To a dedicated Swiftie, an Instagram post from Taylor Swift isn't just a photo. It's a puzzle. What hidden messages are embedded into this square? What is Swift really trying to tell us? In addition to song lyrics and cryptic messages on her website, Instagram is a key medium in the wry, unceasing dialogue-in-secrets carried out between the pop star and her fans.
But so far, the TS7 clues are more subtle than the Reputation release, for which Swift wiped her Instagram entirely and started over fresh (and snakey). With that challenge in mind, we spoke to Aliza Bran of the International Spy Museum to decipher Swift's recent behaviour through the lens of an actual intelligence agent — and determine whether these posts really indicate whether TS7 is imminent.
Bran explains that in the world of espionage, there are a three main sources of intelligence collection relevant to this case: Open source intelligence, human intelligence, and imagery intelligence. Conventionally, "imagery intelligence" in the intelligence world is limited to photos taken via satellite (and the photos taken of Swift's Rhode Island mansion don't help us much here). Swift fans certainly close-read images – but they're publicly available images.
"Human intelligence is the fun stuff — the people doing hands on collection," Bran said. In the spy world, that would be KGB agents like Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings of The Americans, slinking around D.C. in during the Cold War. In the pop culture realm, it would be sources like Perez Hilton, rooting out gossip-worthy tidbits. Naturally, Hilton does have alleged information about TS7— he claims that Swift personally told him her seventh album would be out before her 30th birthday in December 2019.
But to fuel their theories, Swift's fans are turning to open source intelligence: Anything that's on the internet or accessible by the public. Particularly, that means Swift's Instagram — beginning with one key photo from February 24 of seven palm trees.
Let the close-reading games begin. Fans theorised that each of the palm trees represent an album situated somewhere along the pop to country spectrum. Swift's first four albums (Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, and Red) were more country; the last two (1989 and Reputation), more pop. TS7 falls right in the middle in a category of its own. Or, the photo might have a clue for a release date. One fan counted the number of stars in the sky (61), and predicted it was a countdown to the album release — bringing TS7 to a May 6 release. Or, the trees could be the date: "Four, then one, then two" palm trees could translate to April 12.
Palm trees appear to be the motif of her new project. Once fans started looking for palm trees in Swift's past, they found them everywhere: Sewn onto a Reputation-era army jacket, in the music videos for "End Game" and "Delicate." In the Instagram story of her friend, Iris Apatow. In the dress of her once-rival, Katy Perry.
The theories quickly slide into "reaching" territory. Historically, palm trees have been an emblem of victory and longevity — so given that, should we read into the word "eternal" stitched into her Versace gown for the Billboard Awards? Or will TS7 feature a mermaid theme, instead? Swift was Ariel of The Little Mermaid for her New Year's Eve party and wore a mermaid shirt at the end of the Reputation Netflix movie. Perhaps this indicates the end of one era and the start of another.
Clearly, there are a lot of clues floating around (a lot). Put together, Bran said, this gathered intelligence can be used in structured analytical techniques. "These techniques are used to separated perceptions from fact. What is real and what are we making broad assumptions about?" Bran said. Essentially, these are the methods that intelligence agents use when searching for an answer.
When it comes to analysing a public figure like Swift, Bran recommends taking a "leadership analysis" approach. "Typically, this is used by intelligence folks when determining how a foreign leader will react to an event or situation by knowing their background, patterns, personality, or societal and cultural factors," Bran explained.
But in this case, leadership analysis would entail making a profile of Swift using her past behaviour. "What would she do? I only matters what she would do in this situation, not what anyone else do," Bran emphasises.
Step one: Look to the 'gram, her direct conduit for communication. Swift, who can be sporadic on social media, particularly between album cycles, is upping the cadence of her Instagram posts. For Bran, that rang an alarm: Something big was coming.
"Putting something on social media is like Tuesday for the Kardashians. That’s normal. But for Swift right now, it's going to mean something different," Bran said. "You're seeing a change in behaviour. Clearly there’s something she’s leading up to, otherwise there’d be no change in behaviour." That "change in behaviour" can also include the Elle cover story, which Swift wrote herself.
Further, as the meticulous Reputation roll-out proved, Swift is deliberate in the art of the album tease. Fans are only flurrying toward theories precisely because they know Swift — and this kind of drawn-out reveal is what she does best.
Swift's well aware of her role as the puzzle master. Recently, the superstar posted a photo of her cat with the caption, "She just read all the theories." If the Swifties are playing a game, it's only because Swift wants them to. (And speculation is constant about everything. Just this past weekend, radio programmers quickly kiboshed rumours of a final official Reputation radio single release.)
So, Swift's probably planning something — but what? Bran suggests trying out the "starbursting" method to organise all the overflowing TS7 evidence, from subtle countdowns to palm trees. Starbursting is an organised way of deciphering patterns. "You look at the all of the major questions you could ask within the who/what/when/where windows and determine which facts you have, what has been done in the past, what patterns are there," Bran said. "If you had all answers to the questions you outline, you'd know the answer."
Well, the "what" is easy: We're looking for evidence of Swift's seventh album. But the rest? Not so much. "Who" is Taylor Swift — and anybody who might know information about the album. Ideally, Bran recommends we look toward her musical collaborators, or the people close to Swift, like her family members or boyfriend Joe Alwyn. But most of us don't have direct access (or her best friend Abby's phone number on speed dial). So, Bran also suggests looking toward people who have been correct in knowing music information in the past — like fan accounts.
It's the "When" category that's more urgent for most fans, especially since people think the recent Instagram posts are a count-down to some kind of announcement.
In the past, Swift's albums had been released with consistency. After October 24, 2006, when her self-titled debut came out, the subsequent four albums came every two years, some time in the fall. Reputation broke the pattern by coming three years after 1989, in 2017. Given that Swift allegedly told Hilton the seventh album would be out before her 30th birthday on December 13, 2019, this could be a restoration of the two-year cycle. Still, based on theories mentioned earlier, there's evidence that the album (or perhaps the album announcement) would come in the spring.
Finally, there's the "how" — what we've been talking about this whole time. How is she unveiling the news? Her Instagram posts are on an more frequent cadence. Her website has a new typeface. After months of silence, she wrote a piece in Elle. She's been seen out and about with Alwyn. All of this tips us off to an announcement.
For another person, these small changes might not be anything to read into — just a small rebrand. But, as leadership analysis taught us, this is Swift we're talking about. Of course it all means something.
But before declaring a theory true, any good intelligence agent would complete the final step: "Red teaming," or a way of using an outsider's perspective to hack biases.
"The earlier you come up with your own impression of something, that impression will continue. You need someone far from the info and doesn’t have your ingrained mental traps," Bran said. Essentially, Swifties want a new album, so they're letting cognitive bias guide them to develop theories.
To try red teaming yourself, Bran proposing coming up with three alternative theories and seeing whether evidence applies to those theories, too. Maybe Swift is preparing to drop a release date (and/or a title) for TS7, not TS7 itself. Maybe she's unveiling a clip from Cats! Maybe she's just counting down to a track list. Would the clues apply to those theories, too?
No matter what, the impulse to theorise is understandable. “If things are uncertain, we try to come up with theories because it’s easier that way,” Bran said.
So, what does stand-in for the intelligence community think? "After looking at the information I have high confidence of an announcement," Bran said, predicting it would come soon.