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The Science Survey

A Defense of Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

Taylor Swift’s latest album provides a new world for Swifities to examine, decipher, and adore.
Here, Taylor Swift performs “Fortnight,” in the new The Tortured Poets Department set of The Eras Tour which debuted in Paris, France. (Photo Credit: Vixy13, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons) Photo Credit: Vixy13, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

I am not sorry if you do not like The Tortured Poets Department by Taylor Swift. It is not for you. It is not an album for radio play, casual Swift fans, pop music lovers, or even music critics. It is for hardcore Swifties that are so deep in the Taylor Swift Universe (TSU) that she could write essentially anything and they would listen to it until they loved it. It is for Swifties who delight in analyzing her work until they understand the purpose of every metaphor, sonic choice, and comma in the 31 songs she released on April 19th, 2024. 

Many non-Swifties and critics have complained that she released too many songs. There is too much music that they don’t want to listen to. New York Times pop music critic Lindsay Zoladaz wrote in her review of the album, “The sharpest moments of The Tortured Poets Department would be even more piercing in the absence of excess, but instead the clutter lingers, while Swift holds an unlit match.” 

Many critics have questioned what would motivate Swift to release such a critical mass of music. Why would she possibly write so many songs? Why would she create so much, and then share it all at once? I think the answer comes in the form of a Mark Zuckerberg quote about the disconnect between people who create and invent, and those who don’t. He said, “they just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.” Swift loves writing and creating, and this album is for Swifties to enjoy deciphering and discussing.

A more complex version of this critique argues that the double album (which I see simply as one longer album) is not cohesive. They believe that the album is thematically and sonically all over the place, a confusing mix of descriptions of domestic struggles, prison metaphors, random collaborations, and songs about Matty Healy. They accuse the mix of Jack Antonoff’s production on the first album and Aaron Dessner’s on the second (The Anthology) of being repetitive and stale. While this is understandable for a music critic to think, some Swifties see past this and recognize that writing an album that wasn’t intended to be a cohesive piece of work suited for traditional acclaim demonstrates her growth.

Swift in the past has loved creating cohesive albums. In 2014, or as Swifties refer to it, her 1989 Era, Swift told reporters repeatedly how much she prided herself on 1989 being “sonically cohesive.” She loves cohesiveness so much she divides each album into an “era” that starts with the promotion of the album and ends immediately with the announcement of the next one. Each era is complete with a signature color, font, aesthetic, and merchandise. 

Taylor Swift’s performance at the 1989 World Tour, was Taylor Swift’s official entrance into mainstream pop music, leaving the remnants of her country style with the Red (2012) album. (Photo Credit: GabboT, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the fact that Swift’s success is almost unparalleled in the music industry, she has not lost focus on the traditional markers of success for musical artists that creating a distinct album brings. Swift enjoys breaking records (and even sells numerous multicolored vinyls to ensure she does) and devotes a significant amount of her self-worth to the Grammy Awards. When Swift found out her 2017 album Reputation, a fan-favorite, didn’t get nominated for any Grammys she immediately told her publicist, Tree Paine, “I just need to make a better record. I’m making a better record.” Even with the praise of her fans and borderline immeasurable commercial success, without the acclaim of The Academy and music critics, Swift has felt unaccomplished. She stated it plainly when she called herself a “pathological people pleaser” in her Midnight’s Vault track “You’re Losing Me.”

In her creation of The Tortured Poets Department, however, Swift broke out of the mold she created for herself and produced songs that aren’t for pop radio play and can’t be fully understood on the first, second, and even third listen. They are complex, deeply self-referential, and extraordinarily creative in their use of rhetoric. I doubt this album will win any major Grammy’s, especially coming off her major wins at the 2023 Grammy Awards.

Swift is undoubtedly aware of her Grammy prospects, yet she still released The Tortured Poets Department. This album’s promotion was limited and would doubtfully encourage the average non-Swiftie to listen to it. There was no lead single made for radio play, or slow roll out as she formerly did with albums like Reputation (2017) and Lover (2019), or even late-night talk show appearances. She has outgrown her traditional conception of success and has moved on to creating music that she resonates with and she knows her true fans will love. 

In The Tortured Poets Department, Swift exhibits her growth by revisiting topics she has previously written about from her new perspective. No song better represents this than “The Manuscript,” the last song on The Anthology. It retells the story of her dating a much older man, and being taken advantage of, likely either John Mayer or Jake Gyllenhaal. She has angrily written about these two relationships on many of her albums, like her 2012 scathing ballad “All Too Well” in which she sings “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” Swift doesn’t just describe how angry she was at her former partners, but also at herself for falling for them, repeating “I should’ve known” in “Dear John” (2010). 

“The Manuscript” exhibits a new perspective on these lopsided relationships. She has moved on from her anger at these men and herself, and is in a later stage of grief: sadness. In “The Manuscript” Swift writes, “She thought about how he said since she was so wise beyond her years / Everything had been above board / She wasn’t sure.” There is strength and maturity in mourning what you have experienced and how you were taken advantage of. It is often said that since Swift had such a vibrant career at such a young age, it only makes sense that she’d date much older men. After all, she was so “wise.” In 2009, the year she dated John Mayer, Alexis Petridis, a reviewer for the guardian called her a “teenage yoda.” But no matter how “wise” a 19-year-old girl is, she can never have a fair power-balance in a relationship with a 32-year-old man. I appreciate that she reflects on how these men and the media were unfair to her, and took advantage of her youth, in a way that represents her grief at the loss of her innocence, not her anger at individuals. 

