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Let’s go down the rabbit hole of Taylor Swift conspiracy theories

The theories surrounding Taylor Swift’s forthcoming album, Midnights, explained.

Taylor Swift performs onstage during the Nashville Songwriter Awards on September 20, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

This Friday, Taylor Swift will be dropping her 10th studio album, Midnights. A number of fans looking forward to the release are convinced that Swift is going to take the opportunity of the album drop to make some big reveal, as always seems to be the case with Swifties. What’s more, they believe that she’s seeded Easter eggs for said reveal going back years. Because is it really a Taylor Swift album release if we’re not close-reading offhand comments she said to Jimmy Fallon three years ago?

There are two major fan theories at play in the lead-up to Midnights. The first we’re going to call the Karma theory. The second is the Gaylor theory. One of them has been nearly confirmed, and the other nearly dashed.

Break out your decoder rings. Find a comically oversized magnifying glass. We’re about to go sleuthing.

Is there a secret lost Taylor Swift album?

Swift recently announced that track 11 on Midnights would be titled “Karma.” This title fits neatly into the Karma theory, which runs as follows: There is a secret unreleased Taylor Swift album titled Karma that was supposed to come out in 2016. This hypothetical album, fans believe, was scrapped following the infamous #KimExposedTaylorParty, when Kim Kardashian released excerpts of tapes that appeared to catch Swift in a messy public lie, and the public rapidly turned on her. (The full tape, released four years later in 2020, would exonerate Swift.) The “Karma” song on Midnights, fans believe, will be an unreleased track from the secret scrapped Karma album, and likely a diss track aimed directly at Kanye West as his reputation continues to plummet.

Here’s the evidence for the Karma theory. For the first part of her career, Swift dropped a new album every two years precisely. If she were following established patterns, then her sixth album, the followup to 2014’s 1989, should have come out in 2016. But after her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West made her a public pariah, Swift skipped a year, releasing Reputation in 2017 instead. Was there, fans demand to know, another album that was supposed to come out in 2016 instead, preempted for Reputation after Swift’s fall from grace?

Yes there was, many of those fans decided after Swift dropped the video for the first single of the Reputation era, “Look What You Made Me Do.” There, Swift can be seen cutting off the wings to an airplane labeled “TS6” — or, perhaps, Taylor Swift’s sixth album — and scrawling the word “reputation” over it: perhaps an allusion to the idea that her planned sixth album was scrapped and rebuilt into Reputation. “The world moves on, another day, another drama drama,” she sings. “But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma.”

Two years later, Swift once again appeared to drop a few hints about the mysterious and lost TS6. In the music video for “The Man,” the camera pans over a graffitied wall tagged with the titles of Taylor Swift albums — and the word karma, which appears twice on the wall. Next to one of the karma tags is a sign that says, “MISSING / IF FOUND RETURN TO TAYLOR SWIFT.”

Once fans had the word karma, they were off to scour Swift’s old interviews and talk show appearances for more clues. Soon enough, they hit paydirt. In a 2016 interview with Vogue, asked for her favorite life lesson, Swift replied enigmatically, “Karma is real.” It would have been just like Swift, fans concluded, for her to have begun hiding promotional Easter eggs for what she thought would be her next album as she brought her 1989 era to a close.

So far, so Swiftian. But if Karma was written before Taylor’s feud with Kanye went red hot, why do so many of her fans think it’s a Kanye diss track? Here we have to delve into Taylor Swift numerology. You will recall that “Karma” is track 11 on Midnight. Well! The first time Swift wrote a song about Kanye, back in 2010 after he charged the stage during her VMAs acceptance speech, that song was also track 11. Coincidence?

The Karma theory actually has gotten confirmation of a sort from Swift herself. After Swift announced that a track titled “Karma” would be appearing on Midnights, her management team triumphantly tweeted out a gif from the “Man” video showing the karma-tagged wall. No one on Swift’s team has confirmed that a secret Karma album exists or that the new “Karma” song is about Kanye, but the tweet appeared to confirm that at the very least, there was an intentional connection between the karma graffiti in “The Man” and the “Karma” track on Midnights.

