When Taylor Swift announced her new album, Evermore, on Twitter this week, she added a curious flourish about the release date: “Ever since I was 13, I’ve been excited about turning 31 because it’s my lucky number backwards, which is why I wanted to surprise you with this now.”
It’s her birthday this Sunday, Dec. 13, and this album is a gift for fans, she was saying. Never mind that that’s not really how gifts work—if you give other people a gift for your birthday, one you want them to buy from you, that’s pretty weird, but whatever. What I really want to zero in on here, though, are the numbers. Swift mentioned 13 and 31 so everyone would be impressed by the destiny of it all. Honestly: She’s expecting us to believe that, of all the things to dream about as an adolescent, hers was turning the age that’s the inverse of her lucky number? I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. I see the fudging room in her words: She is not saying she didn’t also dream of normal things, like falling in love or becoming a famous pop star. But it’s still strange. Most kids can’t really conceive of ever being older than, like, 20, making 31 seem positively decrepit. I was a teenager when the movie 13 Going on 30, about a 13-year-old who can’t wait to be “30, flirty, and thriving,” came out, and I remember thinking at the time: Who wants to be 30?
The actual explanation for Swift’s weird fib about dreaming of her 31st year as a teenager is that she has a thing for the number 13—a thing that she has subsumed into the brand of being Taylor Swift. It’s a fixation that’s struck me as increasingly less charming as the years have gone on, and I recently realized why.
Consider this sentence: “It’s a world of meaning, in which every event has an occult significance, hidden from most but revealed to initiates.” That sounds like a decent description of Swift’s habit of ceding all the material—between songs, social media posts, and whatever else— that she puts into the world with clues for her fan army to run wild with, doesn’t it? But that’s not what it is: I actually copied that sentence directly from an article I read about QAnon.
I’m not saying liking Taylor Swift is like believing in QAnon. Only, maybe, that she drives me crazy in a similar way. QAnon is a conspiracy theory built around the premise that “America is run by a cabal of pedophiles and Satan-worshippers who run a global child sex-trafficking operation and that President Trump is the only person who can stop them,” as CBS News has put it. Its adherents believe that a Trump administration insider, known as Q, is communicating with them by leaving cryptic posts, or “Q drops,” on extremely shady message boards. After these posts go up, followers attempt to decode them, sort of like it’s all a multiplatform game. Journalists have likened the messages to “a bad spy novel,” full of clichés and “read[ing] like fan fiction.” Along with these Q drops, there’s a general propensity in the community to overinterpret and look for signs everywhere: The QAnon crowd was sure that Trump coming down with COVID-19 was all part of the plan, for example, and that there are definitely secret messages in run-of-the-mill-seeming posts on Army social media accounts. They do things like insist that the letters Trump decides to capitalize in his tweets must be anagrams that prove Q’s existence.
Now who does that remind you of?
Swift no longer leaves encoded messages in her liner notes like she did on early albums, but she still loves to give her fans a mystery to solve. Her use of numbers is part of that. Swift explained it to Paul McCartney in a Rolling Stone conversation earlier this year: “Numbers kind of rule my whole world. The numbers 13 … 89 is a big one.” At best, she’s that adult who never grew out of being obsessed with her birthday. You can’t fully blame her for all this: Being a child star is bound to a screw a person up a little.
Most of it is harmless and cute enough: She used to write 13 on her hand at concerts; several of her songs have 13-second intros; her fans notice stuff like “[w]hen Taylor posts a screencap of the song she is listening to on Instagram, the song’s timestamp will always be 13 seconds.” There’s a spectrum wherein sometimes these breadcrumbs are successful in adding a sense of something greater to Swift’s whole aura—a number 13 as a background detail in a music video, say. Sometimes they’re kinda silly—when fans note that a social media post of Swift’s used 13 exclamation points, fine, but who cares!—and sometimes they’re just asinine. And with this week’s particularly strained 13/31 baloney, the QAnon of it all really jumped out at me.
Here’s an even more egregious example from a few weeks ago, when Swift preceded the news that she had a new Folklore concert movie with, “Well it’s 11/24 and 24-11=13 so I’ve got an announcement.”
I’m honestly getting mad again, looking at it. How did we let Swift get away with this? She told us to take the date and subtract the month from it for what exactly? If it’s meaningful every time the date is 13 more than the month, where were the concert announcements on Oct. 23, Sept. 22, Aug. 21, and so on of this and every other year in history? You can’t retcon a date into having numerological significance, or if you can, then you have to admit that you’re just making it up. Numerology can be fun to think about, the idea that there’s something mystical at work in Swift’s oeuvre, but a sloppy reference like this undermines the whole enterprise. It makes it seem like Swift is just flinging the number 13 around willy-nilly to drive her fans (and me specifically) crazy.
The real problem here, I’m not too incensed to understand, is that QAnon and the rise of other dangerous conspiracy theories ruined this kind of silly speculating and superfan theorizing, not the other way around. Kids and Swifties should be able to go completely nuts looking for hidden meanings in their favorite artist’s work without it serving as a painful reminder of how many people in this country think they can apply a similar level of rigor to proving that the government is run by pedophiles. But I can’t do anything about all the morons who buy into QAnon. So I’m going to continue to channel my frustration into being annoyed that Taylor Swift’s references to the number 13 aren’t more sophisticated.