Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024

The Tortured Poets Department aims to torture us all

By MARIANA FERREIRA | April 24, 2024

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JANA BEAMER / CC-BY-2.0

Taylor Swift’s highly anticipated studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, and the surprise second album The Anthology, draw on Swift’s experiences with love and fame.

Do I even need to add a hook to this article? You know who she is, and as much as you may have tried to avoid it, you’ve heard of this album. 

The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift’s new studio album, came out on Friday with 16 brand-new shiny songs, and then, two hours after its release, Swift announced 15 more songs as part of The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology

In this album, the highs are average and the lows are low. With the repetitive pop-synth production in the first half of the album and the recycling of the same melodies in the second half, as you listen, the album starts to lose its path. Suddenly, it feels like a bunch of words without meaning, like that reading for class you just can’t make sense of. Don’t get me wrong — despite Swift’s clear attempts to show her writing expertise by using big words like “precocious” (which she uses in two songs in the album), the vocabulary is fairly average. Yet, she focuses so much on how pretty her writing sounds that she loses sight of making her words make any sense. 

The Tortured Poets Department is extremely honest, blunt and personal — but it may be too personal. Swift outlines her wet dreams in “Guilty As Sin?,” talks about her private moments with now-boyfriend Travis Kelce in “So High School” and discusses her disapproval of public discourse over her life in “But Daddy I Love Him.” 

Most tracks are in the same key (C Major) and have the same kind of pop-synth production that her main producer, Jack Antonoff, is known for. But, by the end of the album, you can’t help but feel as though there is no distinction between songs, either lyrically or melodically — this continues for the second, third, fourth and fifth listens. Unfortunately for the Swifties, there's only so much blame you can put on Antonoff. Songs by her other producer, Aaron Dessner, also face the same problem of repetition and lack of originality. You can start to piece together the common thread between all of the songs — Swift herself. 

For fans of Swift who know the backstory to every song, the album starts to feel like overconsumption. There are only so many minutes in a day I can stand to hear about what a heartthrob The 1975's Matty Healy was or how painful it was to leave him. When a trope is that overused, it becomes obvious that the songwriter might not have anything else to write about. Every song tells the same story in different ways. The point we are supposed to take away from this body of work gets completely lost in the attempts to make the album as poetic as possible and culminates in an exhausting two-hour experience. 

At the end of the upbeat and dark “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” Swift delivers the lyric, “Try and come for my job,” highlighting her continued insecurities toward her fame and popularity. The fear of being outshone by a younger and newer artist is shared in songs like “Nothing New” in Red (Taylor’s Version) and “Clara Bow” in The Tortured Poets Department. Yet, here she puts herself in an echo chamber, declaring herself unbeatable, as if she does what nobody else can. Though dealing with heartbreak is hard, the hyper-confidence Swift is using to cope is starting to look more and more like delusion.

The billionaire with the private jet, assistants and everything she could want at her fingertips has a really hard life that no one else can beat... Sure. In “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” Swift sings, “You wouldn't last an hour in the asylum where they raised me.” She was raised in a mansion in suburban Pennsylvania. Don’t get me wrong — this is probably a metaphor for the pressured life she has had to live throughout her years of fame, but what seems to be overlooked is recognition that there are people in worse predicaments. 

I am no Taylor Swift, but I dare say there are things worse than being rich and famous. In the same song, she goes on to say, “Who’s afraid of little old me? / Well, you should be.” This is one of the many lines that makes you cringe when you first hear it. She’s putting herself on a pedestal and handing herself the medal she made from scratch. It’s hard to recognize someone as a good artist when you have them shoving that idea down your throat. With that, one begins to wonder: Where does the confidence come from, and is it even deserved? 

The Tortured Poets Department makes one thing clear: Swift is not bringing anything new to the table. And maybe that’s what some of her fans want from her: consistency, reliability and predictability. But when compared to artists who are experimenting and bringing new life to the music industry, like Beyoncé, Sabrina Carpenter, SZA and Ariana Grande, Swift starts to fall flat. She’s had her moments of reinvention with her pop album 1989, her folk and alternative albums Folklore and Evermore, and her pop-synth era with Midnights. Yet, The Tortured Poets Department becomes a weird mix of all of them that loses some of the purpose of what it means to produce music. There is no coherent thread, just a mush of words and already-heard sounds that, by the end, feel tiring and purposeless.

What actually becomes clear from this album is how unrelatable Swift has become. Previously renowned for her personal and widely-applicable lyrics, Swift seems to lose touch with reality on this album. Her attempts to make this album honest and personal fail, and instead open the curtain to her position of privilege and the high regard she has for herself. Especially in the day and age we live in now, how can a pop star’s love life be of any relevance?

The album lacks meaning, and it might be attributed to the identity crisis we see unfold before us with every listen of this album. Taylor Swift doesn’t know who she is. Is she the victim, the hero or the villain? She can’t pick a lane. In one moment, Swift places herself as the best in the world, yet labels herself as a victim in the next song. It becomes more confusing with each listen and detracts from any point or meaning this album should have. What does become clearer with each listen is what might be real purpose of this album — to torture us all. 


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