“Empty space, baby.” “red lip classic”, “look what you made me do”, a million hints of lost scarves – on subreddits and on Twitter, Taylor Swift fans communicate via code. Many countries do this. Free ownership of an artist’s work is a kind of currency in close-knit communities of devotees. That’s why it was strange when the speech in Swift made its way into the US Senate.
Last week the Judiciary roasted the president of Live Nation Entertainment on whether the concert behemoth was a monopoly after last year’s internet crash due to Ticketmaster pre-selling Swift’s Eras tour. Throughout the hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made ironic references to Swift’s lyrics. “May I respectfully suggest that Ticketmaster look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem. It’s me,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, citing Swift’s recent hit “Anti-Hero.” While the moment went viral, it was met with glee and eye-rolls online. “Senators cite Taylor Swift lyrics during Ticketmaster hearings,” one said. self-proclaimed swiftie tweeted: “This is both cringe and GOLD.”
The quote-laden hearing and the online reaction to it reveals a hallmark of the Swift fandom, and indeed of many fandoms, that they speak their own language. When fans weave her words into a conversation, they do so with context — Swift’s metaphors and ambiguities, situations and relationships the singer might refer to — intact. It’s authentic. When politicians do it, it shrinks.
Quoting lyrics is a personal way of connecting Swift fans, says Cynthia Gordon, a language and social media student at Georgetown University. Gordon has spent years studying “lects,” or varieties of languages spoken by a group of speakers, and sees them in the way Swifts communicate. In families, this is called “family” and develops from years of inside jokes or riffs on what someone said during that trip to grandma. They are similar to memes, but memes that are only funny to a very small group and are likely to sound unusual to listeners outside of their households. If families share a “family”, then Swifts can speak fan. “By using language in this way, we create connections with people who share links and understand what’s going on,” says Gordon. “If you quote Taylor Swift, that brings us together.”
The specific linguistic mechanism that is used when fans discuss Swift quotes is called intertextuality, which is basically taking quotes and putting them in a new context, like a subreddit or a Senate hearing. “Each new iteration of a quote or word evokes and reanimates a shared set of meanings and experiences,” says Gordon.
The Internet serves as an accelerator for fans. Because lyrics are readily available online, they have a characteristic that linguists call “persistence,” meaning that anyone can refer to and reuse them. And the Internet, especially social networks, provides countless opportunities for intertextuality, opportunities for recontextualization, retweets, reposts, responses. If the familect exists in the family unit, then the familect of the online community expands exponentially, like invisible threads across distance and time.
Effective use of fanilect can foster feelings of intimacy, shared memories, and collective appreciation. But this may come with social risks. Tell Swiftie “I knew you were trouble 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’ll “never ever be together again” at the end of a date and they’ll be happy to see you again. Say that to someone who doesn’t know the fanilect and you’ll be in a sociolinguistic pickle just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Fanilect can clarify who is in his group and who “doesn’t understand”. Boundaries become painfully obvious when an outsider tries to adopt the language of the community. This is where the feeling of “wrinkling” comes from. When older legislators cite Swift texts for political purposes, it is perceived as unreliable. “It looks like a feigned understanding. You’re borrowing a language you don’t really understand,” says Gordon.
Not all linguists agree that Swift fans have a choice. Gretchen McCulloch, linguist, occasional WIRED contributor and author Because the Internet: understanding the new rules of language, says the dialect is defined by new words and pronunciations different from mainstream American English. Thus, “Swifty” stands for a separate word, as does “Gaylor”, a neologism describing fans who believe that Swift is secretly a lesbian and sow clues about their sexuality in their songs. But fans quoting lyrics aren’t doing anything special, McCulloch argues. Camille Vazquez, an Internet linguist at the University of South Florida, says Swift’s art of quoting can more accurately be described as “an intertextual discourse phenomenon.”