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Thursday, May 23, 2024

‘The Tortured Poets Department’ is not what you thought it was

You know how to ball, I know too much about Taylor Swift’s new album

 

By MOLLY THOMPSON — mmtthompson@ucdavis.edu 

 

Taylor Swift may just be the most known and seen person in America right now, even in the greater Western world. She’s been incredibly central for more than a decade now, and we’ve all watched as she’s navigated her personal and public growth. Her new album “The Tortured Poets Department” is a reflective departure from some of the boundaries that defined her previous bodies of work — she’s able to be more expressive and open than ever. 

Swift has cited her storytelling as her niche in the music industry. Her albums are virtual diaries filled with notoriously autobiographical lyrics, and her vulnerability is one of the most enticing facets of her songs. She’s always been vulnerable, but she’s never been more raw than in her newest album. At every point in her career, she’s had something to protect: a relationship, a reputation, her own feelings. Now, she’s been through it all. She’s in a place where she has nothing to lose, so she doesn’t have to try and tailor her writing to “cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing.” It’s not that she’s so high and mighty that nothing can reach her — it’s that, in the past year, she’s broken out of a six-year relationship, toured the world with record-breaking shows that empirically altered society, released multiple rerecordings of her old masters, had a situationship that gone torn apart by the public, started dating another major American household name and whatever else that she hasn’t shared publicly. She doesn’t have anything that hasn’t been dissected by the media. 

The Tortured Poets Department” is built on the amalgamation of Swift’s portfolio. It’s been compared to her other albums in different ways and for different reasons (one of my personal favorite analogies is the idea that it would be the product of “Lover” and “Folklore” if they were both high), but it’s not a combination; it’s not laterally comparable. It stands apart from her other records in its maturity, it’s a learned older sister of Swift’s other records. It’s got a lot more intrinsic hindsight and retrospection — not in that it knows better, but in that it’s more jaded. 

Obviously Taylor Swift has grown up over the past five years, but listening to songs like “London Boy” and “So Long, London” back to back gives that notion an incredibly visceral meaning. “The Tortured Poets Department” looks back on all of the other albums and is comprised of what Swift learned from them and how that manifested in her life and her subsequent relationships. 

In anticipation of the new album’s release, the speculative consensus was that the tracklist would focus on Swift’s recent breakup with British actor Joe Alwyn. And while conclusions about the songs’ content are always assumptions, a greater proportion of the album seems to surround her brief relationship with “The 1975” star Matty Healy. She received a lot of flack for engaging with the controversial singer, and many people guessed that he was nothing more than a superficial fling or a rebound for her. The songs that (allegedly) came out of their relationship suggest a much deeper connection than that though —  with lyrics like, “I would’ve died for your sins / Instead, I just died inside,” and “I love you, it’s ruining my life” suggesting a deep, tormenting kind of infatuation that ended when Healy left her: “They just ghosted you / Now you know what it feels like.” 

In contrast, the songs referring to Alwyn feel more past-tense. They evoke a sense of closure; she’s put that era of her life to bed. The songs about Healy (and the few about her current boyfriend Travis Kelce) feel much more recent, like the emotions she’s currently dealing with. 

A theme that comes up in a few of the songs that reference her tryst with Healy is the role the public plays in her relationship dynamics. Of course, in any relationship that’s in the public eye, unwanted intervention from an audience is going to be a factor, but Healy is a more controversial figure than most of her previous lovers. “But Daddy I Love Him” sends a strong message that puts everyone who felt the need to comment on her choices in their place. She’s telling us all that she’s more than capable of forming her own opinions and judgements of people, and telling her to stop dating someone is unnecessary, uncalled for and inappropriate — “I’ll tell you something about my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace.” As viewers, we can truly only see so much. We’re too far away to be able to make judgment calls that have any merit. She even calls back to the earlier point of having nothing to lose with lyrics like, “What if I roll the stone away? / They’re gonna crucify me anyway / What if the way you hold me / Is actually what’s holy?” — essentially denoting that the public is bound to find something to berate her for, so she might as well pursue someone she feels like she loves. 

One thing that I think goes overlooked are the elements of humor and irony that are woven intrinsically into the tracklist. “I’m havin’ his baby / No, I’m not, but you should see your faces” — that’s so funny. It’s easy to get caught up in her reputation as a poet and a genius lyricist and assume that everything is meant to be taken seriously, but she’s phenomenal at being self-aware and poking fun at herself, her fan base (“All the wine moms are still holdin’ out, but fuck ’em”), her peers and her partners. Even the album’s title is a little overdramatized for the sake of ironic indulgence; Alwyn once mentioned that he was in a “boys” groupchat called “The Tortured Man Club,” and if Swift is evoking a few layers of meaning with this title (as we all know she is apt to do), then it takes on a whole new level of irony. Taylor Swift is hilarious, we need to embrace it. 

The Tortured Poets Department” is catharsis. Swift said, in the lead up to its release, that it was the album she needed to write more than any other. That notion is tangible, you can hear it. She has something to say. It’s beautiful, it’s tormenting, it’s ironic, it’s raw, it’s haunting and it’s loud. It’s dense, and there’s a lot to unpack. It’s a relic that’s come out of so many layers of events and emotions and growth. 

 

Written by: Molly Thompson — mmtthompson@ucdavis.edu   

 

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