Thursday, June 13, 2024

Taylor Swift bares her soul in “The Tortured Poets Department” with 31 new songs

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Featured photo by Taylor Swift

Story by Hannah Ferreira

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On the night of the 66th Grammy Awards, Swifties eagerly waited for—what they expected to be—the announcement of the anticipated release of “Reputation (Taylor’s Version).”

However, what Taylor Swift revealed was much more surprising.

When accepting her 13th Grammy award, she announced “The Tortured Poets Department,” released April 19.

The 34-year-old pop star has been a defining artist of our age, but Swift has been riding an exceptional career high lately.

Her record-breaking Eras Tour, the release of two more “(Taylor’s Version)” studio albums and her relationship with NFL star Travis Kelce going public have all contributed to her defining cultural moment. An unexpected brand-new album—which she kept under wraps for two years—is precisely what she would deliver during a career mountaintop like this one.

The original album has 16 songs, and just two hours after its release, she released a bonus album. “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology” doubled the size of the original drop.

The first half features synth-pop production by Jack Antonoff, who has worked with Swift since her “1989” project. The production is similar to many songs on “Midnights,” her last studio album.

The first song, “Fortnight,” is Swift’s first project with Post Malone. This haunting, dreamy song illustrates a brief but intense relationship. The lyric, “I love you, it’s ruining my life,” encapsulates the mood of this song and much of the album.

The title track similarly has a dreamy and only slightly less haunting feel. Swift describes her choice of a “cyclone” of a relationship, with a man in “self-sabotage mode,” yet holding onto the fact that they’re both “crazy” and understand each other.

As speculated, the album begins to discuss murky details of her 6-year relationship with Joe Alwyn, which ended last year. “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” is a telling title accompanied by lyrics like, “He saw forever so he smashed it up” and, “He took me out of my box / Stole my tortured heart / Left all these broken parts / Told me I’m better off.”

“Down Bad” details how falling into a new relationship is like discovering wonders. She sings, “Show me that this world is bigger than us.” Swift writes about knowing “cosmic love” but ends up heartbroken.

“So Long, London” could not be more pointedly and depressingly about Alwyn. For fans, it stands in stark contrast to the upbeat, bubbly and lovestruck London boy from 2019 and describes the heartbreaking pain of a relationship in which she wasn’t “sure if he [wanted] to be there.” She sings, “You sacrificed us to the gods of your bluest days,” but throws him a line with, “You’ll find someone.”

Swift didn’t stop at calling out Alwyn in the album. In a bold choice—even for her—an entire song is devoted to thanking Kim Kardashian for fueling her to build an empire she can’t reverse. In “Thank You Aimee,” she sings, “And so I changed your name and any real defining clues.” The title is stylized as “thanK you aIMee,” which spells out Kim in capital letters.

Most songs on the second half of the album, dubbed “The Anthology,” are produced by Aaron Dessner of “Folklore” and “Evermore” fame. The producer shift is evident from synth-pop to mainly piano or guitar ballads.

She continues telling stories about her career and relationships with more heavy lyricism and symbolism. The album closes with the final lyric, “But the story isn’t mine anymore.”

Swift is a master of her art. She meticulously crafts lyrics that tell complex stories and uses production that underscores the often ambiguous yet simultaneously very clear nods to her life. She has an acute understanding of what her fans want: suspense, surprises and guessing games in the form of breadcrumb clues.

She delivers all these things with “The Tortured Poets Department,” but this may be a case of too much of a good thing.

For those invested in her life, dissecting the lyrics and each word choice is a fun game. Devoted Swifties likely consider 31 new songs a dream come true, but for more casual listeners, it’s almost overwhelming. And for those with limited knowledge of the lore behind the lyrics, the similar production style throughout most of the album may blend the songs together.

She has done everything that characterizes this album before: the synth-pop and surprise bonus drop on “Midnights,” the complex lyrics and storytelling on “Folklore” and “Evermore,” and the 30-plus songs on “Red (Taylor’s Version).” 

For “The Tortured Poets Department,” Swift seems to be grasping at straws to continue developing something new. The elements she has successfully done before now have to be taken to extremes to be able to come up with something different enough.

Some lyrics are overstuffed with unnecessarily complex language—certainly not what teenagers can sing in the shower or the car with their friends without running out of breath. When read out of context, some of them are just plain questionable; like the line from “I Hate It Here,” she sings, “We would pick a decade / We wished we could live in instead of this / I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists.” What?

The high production value, songwriting talent and masterful marketing of the album are all marks of an innovative, talented artist. Swift knows better than anybody what has and will make her work successful. She’s playing a game that she’s been competing in since 2006.

It’s hard to see where Swift will innovate from here to attract fresh fans. Her lifespan in the music industry and various genres has contributed to her resounding success but now limited her remaining options.

Her present saturation of the pop culture market will likely not help her draw in curious new listeners eager to learn about her, as she can no longer realistically market the misunderstood, mysterious underdog.

However, if there’s anything we can know for sure about Taylor Swift, she always has a surprise up her sleeve.

It will be an exciting career trajectory to watch, and it will undoubtedly be a masterclass in the dominance of the music industry.

Hannah Ferreira is a contributing writer for MTSU Sidelines.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Destiny Mizell and Assistant Lifestyles Editor Shamani Salahuddin, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Instagram at MTSUSidelines or on X at @MTSUSidelines. Also, sign up for our weekly newsletter here.

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