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Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poet’s Department: Who tortures the poet?

The most tortured love affair on Taylor Swift’s new album is her relationship with her audience. Following its release on April 19th, the album’s reviews were marked by a shared preoccupation with the autobiographical element of her work. This extends beyond speculation as to which ex-lover any given song is about, though many relished in the revelation that her one-month fling with singer Matty Healy might have featured in equal measure with ex-partner of six years Joe Alwyn. 

Autobiographical speculation amongst critics includes theories on Swift’s intentions with the album. What motivated her, some ask, to release an extended version of the album (known as The Anthology)? Has she increased the number of tracks to a whopping 31 as a benevolent gift to her fans, or is this evidence of a cash-grab? Similar arguments have swirled around her rereleasing previous work as Taylor’s Version, and recent songs like Mastermind from her second-to-last album Midnights, while ostensibly about orchestrating a romantic union, have been taken as encouragement from the artist herself to interpret her public image as calculated, clever, or even manipulative. A closer look at the lyrics of some of her tracks from The Tortured Poets Department shows a willingness to engage with her self-conscious project of persona creation, as well as with the various responses to this, and, crucially, with the reality of her fame. 

Long gone are the days where Swift’s appeal lay primarily in her relatable girl-next-door Country charm. Swift’s return to this world in the stand-out ‘But Daddy I Love Him’ might therefore come as a surprise. The track frames her controversially received relationship with The 1975 singer Matty Healy in the same terms as the Romeo and Juliet lovers of her 2008 ‘Love Story’. Swift is fully aware of the ridiculousness of adopting this posture as a 34-year-old billionaire, and does so with a mischievous wink in the line ‘I’m having his baby / No, I’m not / But you should’ve seen your faces’. This lyric breaks the fourth wall of the song, thus making it ambiguous whether the plural “you” refers to the townspeople in the world of the song, or to her shocked listeners. 

Swift has long cultivated a culture amongst her fans of looking for “easter eggs” in her work, for clues about her personal life and future projects, and this ambiguity seems to suggest that some sleuthing Swifties are indistinguishable from prying neighbours. Considering Swift’s well-established reticence to do anything which might alienate her loyal listeners, lines like these, along with the defiant “I’ll tell you something ‘bout my good name / It’s mine alone to disgrace” and unexpectedly forceful mention of people’s “bitching and moaning” about her relationship, her willingness in this song to establish boundaries with her audience is remarkable. 

Other tracks on TTPD showcase a less humourous distancing between Swift and her fans. Clara Bow, one of the simpler and therefore more lyrically successful experiments on the record, picks up on the themes of Swift’s celebrity career. Clara Bow is a much more mature track than others (such as ‘Nothing New’) with a similar theme, and reflects her awareness of the lasting impact she has made on pop culture in the past two decades. The verses chart a lineage of famous women, from the glamorous 1920s movie star Bow, to Fleetwood Mac singer and ‘70s rock legend Stevie Nicks. Swift, noted for her confessional first-person narrated songs, makes an unusual leap in the final verse by including her own name, as well as addressing the new star, who looks “like Taylor Swift” with a sense of bitterness: “you’ve got edge she [Swift] never had”. The very fact that Swift is able to use herself as a benchmark for up-and-coming celebrities is proof of her success. 

Swift’s self-awareness of the kind of fame she is afforded as a pop artist who sings mostly about her love life is a refreshing moment of maturity, though it is sadly bogged down by other less insightful tracks. All of the songs on TTPD are, however, deeply personal ruminations of the like we haven’t heard from her since Lover (2019), given the fictitious nature of Folklore and Evermore (both 2020) and the vague lyricism of Midnights (2022), and might in fact align her with a tradition of tortured poets who were, like Swift, both adored and slammed for their confessionalism, such as Sylvia Plath. It is good to see Swift abandon the hopeless goal of writing relatability, and it will be interesting to see how she develops her newfound self-awareness.

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