Along with the gif, the tweet read, “​​Like how far is too far in advance? Can we hint at something three years in advance?” The quote is an allusion to Swift’s 2021 interview with Jimmy Fallon, in which she talks about how she began planting Easter eggs for her fans in her very first album.

“All I started thinking of was, ‘How do I hint at things, like how far is too far in advance? Can I hint at something three years in advance? Can I even plan things out that far? I think I’m going to try to do it,’” Swift said at the time. “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 water’s great.”

We’re about to dive a little deeper down into the rabbit hole as we turn to the Gaylor theory.

Is Taylor Swift secretly gay?

The most expansive definition of a Gaylor would be, “Someone who is interested in bringing a queer reading to Swift’s songbook.” A person who is very certain that Swift is straight and that her longterm partnership with Joe Alwyn is for real, but also feels “Betty” is a deeply queer song, might identify as a Gaylor. The category also includes people who believe strongly that Swift is either gay or bisexual and in the closet but has had secret relationships with women. That’s the crowd we’re dealing with next. In the lead-up to Midnights’ release, their theory has not been hyped up so much as smashed.

As with the Karma theory, we’ll begin with a track title reveal. “Lavender Haze” is the title of the first track on Midnights, and since lavender is frequently used as a symbol of the queer community, Gaylors came to the conclusion that “Lavender Haze” would probably be a pretty gay song.

Then Swift clarified. In a video posted to Instagram, she explained that she happened upon the phrase in an episode of Mad Men and liked it, and that she took it to describe the feeling of being in the early stages of love or infatuation. Queerness never entered into her definition.

Then Swift took her reasoning, for many Gaylors, a bridge too far. When you’re in the lavender haze, she explained, you want to stay there despite the obstacles, including other people’s opinions about your relationship. “Like my relationship for six years, we’ve had to dodge weird rumors, tabloid stuff, and we just ignore it,” she went on.

So Swift was not only going to make “Lavender Haze” a song about straight people, but she was also going to call Gaylor theories “weird”?

“Us Gaylors, we are Ukraine,” one Gaylor said in a now-deleted TikTok in response. “Taylor, you just handed Russia nuclear bombs.” Some accused Swift of “queer-baiting.”

The “Lavender Haze” debacle isn’t the first time Swift has gotten Gaylors’ hopes up only to dash them at the last minute. In the lead-up to announcing her 2019 album Lover, Swift took to dressing in rainbows (the symbol of gay pride!) and declared she had a big announcement to come on April 26 (Lesbian Visibility Day!). She announced the album in an interview with Robin Roberts (known lesbian!). In the music video for the album’s second single, “You Need to Calm Down,” she donned a wig in the colors of the bisexual flag and sang about gay pride.

Then Lover dropped, and it turned out to be full of straight-people wedding songs. A new round of conspiracy theories cropped up regarding whether Swift and Alwyn had secretly gotten engaged or perhaps even married. The whole thing was in many ways a classic Taylor Swift queer rumor cycle: it all seems almost plausible until it becomes emphatically heterosexual.

The Gaylor response to “Lavender Haze” might feel hyperbolic or needlessly aggressive, especially since Swift has never made any public statements about being queer and has been in multiple extremely public relationships with men. But it is in its way a counterpart to the kind of silly and harmless fan speculation behind the Karma theory.

Swift laces her music with Easter eggs, and then she invites her fans to go hunting for them. That’s part of how she creates the potent best-friend intimacy she shares with her fan base, this sense that she understands them and they understand her on some magical, distant level. Part of Swift’s genius is that her songs depict emotions that feel at once universal and deeply specific, so that it’s possible for her fans to feel deeply seen by her work. When they go off looking for the Easter eggs she’s told them she’s hidden, they get to feel that they are seeing her back. They, and they alone, understand Swift’s hidden pain, her secret loves, because she’s the only one who understands theirs.

But now that she’s sent that invitation out, everyone who heard it feels entitled to go on the hunt.

Down in the rabbit hole, the water’s great.