My favorite part of  “The Manuscript,” though, is when she emulates the final stage of grief, acceptance. She writes “The only thing that’s left is the manuscript / One last souvenir from my trip to your shores / Now and then I reread the manuscript / But the story isn’t mine anymore.” All she has left of her experiences, good and bad, are her songs about them. Now her discography belongs to her fans, and what she experienced as a teenager is a part of her story. 

The Tortured Poets Department set of The Eras Tour includes new imagery such as spaceships, aliens, typewriters, and newspapers. (Photo Credit: Vixy13, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Swift also revisits one of her favorite fears to write about: that a new, shiny, pretty girl will replace her if she’s no longer exciting enough for the general public. She discusses this idea in her Red (Taylor’s Version) Vault Track “Nothing New ft. Phoebe Bridgers” which she wrote in 2011 but released in 2021. She sings “Lord, what will become of me / Once I’ve lost my novelty?” and about this ‘next girl,’ “She’ll know the way, and then she’ll say she got the map from me / I’ll say I’m happy for her, then I’ll cry myself to sleep.” 

Swift also expresses this fear in her 2019 documentary Miss Americana. She says “Everyone’s a shiny, new toy for, like, two years. The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists. They have to… or else you’re out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent, constantly finding new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny. Be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way and only in the way we want.” 

In her The Tortured Poets Department song about this idea, “Clara Bow,” Swift presents a more nuanced, well-rounded opinion on fame and the future of the music industry. In “Clara Bow,” Swift acknowledges that she was someone else’s ‘next girl,’ and even by name references Stevie Nicks, who openly supports her. The song is written as quotes from what the public may have said throughout history about ‘it girls.’ By naming first Clara Bow, then Stevie Nicks, then herself in similar lyrics, she recognizes that she is part of a greater legacy than just her own. 

While she does write about the pitfalls of fame, Taylor also acknowledges how much she wanted the success she currently has. She writes, “I’m not trying to exaggerate /But I think I might die if I made it, die if I made it / No one in my small town / Thought I’d meet these suits in LA.” In ‘Clara Bow,’ Taylor also shares what the public may say about the ‘Next Taylor Swift.’ She sings “You look like Taylor Swift / In this light / We’re loving it. / You’ve got edge, she never did / The future’s bright /… Dazzling.” ‘Clara Bow’ is a beautiful, melodic expression of Swift’s growth and self awareness.

The Tortured Poets Department is even more fun for Swifties because it includes so much of what we love about Swift’s songwriting, what I call classic ‘Taylor Tropes.’ These are elements and themes in Swift’s writing that appear again and again. Swifties enjoy picking them out and drawing comparisons between songs, often calling them ‘sister songs.’ An example of a ‘Taylor Trope’ is what I have accurately named “you hate me but you keep coming back for more.” In her song ‘New Romantics’ a bonus track off her 2014 hit album 1989 she sings, “Cause baby, I could build a castle / Out of all the bricks they threw at me.” Similarly, in the The Tortured Poets Department song “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me,” Taylor sings that her haters accuse her of “Putting narcotics into all of my songs / And that’s why you’re still singing along.” While this ‘Taylor Trope’ is quite dramatic, it’s fun to scream-sing these lyrics on car rides.  

Another ‘Taylor Trope’ that The Tortured Poets Department highlights is wedding imagery. Taylor’s love of weddings and the classic American fairytale life can be traced back to her 2008 hit song ‘Love Story’ about Romeo and Juliet in which she sings, ‘“I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress / It’s a love story, baby, just say, ‘Yes.”’ This theme continues onto her third album ‘Speak Now’ where in the title track she shares her fantasy of interrupting a past lover’s wedding so they can ride off into the sunset. Moreover, the bridge of the title track of her 2019 album ‘Lover’ is written like wedding vows, she sings “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please stand? With every guitar string scar on my hand. I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover.” Taylor has also expressed in various interviews and her documentary Miss Americana how important the traditional white picket fence life is to her. In the fifth track of The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor writes about losing this dream of hers in “So Long London.” She sings “You swore that you loved me but where were the clues? I died on the altar waiting for the proof.” Taylor also revisits the idea of marriage in the title track, ‘Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus,’ and ‘How Did it End.’ 

The night before The Tortured Poets Department was released, I told my dad (also a Swiftie) how I hoped this album would give me more to analyze and explore in the world of Taylor Swift. I shared with him how excited I was that more of her work would exist to appreciate. Swift did more than I could ever dream of with The Tortured Poets Department. It is a whole world within itself that includes stories, deep metaphors, and plenty of reflection, while tying her discography together beautifully like a bow on a bottomless box.  

Swift did more than I could ever dream of with The Tortured Poets Department. It is a whole world within itself that includes stories, deep metaphors, and plenty of reflection, while tying her discography together beautifully like a bow on a bottomless box. 

About the Contributor
Kate Hankin, Staff Reporter
Kate Hankin is an Editor-in-Chief for ‘The Science Survey.’ In her journalistic writing, Kate likes to share her interests such as food, music, current events, politics, and movies. She enjoys the journalistic process of researching for her articles as well as taking photos and interviewing Bronx Science students. Kate is also a Social Media Editor for ‘The Science Survey’ and a photographer for ‘The Observatory’ yearbook. In her free time, Kate loves to bake, read, listen to music, and go on long walks in the city. In the future, Kate hopes to study history and statistics in college and work on a college newspaper.