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Taylor Swift's Fans Have Known Her For 13 Years — This Is How She's Kept Growing With Them

Marathon meet-and-greets, surprise visits, hidden clues, and so much more

Taylor Swift's connection with her fans has only grown stronger since the release of her debut self-titled album almost 13 years ago. Songs like "Tim McGraw," "Teardrops on My Guitar," and "Our Song" were our first glimpses into the life of this curly-haired, Pennsylvania-born country singer — a life that, at the time, seemed to move parallel to that of her fans. Despite not knowing her personally, the knowledge that her teenage experience of heartbreak and unrequited love mirrored theirs made it feel like the most personal relationship that could exist between fan and celebrity. As it's grown and evolved, that connection has felt more like a friendship. Now, Taylor is fond of communicating with fans directly on her Tumblr page or via intimate Instagram Live sessions, as she's done throughout the entire rollout of her upcoming new album, Lover.

But how does Swift — with a combined 200 million followers on Twitter and Instagram and countless sold-out stadium tours over the course of her career — maintain such a deeply personal link with her fans around the world? The truth is that in addition to music, Taylor's done a lot with each new era to keep her fans invested in the unconventional friendship they've created: from maintaining regular meet-and-greets to hiding endlessly fascinating Easter eggs within her releases. "It's honestly one of the most amazing feelings knowing that there's this group of people that has my back, and that they always show up," Swift said in a 2012 video. "I try to figure out ways all the time to thank them for that."

Ahead of her new album's August 23 release — and Swift's upcoming performance at the 2019 VMAs — we break down the evolution of that close friendship with those who've supported her from the jump, starting with her self-titled era all the way through to what we can now proudly call the Lover era. Are you ready for it?

  • The Taylor Swift Era (2006-2007)

    Swift's secret weapon from the very beginning was her natural gift for storytelling. A high-school freshman when she wrote her debut album and just 16 years old when it was released, Taylor penned lyrics that captured the entire emotional spectrum of being a teenager, from jealousy ("I'll bet she's beautiful, that girl he talks about / And she's got everything that I have to live without") to romantic manipulation ("You come away with a great little story / Of a mess of a dreamer with the nerve to adore you") and utter heartbreak ("When you think happiness / I hope you think that little black dress / Think of my head on your chest / And my old faded blue jeans").

    But aside from bonding with her fans over their mutually broken hearts, Swift made additional efforts to bridge the gap between them by utilizing Myspace and leaving secret messages in each of her album booklets for those who cared enough to pay attention to the tiny details. After all, her hidden message in the "Picture to Burn" lyrics — "Date nice boys" — is still flawless advice.

  • The Fearless Era (2008-2009)

    The Fearless era was all about developing the foundation she laid with her debut album into something her existing fanbase would continue to love and grab onto. After releasing her Grammy-winning sophomore album, she embarked on her first tour ever, bringing the songs she wrote in her bedroom to life in arenas around the world. And to continue to prove to fans that she's not above them but rather is them, Taylor set up free post-show meet-and-greets and behind-the-scenes tour diaries.

    Before Rep Room and Loft 89, some of the more recent names Swift's used for her post-show fan hangouts, there was a little thing called T Party. Rather than overcharging for a five-second interaction and quick flash photo, T Party offered select fans at the Fearless tour — namely the ones with light-up shirts and 13s painted on their hands — a once-in-a-lifetime chance to chat with Taylor, take selfies, meet her family, and snack on pizza and candy in a relaxed environment. For those who weren't hand-selected for T Party by Taylor's mom, Swift found yet another way to stay connected. Throughout the Fearless era, she uploaded short clips to YouTube, providing fans with content that proved that behind the elaborate stage design and occasional private jet, she was just a girl who struggled to keep track of her retainers.

  • The Speak Now Era (2010-2011)

    As Taylor was making way for Speak Now, the singer hosted a 13-hour meet-and-greet at the 2010 CMA Fest before hopping on a livestream a month later to announce her third album. This direct and immediate communication is something Swift still does today — she revealed Lover's title via Instagram Live in June. The lyrics, too, continued to foster her fan connection by sharing more of herself and probing deeper into her own life experiences, which were also becoming major news. From her failed relationship with John Mayer ("I took your matches before fire could catch me, so don't look now") to her uncomfortable encounter with Kanye West at the 2009 VMAs ("It's OK, life is a tough crowd / 32 and still growing up now / Who you are is not what you did"), the album documented it all. And while her fans may not have had their hearts broken by a famous musician or been publicly humiliated on live TV, Speak Now was still about growing up at heart.

