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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Quoting Taylor Swift Lyrics Is an Actual Linguistic Thing

“Blank Space, baby,” “red lip classic,” “look what you made me do,” a million allusions to lost scarves—across subreddits and Twitter, Taylor Swift fans communicate in code. Lots of stans do. Fluency in an artist’s work is its own kind of currency in tight-knit devotee communities. Which is why it was odd when Swift-speak found its way onto the US Senate floor. 

Last week, the Judiciary Committee grilled the president of Live Nation Entertainment about whether the concert behemoth was a monopoly, following last year’s internet meltdown over Ticketmaster's handling of presales for Swift’s Eras tour. Throughout the hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worked in tongue-in-cheek references to Swift’s lyrics. “May I suggest, respectfully, that Ticketmaster look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem. It’s me,'” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, quoting Swift’s recent hit “Anti-Hero.” While the moment went viral, it was met with glee and eyerolls on the internet. “Senators quoting Taylor Swift lyrics during the Ticketmaster hearings,” one self-professed Swiftie tweeted, “is both cringe and GOLD.” 

The quote-laden hearing and online response to it reveal a distinct characteristic of Swift’s fandom, and indeed many fandoms: They speak a language all their own. When fans weave her lyrics into conversation, they’re doing it with the context—Swift’s metaphors and double entendres, the situations and relationships the singer may be referencing—intact. It’s authentic. When politicians do it, it’s cringe. 

Quoting song lyrics constitutes 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 the 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 one trip to Grandma’s. They’re like memes, but memes that are only funny to a very small group and probably sound unusual to listeners outside their households. If families share “familect,” then Swifties might speak a fanilect. “In using language this way, we’re creating connections with people who share the references and who understand what’s taking place,” Gordon says. “If you’re quoting Taylor Swift, that connects us.” 

The specific linguistic mechanism at play when fans bat around Swift quotes is called intertextuality—basically, taking quotes and bringing them into new context, like a subreddit or a Senate hearing. “Each new iteration of a quotation or word invokes and reanimates a shared set of meanings and experiences,” says Gordon. 

The internet serves as an accelerant to fanilects. Because song lyrics are readily available online, they have a characteristic linguists call “persistence,” meaning anyone can refer to them and reuse them. And the web—particularly social media—provides countless opportunities for intertextuality, chances to recontextualize, retweet, repost, riposte. If a familect exists within a family unit, then an online community’s fanilect expands exponentially, like invisible strings across distance and time.

Invoking a fanilect effectively can foster feelings of intimacy, shared memories, and collective appreciation. But it can come with social risks. Tell a Swiftie, “I knew you were ‘trouble when you walked in,’” and they’ll laugh. Tell a stranger the same thing, and they’ll miss the meaning. Joke with a Swift fan that you’re “never ever, ever getting back together” at the end of a date, and they’ll be eager to see you again. Say that to someone who doesn’t know the fanilect, and you’re in a socio-linguistic pickle just in time for Valentine’s Day. 

A fanilect can make it clear who is in the in-group and who doesn’t “get it.” The boundaries become painfully obvious when an outsider tries co-opting the language of the community. That’s where the “cringe” feeling comes from. When older lawmakers with political agendas quote Swift lyrics it’s perceived as inauthentic. “It’s like a feigned understanding. You’re borrowing a language that you don’t really understand,” says Gordon. 

Not all linguists agree that Swift fans have a lect. Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist, occasional WIRED contributor, and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, says a dialect is defined by new words and distinct pronunciations from mainstream American English. So “Swiftie” marks a distinct word, as would “Gaylor,” the neologism that describes fans who believe that Swift is secretly gay and sowing clues about her sexuality in her songs. But fans quoting lyrics do not a lect make, 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.” 

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Vásquez observes that Swift, specifically, is well-positioned to be at the center of such a phenomenon. “She is prolific. She’s produced a lot of music,” she says. The singer’s career has now spanned 17 years and 10 albums. There seems to be a Swift lyric for almost every occasion and sentiment. (This writer has a Spotify playlist that solely consists of Swift’s albums, and it is 12 hours and 57 minutes long—which rounds up to 13, a number that is significant to any Swiftie.) Swift also frames herself primarily as a songwriter, almost presenting her lyrics, at least in her earlier albums, as deeply personal diary entries designed to be interpreted and decoded by listeners.

Vásquez also points to Swift’s carefully constructed persona as belonging to a young woman who knows how to use her platform and tap into the times. This makes her an even more intriguing center of a linguistic phenomenon: She’s proven herself to be well-practiced at using language to navigate scandals across a very long, very public career. So it’s altogether 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 well know that Gaylor fans will interpret her song “Lavender Haze” as an allusion to queerness. 

Moreover, Swift is someone who, unlike a quotable book or movie, is continuing to generate material for the fanilect—each new song a message in a bottle launched into cyberspace to be infinitely and richly recontextualized, until it gets to you.

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