Quoting Taylor Swift Lyrics Is an Actual Linguistic Thing
“space baby” “red lip classic”, “look what you made of me”, a million references to lost scarves – Taylor Swift fans communicate in encrypted form via subreddits and Twitter. Many Stans do. Fluency in an artist’s work is a currency of its own in close-knit communities of devotees. That’s why it was weird when Swift language made its way into the US Senate.
Last week, the Judiciary Committee grilled the president of Live Nation Entertainment over whether the concert giant was a monopoly after last year’s internet crisis collapsed over Ticketmaster’s presale processing for Swift’s Eras tour. Throughout the hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle labored with tongue-in-cheek references to Swift’s writing. “May I respectfully suggest that Ticketmaster look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem. It’s me,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, citing Swift’s recent hit “Anti-Hero.” While the moment went viral, it was met with glee and eye-rolling across the internet. “Senators Quote Taylor Swift Texts During Ticketmaster Hearings,” one self-confessed swiftie tweeted, “is both terrifying and GOLD.”
The quote-laden listen, and the response to it online, reveals a clear trait of Swift’s fandom, and indeed many fandoms: they speak a language all their own. When fans weave their lyrics into conversations, they do so with the context—Swift’s metaphors and double entenders, the situations and relationships the singer may be referring to—intact. It’s authentic. When politicians do it, it’s scary.
Quoting lyrics is a private way of speaking that brings Swift fans together, says Cynthia Gordon, who studies language and social media at Georgetown University. Gordon has spent years studying “lects,” or the different languages shared by a group of speakers, and sees one of them in the way swifties communicate. In families these are called “Familects” and grew out of years of inside jokes or riffs about what someone said to Grandma on that one trip. They’re like memes, but memes that are only funny to a very small group and are likely to sound unusual to listeners outside of their household. When families share “Familect,” Swifties may speak a fanilect. “By using language in this way, we make connections with people who share the references and who understand what’s going on,” says Gordon. “When you quote Taylor Swift, it connects us.”
The specific linguistic mechanism that comes into play when fans buzz around Swift quotes is called intertextuality — basically, it means 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 reinvigorates a shared set of meanings and experiences,” says Gordon.
The Internet serves as an accelerator for fanilects. Because song lyrics are readily available online, they have a distinctive term for linguists, “persistence,” meaning anyone can refer to them and reuse them. And the web—especially social media—offers myriad opportunities for intertextuality, opportunities for recontextualization, retweet, repost, repost. If a familect exists within a family unit, then the familect of an online community expands exponentially, like invisible threads over distance and time.
Effectively invoking a fanilect can foster feelings of intimacy, shared memories, and collective appreciation. But it can come with social risks. Tell a Swiftie, “I knew you had ‘problems when you came in,'” and they’ll laugh. Tell the same thing to a stranger and he will miss the meaning. Joke a Swift fan about how you “never get back together” at the end of a date and they’ll be happy to see you again. Tell that to someone unfamiliar with the fanilect and you’ll find yourself in a sociolinguistic pickle just in time for Valentine’s Day.
A fanilect can make it clear who is in the ingroup and who doesn’t “understand”. The limits become painfully obvious when an outsider tries to adopt the language of the community. That’s where the “cringe” feeling comes from. When older lawmakers with political agendas cite Swift texts, it is perceived as inauthentic. “It’s like a fake 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, linguist, part-time WIRED contributor and author of Because Internet: Understand the new language rules, says that a dialect is defined by new words and different pronunciations from mainstream American English. So “Swiftie” is a word in its own right, as is “gaylor,” the neologism that describes fans who believe Swift is secretly gay and sows clues about her sexuality in her songs. But fans who cite lyrics aren’t kidding, argues McCulloch. Camille 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.”
https://www.wired.com/story/taylor-swift-lyrics-senate-linguistics-fanilect/ Quoting Taylor Swift Lyrics Is an Actual Linguistic Thing