Breakups…….. fantasies and her most cutting lyrics: inside Taylor’s Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department.

What are the big takeaways from Swift’s new album? She’s refining her sound, confronting elements of her fanbase and done with romantic idealisation

She’s rebuking the public for the first time
Swift named an entire album after the concept of her reputation and has been engaging with public perceptions of her as far back as 2010’s Speak Now; songs such as Mean, Blank Space and the gothic half of Reputation lash out directly at critics.

But she’s never openly condemned her listeners before her new album The Tortured Poets Department, in songs that constitute some of its most daring moments. Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me? feels like a deservedly bitter, barbed update of the cutesier and more cloying Anti-Hero that suggests Swift is the way she is because of the twisted culture she grew up in and had to contort herself to fit into: “You taught me, you caged me, and then you called me crazy,” she seethes, sounding quite high on the fearsome power commentators have ascribed to her.

Most thrilling is But Daddy I Love Him, named after a line that astute listeners will recognise from The Little Mermaid as Ariel protests to King Triton that she’s in love with landlubbing human Eric.

It’s very clearly about the pearl-clutching that transpired when Swift started dating Matty Healy of the 1975 last spring. She was fresh out of a six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn; Healy was in trouble for laughing at racist jokes on a podcast, an incident that led concerned Swift fans to dig up his previous controversies and pen (pathetic) open letters petitioning her to break up with him. The song hints that even her management and family tried to get her to end it (“soon enough the elders had convened down at the city hall”). But Healy’s notoriety, the song makes clear, was partially the point: “He was chaos / he was revelry,” she sings ecstatically, then directs her ire to the “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best” and the “wine moms” castigating her choices:

I’ll tell you something right now
I’d rather burn my whole life down
Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning
I’ll tell you something about my good name
It’s mine alone to disgrace

There’s something quite seditious about the stadium-sized euphoria of the song – that she can criticise elements of her audience and make them sing along with those criticisms – as well as the subtle country musicianship that blossoms towards the end, gesturing at the precocious and scrupulously behaved

country star that Swift once was and that many expect her to still be. The punchline is great – “I’m having his baby / No I’m not but you should see your faces” – but the sentiment about who gets to decide what’s right for her, as a 34-year-old woman who’s been working for 20 years, is even better.

Later, on Guilty as Sin?, she details the boredom she seemed to feel in her previous relationship and questions “if long-suffering propriety is what they want from me”. Swift has questioned the contract of likability that female pop stars are expected to uphold with the public before, and has been untangling the concept of the “good girl” she was raised to be for several years, but has never made quite so plain that she has no intention of living up to it any more.

As well as trouncing expectations that she should uphold some level of respectability, Swift also reckons with the limits of romantic idealisation, as seen from both sides. She makes very clear that the thought of Healy captivated her while her relationship with Alwyn was foundering – to the degree that Guilty as Sin? documents her fantasies about Healy, prompting categorically the first allusion to masturbation in her catalogue: “These fatal fantasies / Giving way to laboured breath / Taking all of me / We’ve already done it in my head.” Once they got together, she sings, they both told friends that they’d die without one another; she swears she can reform his bad habits. But the fantasies turn out to be just that: The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived is a Dear John/All Too Well-level evisceration of how he “hung me on your wall / Stabbed me with your push pins / In public showed me off / Then sank in stoned oblivion”, and ultimately ghosted her. The sheen dulls to black: “I’ll say good riddance,” she sings, “cos it wasn’t sexy once it wasn’t forbidden.”

It’s her funniest album …
Line for line, TTPD features Swift’s most cutting lyrics. When presumably Healy brings a typewriter to her house on the title track, she sings, “I laughed in your face and said, ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas / I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea hotel / We’re modern idiots.’” There’s the “having his baby” line in But Daddy I Love Him, the vengeful wraith of Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me? and in Florida!!! (a duet with Florence Welch), an astute line about a particularly isolating aspect of being a childfree 34-year-old who actually has her shit together: “My friends all smell like weed or little babies.” (As someone also born in 1989, I find this to be the first Swift album since her teenage records that feels like an authentic reflection of this age: “Growing up precocious sometimes means not growing up at all,” as she sings on But Daddy I Love Him.)

Mingling the mordant and the cocksure, I Can Do It With a Broken Heart reveals – and revels in – how she duped hundreds of thousands of people into thinking she was having the time of her life on the Eras tour when in reality she was depressed. “I cry a lot but I am so productive / It’s an art,” she sing-songs, lording in her ability to keep up appearances – you suspect her therapist might have something to say about leaning on work as a coping mechanism. And the very meme-worthy line “lights, camera, bitch, smile / Even when you wanna die” makes clear why she wanted back on TikTok.

Moreover, there are even gags in the music – the burbling synths, booming drums and glazed backing vocals of opener Fortnight, featuring a barely there Post Malone, sound rather a lot like the 1975’s signature sound.


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