Carissa Wills, now 27, was 14 when she first listened to Taylor Swift. After a rough day at school, she would run up to her room, throw her backpack on the bed and turn the volume up on her CD player. For Wills, the oldest of three siblings, it was like talking to the older sister she always wished she’d had.
“I didn’t have anyone to be like, ‘Hey, yo, you’re going through this thing right now ... this boy is being dumb ... but it’s going to be okay,’” she says. Swift, three years older than Wills, sang songs based on personal experience, belting out advice that felt tailor-made for teenage girls everywhere — and also, somehow, for Wills alone. “It was basically my therapy session,” she says.
Thirteen years later, Wills remains a committed “Swiftie.” A golf-course employee in Jackson, Tenn., she goes to a Taylor Swift show during every tour, listens to Swift’s music daily and posts regularly on a Twitter account now dedicated entirely to theorizing about the mystery announcement Swift plans to make on Friday. Wills’s bond to Swift is particularly strong, she says, because she feels like they grew up together.
Taylor Swift commands the most loyal fandom of any modern female pop star, says Brandon Hernsberger, a professor of English and pop culture at Houston Community College who has written extensively on the Taylor Swift fan base. Swift has a whopping 83 million followers on Twitter and 116 million followers on Instagram. “More than any other fan group,” he says, “her fans have aligned with her from the beginning.” That means that, while Swift is widely considered a pop icon for teenage girls, her most longtime, die-hard fans have grown up and stuck around, now straddling either side of 30. The intensity of their commitment is impressive. One millennial fan typically arrives at Swift concerts eight hours before they begin; another spent $500 on plush replicas of Swift’s two Scottish fold cats, posting pictures on Twitter to try to get the singer’s attention.
Swift released her first single, “Tim McGraw,” in 2006 at age 16. Immediately, the track surged on the country charts, followed by several other hits on her first album, “Taylor Swift.” (She has since transitioned from country to pop.) Swift’s big break came two years later, in 2008, when she released “Fearless,” winning Album of the Year at the Grammys. To date, she has been nominated for 32 Grammys, and won 10, becoming one of the top-selling female artists of all time.
Swift’s most devoted fan base is overwhelmingly white, Hernsberger says, perhaps because Swift started out as a country singer, a predominantly white genre.
Swift has been able to build a lasting connection with fans because she is really good at coming off like she is one of them, Hernsberger says. Particularly at the beginning of her career, she built her image as the girl next door, hiring her mom as her manager and singing songs about her real-life best friends and boyfriends. She confessed to feeling like an outcast in high school. She made YouTube videos about her cats.
“Taylor has this dorky side, and I am such a dork myself,” says Tarah Wiegmann, a 30-year-old hairstylist from outside Iowa City, Iowa, who has been listening to Swift since she was 15. “I feel like I know her.”
Now that Swift’s millennial fan base has gotten older, nostalgia is a big part of the appeal. Listening to some of Swift’s early albums, Swifties feel like they’re back in their teens, screaming the lyrics, driving to school with the windows rolled down.
“At 19, everything was way simpler than it is now, being fully married and having kids. When I’m upset or stressed, I can put Taylor on, and it takes me back to that time and place,” says Wiegmann.
A certain type of millennial woman continues to listen to Swift for the same reason she watches the early 2000s TV show “Gilmore Girls,” Hernsberger says: It’s comfortable and familiar, granting fans temporary admittance into a world that’s less complicated than the one they inhabit day-to-day. Multiple people described a Taylor Swift concert as “pure happiness.”
There are millennial men who feel a deep connection with Swift, too. Adam Aquilina, age 30, listens to Swift on his drive to and from the hospice where he works in Ontario caring for people at the end of their life. Swift’s music, he says, helps him to stay positive.
When Aquilina hears the song “Love Story,” released in 2008, he remembers sitting by the water with his high school girlfriend. At the time, listening to a simple story about a guy and a girl who end up together, despite Romeo-and-Juliet-like adversity, he was thinking, “This could be us.” Even though that relationship didn’t work out, and Aquilina is still looking for a partner, he continues to love the song. “[Taylor] gives me hope that love is still out there,” he says.
Aquilina knows it’s not “cool” to love Taylor Swift at age 30, particularly as a guy. But he’s not too concerned what people think. He mentions his Swift fandom on all of his online dating profiles, he says. He’ll tell prospective dates that he listens to Swift “99 percent of the time.”
“Usually the first comment I’ll get from somebody is, ‘Really, Taylor Swift? Really?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, really. If you don’t like it, then sorry. See you later.’”
This is something die-hard millennial Swifties have in common, Hernsberger says: They know they are going to be teased, and they’re okay with that. “Fans who love Swift love her for reasons that have nothing to do with social status,” he says. They know she’s seen as a singer for preteen and teenage girls, entirely devoid of the edginess that has made Beyoncé a universal superstar.
“When outspoken Taylor fans are openly mocked,” Hernsberger says, “it just galvanizes the fandom more.”
Swift has always excelled at reaching out to her fans and making them feel connected, Hernsberger says. She is well known for showing up at fans’ weddings or engagement parties, and for inviting groups of fans to her home to listen to an album before its release.
“Taylor says she likes to find people who have never met her, who have been fans since they were kids,” says Wiegmann, who follows a Swiftie on Twitter who she says was “hand-picked” to meet the singer at her home in Nashville. “I think that’s why so many people love her so much. I mean, who else does that? No one.”
Swift’s secondary Twitter account, “Taylor Nation,” has 956,000 followers and is dedicated almost entirely to retweeting fans. This strategy, Hernsberger says, is “brilliant.” When fans are retweeted or even “liked” by Taylor Nation, they often feel a unique connection to Swift. In her Twitter bio, Wiegmann writes, “TN liked 10/19/18.” On that October day, when Taylor Nation liked her post, Wiegmann says, she cried.
A few weeks ago, Swift started counting down to her next big release. No one knows exactly what she’s planning — it could be a song, a music video, a whole album, or something entirely different — but whatever it is will drop on April 26 at midnight.
The Swifties are “going crazy,” Wills says. The singer seems to have designed this release specifically for her most loyal fans. The initial announcement was subtle: She changed her profile picture on Instagram and linked to a website that hosted the countdown.
“But of course, Swifties immediately noticed,” Wills says. “I think she gears it towards us because she knows fans love to figure out what she’s doing.”
Ever since the announcement, Swift has been dropping hints on her social media: enigmatic, pastel-tinted pictures of briefcases and bicycles and tulle. Swifties have, in turn, been struggling to decode them. Aquilina’s current theory for “4/26” is that Taylor will “come out of her shell… come out like a butterfly.”
Aquilina says he hopes he’ll get to meet Swift someday. He often thinks about a moment at a Swift concert in 2018, when a group of teenage girls behind him was approached by a man in a suit and invited to go backstage. They looked like everybody’s idea of the typical Taylor Swift fan.
“Taylor’s people probably thought, ‘Oh, that’s just some older guy, probably here with his daughter,’” he says, a little sadly. “And I know she can’t meet everybody. But I’ve still got to have hope.”
Editor’s note: We have updated the language in this piece to more carefully describe why Swift’s fan base is mostly white.