Decoding Taylor Swift Songs on TikTok

by Quinn Moreland, a Third Bridge Creative contributor

Over her nearly two-decade-long career, Taylor Swift has seen plenty of social media platforms come and go. But like many artists, Swift has found TikTok exceptionally suitable for promoting her work. Perhaps it was fate: both are fueled by self-expression, Taylor in her autobiographical, hyper-specific storytelling, TikTok in the sense that everyone is the “main character” on the platform. Many of Swift’s songs romanticize aspects of life, a common trope in many corners of the app, and both have undeniably massive cultural influence.

Swift’s audience can relate to her songs about relationships, identity, and insecurity; through TikTok, they have a platform to perform these expressions. Even before Swift had an official account, snippets from several of her hits, including 2014’s “Wildest Dreams,” had experienced a second life on the app. In September 2021, a month after Swift joined TikTok, she embraced the trend around the 1989 single by releasing a re-recorded version of the song and encouraging users to use it in their videos: “Someone said slow zoom makes you look like the main character I said make it Taylor’s Version pls.”

Swift’s 10th album, Midnights, is her first collection of new music to be released since TikTok became a true cultural monolith. Ahead of the album’s October release, she paid attention to the platform, using it to host an episodic series called “Midnights Mayhem With Me.” Across a two-week span, from September 21 to October 7, Swift revealed one song title per episode and offered the occasional details about the upcoming record, gaining approximately 300,000 TikTok followers along the way.

The 32-year-old singer initially described Midnights as “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.” Across 13 songs—and a handful of surprise bonus tracks—Swift touches on themes like self-loathing and the unpredictable nature of romance. Musically, she explores a moodier pop sound built around producer Jack Antonoff’s vintage synths. Before TikTok, Swift’s fans could make homemade responses to her music on YouTube, Snapchat, the late video site Vine, or other social media platforms. TikTok’s algorithm, along with its endless scroll and plethora of filters, allows content inspired by Midnights to be part of a larger conversation instead of a declaration of fandom shouted into the void. And Swift’s music lends itself to creativity on the platform because she herself is a participant in her own songs. Her lyrics are peppered with the sort of narrative specificities that lend themselves to existing video formats like makeup tutorials, and her melodic acumen invites interpretive dance translations, the most classic of TikTok expressions.

Midnights’ first song to have a viral TikTok moment was its bubbly lead single “Anti-Hero.” On the upbeat synth pop song, Swift sings about her imperfections and insecurities until she reaches a highly quotable conclusion in the chorus: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” Although “Anti-Hero” touches on heavy themes like Swift’s relationship with disordered eating, the song and its humorous music video retain a lightheartedness by emphasizing the universal nature of these concerns: Everyone, even celebrities, is self-conscious about something. Swift underlined this notion by partnering with YouTube Shorts to launch the #TSAntiHeroChallenge, encouraging fans to make a video owning their anti-heroic traits. Swift inaugurated the challenge with a clip that features her lip-syncing the self-referential chorus interspersed with references to her own (apparently) undesirable attributes including, “Thinks her cat is her son” and “self-imposed isolation.”

The #TSAntiHeroChallenge quickly flourished on TikTok, where creators made videos recognizing their hyper-specific neuroses, like starting a fight instead of eating a snack or looking at someone's social media instead of returning their text. Even celebrities wanted in on the fun: Penn Badgely joined TikTok to make an “Anti-Hero” video as his serial killer character from the Netflix drama You, and pop stars Fletcher and Rita Ora filmed themselves atop the audio and offering half-hearted waves. The #TSAntiHeroChallenge began on October 21, the same day the song and music video was released; The track has been on a steady rise ever since, with each new version of the song Swift releases giving it added momentum. Ultimately, TikTokers have used the “Anti-Hero” audio in nearly a million videos, making it her second most popular track on the platform.

The songs from Midnights that have become popular on TikTok contain lyrical suggestions of how they could be reimagined as video content. Most obviously is the opening line of the noirish “Vigilante Shit”—“Draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a man”—which currently soundtracks over 63,000 videos, many of which are makeup tutorials. On “Mastermind,” Swift admits that a romantic relationship is the result of an elaborate scheme. “What if I told you none of it was accidental/And the first night that you saw me, nothing was gonna stop me?,” goes the chorus. That audio snippet currently appears in over 56,000 TikToks, most of which feature users revealing their grand plans to seduce their dream lover, win back a partner, play matchmaker, etc. With its deliriously frothy chorus “’Cause karma is my boyfriend/Karma is a god/Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend”—“Karma” was a natural fit for blissed-out gyrating, currently appearing in over 79,000 videos.

Not every song on Midnights has found success on TikTok. A handful of tracks including the slow-building rocker “You’re On Your Own, Kid” and the ballad “Sweet Nothing” have appeared in fewer than 15,000 videos. While both songs exhibit Swift’s incisive lyricism and knack for idiosyncratic guitar melodies, neither possesses the colorful chorus that defines the pop songs that have exploded on TikTok. Thematically and sonically, both are quieter and more inward-facing, perhaps positioning them as songs used in one-off videos rather than viral trends.

Of course, TikTok success is ultimately unpredictable. Four days after the release of Midnights, Swift shared a visual for “Bejeweled,” an appropriately glittery synth pop track about regaining self-confidence by painting the town red. While “Bejeweled” did not arrive with a preconceived viral challenge, like “Anti-Hero” it features a quotable, infectious chorus:Best believe I’m still bejeweled/When I walk in the room/I can still make the whole place shimmer.” A majority of the TikTok videos that use the “Bejeweled” audio—over 411,400 of them to date—feature a dance choreographed by Mikael Arellano. The 21-year-old fan begins his routine by waving his arms in frustration while lip-syncing to the verse “And I miss you/But I miss sparkling.” Echoing the song’s own swirling transition, he then spins around and struts down an invisible runway to the opening of the chorus before concluding with a twirl and finger shimmy, as if showing off a handful of shimmering baubles.

The success of Arellano’s “Bejeweled” video points back to TikTok’s roots as a platform to showcase homemade dance routines. But unlike many viral dances, which can be fast-paced and complicated, the “Bejeweled” choreography is simple and accessible to everyone from toddlers to famous comedians, an approachable quality that Arellano recognizes in Swift’s music. “Everything she writes is so relatable,” he told Rolling Stone. “She basically has a song for everything that you’re going through.”

Relatability has been a core tenet of Swift’s songwriting and celebrity since her beginnings as a teenage country singer in Nashville. It is a crucial aspect of her work’s popularity on TikTok. The songs on Midnights capture Swift’s vulnerabilities and her strengths, affirming the notion that people can contain all sorts of complicated feelings. The “Anti-Hero” challenge builds on this concept: Swift’s entreaty for others to share their insecurities encourages a culture of vulnerability; perhaps the performative, lighthearted nature of these videos provides a healthy framework for her audience to process these traits. It’s no surprise that this trend, derived directly from Swift’s prompt, is the most successful. At the same time, the Midnights songs that have become popular on TikTok emphasize a sense of autonomy, whether it be “Anti-Hero”’s ownership of imperfections, “Bejeweled”’s celebration of independence, “Mastermind”’s recognition of the occasional act of deviousness. On TikTok, as in Swift’s music, personal connection remains the great unifier.

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