In a shocking turn of events, there’s a theory going around the internet. The revolutionary global system of interconnected computer networks behind cat videos, free porn, and memes has produced one of its most fascinating hypotheses yet: that Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift’s relationship is a deliberate piece of performance art. This conspiracy sure is seductive. From writers reduced to using the “Hiddleswift” portmanteau to Swifties who had finally forced themselves to like Calvin Harris, there’s a communal feeling that we’ve all been punk’d.
Plus, the whole theory sort of adds up. Any tween with an iCal can tell you Taylor Swift’s production schedule. The pop star has consistently dropped albums at two-year intervals, and we’re quickly approaching 1989’s two-year anniversary. Swift is also wont to release a single from her new album a couple of months before it’s released. Some basic calculations (which I borrowed from Buzzfeed) suggest that the next teaser single would likely leak in September—which is also around the time of the Emmy Awards. Swift’s hired hand-holder, Tom Hiddleston, is hoping to score an Emmy nomination for his performance in The Night Manager. Were a Hiddleswift-helmed music video to drop around this time, it would be the equivalent of a publicity bomb for both of the stars, leaving a trail of rabid fans and lengthy think pieces in its wake.
But if this really was just a ploy for album sales and Emmy buzz, wouldn’t there be some warning signs? In fact, the fauxmance is full of red flags. For one, Swift and Hiddleston have been performing a series of incredibly staged romantic outings. Sure, the dynamic duo might just really love being fully clothed on beaches—in fact, it might be their favorite date activity. But that doesn’t explain away the fact that Taylor and Tom have been “caught” canoodling around the world by the same paparazzi agency, in a series of photos taken at close range. Since most of these shots look like something from a movie, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that they actually are. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time Swift has used a music video to play on themes like Hollywood romance, tabloid fiction, and her own man-eater image—see her videos for “Wildest Dreams” and “Blank Space.”
For proof that the Hiddleswift affair is truly extra, just take a gander at Swift’s annual Fourth of July party. This year, #Taymerica had it all: supermodels in onesies, prop pies, and a professional photographer who was spotted “discussing shots with Taylor as the group hit the beach, with the pair directing the glam squad as they posed in the surf.” Meanwhile, the internet’s ex-boyfriend was snapped following Swift around the beach like a well-trained British pug, sporting an “I heart TS” tank top and a temporary heart-shaped tattoo with a letter “T.” Now, I’m usually not one to force someone into a stifling box of heteronormative machismo, but Tom Hiddleston kind of needs to grow a pair.
The Hiddleswift conspiracy theory stems from a belief that this level of unreal affection, of well-timed snogging and conveniently located photogs, crosses some sort of line. But where is that line? More importantly, where exactly is the prank? As Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies muses, “What exactly would the prank be here? ‘We told you we were dating and you believed us?’ ‘You thought Tom Hiddleston was charming, but he’s actually as thirsty as a high maintenance house plant?’ ‘We made out on some Roman ruins and you thought we had feelings for each other?’ Haha, good one. Joke’s on us.”
Hiddleswift is certainly the peak—or nadir—of Taylor Swift as serial monogamist. But with Swift, it’s hard to say where the personal ends and the professional begins. When all your relationships can be placed on a spectrum of publicity and performativity, can you really single out one tabloid-friendly boyfriend as a commentary on all the others? Making art about her exes is in Taylor Swift’s DNA, as is the sort of “fake” relationship posturing that sells tabloids and albums in equal measure. Furthermore, the notion of a T-Swift masterminded conspiracy or prank has connotations of parasitism, as if someone is being fooled or played. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that we’re actually witnessing complete symbiosis—between Taylor Swift, the men who kind of love her, the fans who follow her, and the tabloids that convert all of this intimacy into profit. This is exactly how the entity that is “Taylor Swift” is supposed to work—in fact, this is some of the best work of her entire career.
