2020 was a pretty good year to be a Taylor Swift fan. Her name trended on Twitter alongside rave reviews of her two surprise albums, folklore and evermore, instead of the death threats and snake emojis that followed her 2016 feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
But it can be frustrating to be a Swiftie who couldn’t care less who the singer is dating – who hits mute on every headline about sightings of Taylor with actor boyfriend Joe Alwyn – when so many fans have a scarily passionate obsession with her love life.
A vast number of fans believe Taylor’s relationship with Alwyn is a publicity stunt, covering up for clandestine relationships with 2012 flame Harry Styles (a ship known as “Haylor”), model Karlie Kloss (“Kaylor”) or Glee cast member Dianna Agron (“Swiftgron”).
These fans spend their time photoshopping “manips” or writing fanfiction about their chosen pair, or scouring lyrics for hidden clues that their faves are together. And it’s not just a few fanatics on social media – a recent Vulture piece painstakingly attempted to prove the queerness of evermore through a series of tenuous links, such as the resemblance between the frilly outfits in the ‘Willow’ music video and gowns from the ‘Lesbian Bonnet Film’ genre. The journalist insists on the gayness of new song ‘Gold Rush’, citing how “Kaylors (Taylor and Karlie truthers) believe “gold” lyrics point to the night Taylor and Karlie were photographed wearing matching gold flash tattoos.”
“As a person who deeply wishes Taylor were queer, admittedly, I’ve had trouble accepting J*e into my heart,” they write – copying Joe-deniers’ refusal to spell out his full name.
There are fans who do believe Taylor and Joe’s relationship is real – to the point they become fixated on proving the pair are either engaged or already secretly married. Many more are convinced that Taylor, who just turned 31, will soon take a break from making music to have children.
These ships and obsessions could seem like a bit of meaningless fun. So why is all this theorising so bad?
The speculation over Taylor’s retirement is undoubtedly sexist. It shows how we view a 31-year-old woman as past her prime, despite the industry being saturated with male artists in their seventies still creating albums and sell-out tours – 78-year-old Paul McCartney released his 18th studio album McCartney III in December, and the 2020 album Music… The Air That I Breathe marked 80-year-old Cliff Richards’ 105th record release. We treat it as inevitable that Taylor will have children, and that as soon as she becomes a mother her career will be over. Why do either of those have to be the case?
Obsession over her partners also defeats all Swift’s careful efforts to maintain her privacy. In a recent interview with Apple Music, and again in the documentary folklore: the long pond studio sessions on Disney+, she explained that she has switched to focusing on fictional characters because writing ‘diaristic’ songs was no longer sustainable. She was sick of every personal detail getting turned into inaccurate, exaggerated clickbait.
Taylor has long been bothered by the media slut-shaming and backlash provoked by her dating life. In 2019 told ET Canada it frustrated her to see people “reducing me to making slideshows of my dating life and putting people in there that I’d sat next to at a party once” as this fixation with her boyfriends “completely minimises” her songwriting skill.
So how can fans – who’ll happily jump to defend Taylor against derogatory headlines – perpetuate the same invasive behaviour through their predatory obsessions over Taylor’s partners?
Taylor isn’t the first celeb to become caught up in “shipping” wars, and we know it never ends well. One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson admitted to The Sun that pressure from ‘Larries’ (fans who believe Louis and Harry Styles are together) caused the bandmates’ friendship to break down. He said the theories felt “disrespectful to [then-girlfriend] Eleanor” and that knowing “everyone was looking into everything we did” “took away the vibe” and “made everything, I think on both fences, a little bit more unapproachable”.
After years of speculation over his sexuality, YouTuber Dan Howell posted a groundbreaking coming out video. In the video he discusses “Phan” – the popular ship between himself and longtime friend Phil Lester. He says in around 2011 “people started to really dig into my private life to find out information about me that I wasn’t ready to share… It felt like I was back at school again, surrounded by threatening people trying to expose me for their entertainment… this experience seriously triggered some PTSD in me and I was back in the dark place”.
Dan also poignantly points out that even if the rumours around a celebrity’s sexuality are true, as they proved to be in his case, they deserve to be able to come out at their own time, when it’s safe to do so.
It might be that fans’ theories don’t affect Taylor’s mental health or friendships so severely – that she’s able to ‘Shake It Off’. Even so, the fact people comb through a new album for fuel to add to the fire of their conspiracies plays into the sexist idea that the most interesting thing about a woman is who she’s dating.
Inevitably, Swift’s love of Easter Eggs actively encourages fans to form elaborate theories – she’s fond of planting graffiti, symbols and street signs in the background of music videos as a nod to past songs, and fans are occasionally awarded with a “like” from Tay to confirm their guesses are correct. “Haylors” and “Kaylors” might argue that they are not overstepping, simply finding very well hidden clues. They may argue that by framing elements of her music as a puzzle to be solved, Taylor “baits” fans and brings this level of speculation upon herself.
Taylor no longer includes secret messages in the lyric booklets of her CDs, which might indicate that she is ready to reduce fans’ insight into her personal life. Perhaps, in order to draw a clear line between what is and isn’t ok to discuss, the Easter Egg hunt will have to go – although I hope that there is a way for both Taylor’s privacy and her close connection with fans to remain intact; that fans themselves can begin to acknowledge when the joke has gone too far.
Of course, this article might only send people down a further rabbit hole of speculation by pointing out new and unfamiliar theories, but I hope soon we are able to focus solely on Taylor’s lyricism and songwriting talent, and that the wildest headlines no longer get the clicks they crave.
Words by Alice Hiley
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