Swift has transformed her life and her music into. And on so many levels, The Tortured Poet’s Department marks a step up in complexity for how she has effectively transformed every element of her public image into a cipher.

Because so many of Swift’s songs are at least semi-autobiographical, one of the larger elements of speculation and theorizing involves fans speculating about which songs are referring to which parts of her life. Going into TTPD, fans were expecting many of the songs to be about her long term relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, only to discover that quite a few songs are centering her relationship with 1975 singer Matty Healy, instead. Some of the most impactful songs from the album, like But Daddy I Love Him and I Can Do It With a Broken Heart, seem more focused on her relationship with fame and fans. And more than ever, even songs like thanK you aIMee, may be leading fans to think it’s about a different person than its actual focus.

And the big question remains: when will we be seeing the release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version)? One of the more compelling arguments notes that the Spotify popup featured a calendar on the desk with her Friday, December 13th marked off – the date is her birthday, and yes it will be a Friday in 2024, making for a compelling teaser, if true.

I wrote a Taylor Swift puzzle for a puzzle hunt and still accept that Taylor loves puzzles more than me

Yes, Taylor Swift Loves Puzzles More Than You
I’m not aware of Taylor Swift using backmasking to hide secret messages in her music. I have yet to find secret tracks between the grooves of her vinyl records. And I have not yet called a phone number because a Taylor Swift puzzle told me to do so.

But Taylor Swift’s easter eggs absolutely live up to the promise of that question Jordan Weisman asked over twenty years ago: can we do Paul is Dead, but for real” Yes. Swifties have been playing that game for years, and they keep getting better at it. The Tortured Poet’s Department alone had fans poring through the source codes of websites, going on global scavenger hunts to spell out messages, and hunting down secret messages in online videos. And the decision to turn her life into one massive ongoing puzzle is something so all-consuming that it’s more than a little terrifying to imagine: practically anything is on the table. She’s used everything from her fashion choices to her interview responses as potential fodder for easter eggs, even if Hey Stephen isn’t actually about Stephen Colbert.

And she hasn’t even started using these tricks for narrative storytelling, yet.

If you’d like to fall down the Taylor Swift rabbit hole with me, I recommend checking out Alex Antonides, who has surfaced some truly amusing Taylor Swift theories. The theories are wrong significantly more often than they’re right, but that’s part of the fun of following the space. Unhinged theories are enough of a staple of the space that speculation will often be referred to as “clowning”.

For an artistic exploration of the Lover House in particular, I posted a series of tweets highlighting Mel Bieler’s immersive art exhibition themed around Swiftie fandom. And yes, if you’d like to tackle a Taylor Swift puzzle of your own, I wrote a Swift-themed puzzle for the MIT Mystery Hunt that provides a tour of some of her greatest puzzle-centric hits.

Note: The MIT Mystery Hunt link to “Deep Conspiracy” will work after selecting “Public Access” on the 404 page that comes up for first-time visitors.

2 Comments

  1. Ariock

    I love this. Thank you for writing it up.
    Glad to hear that unhinged speculation is alive and well.

  2. Kristen Rutherford

    Anyone who knows me knows that I have been screaming TAYLOR ALISON SWIFT IS A PUPPET MASTER for ages. I have been toying with throwing a power point party just so this could be my topic. I found myself pulled over in my car streaming her 8/9 concert in her 19th city breathlessly waiting to see if she would come out in blue outfits which =1989TV announcement. It felt like the old days 🙂

    The amount of thought and preplanning that has to go into timing an event out that far in advance and executing it is mind-blowing –as anyone that’s worked on any ARG can tell you. She’s unbelievably masterful at it, and I’m also impressed with the type of organic community building that springs up around it.

    When she did the vault for 1989 I legit texted Elan to see if he was working with her in some way and if not, did he know that she was a puppetmaster — but then Steve Peters and I agreed that Elan would *never* have allowed that shit to crash as much as it did. lol infinity

    Thank you so much for writing this up, I am so happy that someone else is joining me in this Venn diagram.

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