Swift isn’t really a crossover country-pop sensation so much as she is a well-oiled PR machine wrapped in pastel separates with shiny blonde hair. Historically, we’d have to wait a year or even two for Swift to gestate the moneymaking fodder of her relationships and spit out a hit single. But millennials are impatient, so Swift ditched the time lag. Now we can consume these romance narratives—from optimistic intro to schmaltzy chorus to heartbreaking hook—in real time. It’s a brave new world, where the most famous celebrities are bored of having to operate under the guise of selling anything other than themselves.
For proof, look no further than Kanye West. West isn’t just a rapper, or a producer, or a designer—he’s also Mr. Kim Kardashian, and a full-time celebrity in his own right. This level of stardom made West the perfect candidate for a metacommentary on fame in America. Cue the rapper’s video for “Famous,” which features a litany of celebrities, bodies real and imagined, breathing, sighing, and sleeping in platonic nudity. West has presented the work, which is essentially a Madame Tussauds remake of Vincent Desiderio’s 2008 painting “Sleep,” as a piece of art. However, the man behind “Famous” is hardly too highbrow to refrain from commoditizing his own commentary. From screenings on E! News to incendiary, celeb-baiting tweets (“Can somebody sue me already #I'll wait.”), West is actively using “Famous” as a platform—for more fame. It’s a whole messy knot of self-promotion and self-awareness.
More importantly, it’s a reminder that fame is what Kanye West does best.
Taylor Swift and Kanye West have their own storied relationship. Sure, it started when West tried to steal Swift’s VMA—a move which was confirmed by the POTUS as decidedly dickish—but it would be too simplistic to reduce this bond to tormentor and victim. Suffice to say that their stars are connected, a point that West hammered home in “Famous” when he placed a nude mock-up of Swift by his side. There’s also that infamous lyric, the one that Swift swears she didn’t approve: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous.” Despite her history of sneak-dissing (or outright confronting) Kanye West, Swift has remained strategically silent when it comes to the incendiary “Famous” video. While it’s clear that West would love nothing more than a rebuttal, Swift is treating this incident like Beyoncé addressed Elevatorgate—by not addressing it at all. A la queen Bey, Swift opted out of the backlash, sharing her Hiddleswift and squad Instas instead. Because as any middle schooler reared on social media will tell you, the only way to respond to a bully is to buy some waterproof mascara and Instagram through the tears.
What if, instead of an overt response, Swift is actually planning her own “Famous,” feat. Hiddleswift? The timing makes sense: “Famous” was released on April 1st, Swift and Hiddleston were snapped dancing together at the Met Ball on May 2nd, and the sensational Rhode Island pics hit the Internet on June 15. Not incidentally, Swift’s new relationship took some attention off of Kim Kardashian’s simultaneous GQ cover interview, in which Kardashian insisted that not only had Swift approved the “Famous” rhymes via a phone call with Kanye, but that the West camp had footage of the alleged conversation that Swift’s people had promptly asked them to delete via a cease-and-desist. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Swift is actually producing a Hiddleswift-centric response to “Famous”—she could just be attempting to permanently deflect the conversation.
But isn’t it fun to imagine? Swift’s “Famous” would be so much more than just a victory for Hiddleswift conspiracy theorists. It would be a musical clap back, a la Lemonade—like Beyoncé’s beloved relationship odyssey, except with its own specially fabricated romance. It would be the meta headfuck of Kanye West’s fantasies, orchestrated by none other than his pop culture foe. After all, these interconnected artists have more in common than they might think. Much like Kanye, Taylor Swift has blossomed from an artist into a brand. Taylor Swift’s job isn’t to produce new music; it’s to be Taylor Swift. Kanye has his tools: controversy, a nude color palette, his wife’s nudes. And she has hers: an endless army of squad members, a crew of hired photogs, and a strategically placed temporary tattoo.
From her ludicrous Fourth of July squad to her increasingly posed relationships, Swift has actually become a parody of Taylor Swift. And yet, we can’t look away. Like the most carefully curated clickbait, Swift is swimming in views. As much as I would love to watch her Hiddleswift performance art, Taylor Swift doesn’t need to generate a flashy meta commentary—or even make new music—to get buzz. Kanye might have made fame into a work of pseudo-art, but Taylor just made fame her bitch.