    On the album's tour, Swift also made additional adjustments for her fans in each city. Every night when she moved to the B-stage, she'd cover a song by an artist from whatever city she was playing in. From Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" in New Jersey to a medley of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and Uncle Kracker's "Smile" in Michigan, Swift did what she could to make the arenas she visited feel like home. She maintained her post-show fan hangouts, too, which still happen at every tour.

  • The Red Era (2012-2013)

    In true Taylor fashion, she announced all the important details about Red via livestream. This time, however, she invited a small group of Swifties into her very own living room for the announcement — and yes, she's done it many times since. For Taylor, the closeness with her fans was always much deeper than bonding over boy drama and inviting them over to hear a few unreleased tracks. She proved it with the release of "Ronan," a song inspired by Maya Thompson — a fan of Taylor's and mother to four-year-old Ronan, who died in 2011 of neuroblastoma. Swift released it as a single before the album and donated 100 percent of the proceeds to help fight cancer.

    Once the album dropped and the tour rolled around, T Party was suddenly rechristened Club Red, and the nightly covers turned into performances of fan favorites from Taylor's past albums. She largely chose the most heavily requested songs on social media that day, and fans wouldn't know which one she picked until she began strumming the chords on her guitar. This moment only strengthened her connection with fans, as they all sang along in unison to what became known as the "secret song."

  • The 1989 Era (2014-2015)

    To kick off the 1989 era, Swift recruited fans to dance alongside her in the "Shake It Off" music video. She also joined Tumblr, sending Swifties long paragraphs when they were heartbroken and liking their posts to confirm or deny their wildest theories about the album. Her presence became known as "Taylurking" — especially when fans began getting calls from her official fan club, Taylor Nation, inviting them to secret locations in several cities (often on her own property) for what became known as the 1989 Secret Sessions.

    But even after 1989's release, Swift continued. She'd pop in on fans' Instagram Lives, surprise them at home, and even attend a bridal shower or wedding. In December 2014, she made many fans' dreams come true when they opened the front door to a huge package full of unique gifts from the pop star herself — and with personalized notes to boot. One fan even got $1,989 to help pay off student loans, which wasn't the last time she stepped in to help someone with their financial struggles. In more recent years, she helped a pregnant fan purchase a home, donated over $15,000 to a fan whose mom had been in a coma, and sent nearly $5,000 to a Swiftie who couldn't afford tuition and rent.

  • The Reputation Era (2017-2018)

    After a summer where she unexpectedly found herself the villain in an ongoing feud with Kanye and wife Kim Kardashian, Swift decided to take a different approach with Reputation. She avoided press interviews ahead of the release, doubling down on her relationship with her Swifties instead by promising that "There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation." This meant there was only the album and their reactions to it — and the Easter eggs, of course.

    What began as hidden messages strewn throughout album booklets transformed over time into elaborate webs of hints about music she hadn't even released yet. One mind-boggling theory even says that one of the many versions of Taylor in the "Look What You Made Me Do" video is actually meant to represent the current Lover-era Taylor. And while her tactics to keep her fanbase invested in her life and career continued to pan out exactly as planned, Swift also kept some of the most personal traditions alive and well during the Reputation era, including her secret sessions and the post-show meet-and-greet known as Rep Room.

  • The Lover Era (2019)

    Lover's release mere days away, and fans feel closer to the pop star than ever before — and this isn't by coincidence. Ever since the era kicked off with a butterfly mural in Nashville, Swift has doubled down on her trademark Easter eggs, packing the videos for "ME!" and "You Need To Calm Down" with hints and clues and creating the most complicated and involved game for Swifties yet. Her songs have gone deeper, too.

    With "Calm Down" — a bright, LGTBQ+ pride-filled anthem — Swift made it clear that the Lover era will be her most inclusive one yet. She even created a petition to push for the Equality Act, which would offer specific protections for LGBTQ+ people in housing, employment, credit, and more areas. In the past, the fifth tracks on Swift's albums have been some of her most emotional. Lover's track 5, "The Archer," fit that description as a slow-burning ballad about making mistakes. And while mistakes are inevitable in both life and love, the Lover title track is Swift's way of telling her fans that all the bruised hearts along the way led her (and hopefully her fans) to this: unadulterated bliss.

    For Swifties who haven't attended a Lover secret session (which is most of us — don't worry), it's impossible to guess where this new era will take us. But it's an exciting feeling. Swift continues to blur the lines between fan and friend and keeps proving that she actually cares about strengthening the bond she has with those who hear their own lives reflected in her songs. Taylor herself said it best at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards: "To the fans who come to the shows and buy the albums, I just want you to know this one thing: You are the longest and best relationship I've ever had."