the first ever thoughts on taylor swift, and on the tortured poets department

11 min readApr 27, 2024

taylor swift is a very talented musician, and a fantastic songwriter. many people attempt to dispute this fact, but it is almost an undeniable one. i enjoy taylor swift’s music quite a bit. she isn’t my favourite artist, but the vast majority of the time, when i hear her voice on the radio, or in a random spotify shuffle, or even in the interminable shuffle of my sonic thoughts, i know that i will enjoy whatever comes next. in ninety percent of cases. sometimes, stinkers like me! and you need to calm down come on, which aren’t good songs, but these still put a smile on my face because of how stupid they are. in very rare cases, the worst type of taylor swift comes on: the boring songs. a lot of the vault tracks instil this feeling within me. where taylor swift songs become more about the status of being taylor swift, than actually being about her life. a small, but important distinction. ever since the mediocre midnights, it feels as if taylor swift has stopped being the musician taylor swift, and instead the celebrity, Taylor Swift. where the music has stopped being important, and what is important is what discourse one can mine from her life.

this part of taylor swift’s life has probably been true since red, but there was still some semblance of musical criticism applied by the public at large. songs like shake it off were derided for having a bad rap section, and bad blood was derided for being a bad song, generally. however, after the debacle around kanye making the song famous, and the tumult surrounding that entire incident (probably one of the most boring things to care about!) everything about her became about Taylor Swift at large, and not about her music. this is perfectly by design: with the release of look what you made me do, everything about taylor swift became about being about Taylor Swift. reputation in its entirety is a reflection on this: it is an album, if you can believe this, about her reputation. with mediocre music (i refuse to buy in to the re-evaluation of the album. it’s not great!) being papered over by a conceit of what life must be like as Taylor Swift, ms. swift found the winning formula for how to pull herself out of a hole.

after the relative failure of lover pre-pandemic (never a failure in ny eyes. it is my favourite taylor swift album and always has been), taylor swift put out folklore. an album where taylor swift discovered what made her so magical in the first place: being able to craft these gorgeous vignettes of what life before, during, and after love is like. she then followed this up shortly after with evermore, an album that perfected what folklore originally did, with a cavalcade of gorgeous features that showcased taylor swift at the peak of her powers. when you’ve reached the top, where else is there to go but down?

with the announcement of the taylor’s version (for non-swifties, called a tv) of fearless, taylor swift managed to do the unthinkable: become more successful by releasing the same album twice over. whereas artists like the strokes (i’ve come around on room on fire now, as have most people) did this to slightly diminished praise, taylor swift did this to even more slovenly devotion. with the vault tracks providing another glimpse of the highly-mythologised, brutally honest, yet somehow still uber-mysterious Real Taylor Swift, despite (on balance) half of the tracks deserving to remain in the vault, fearless tv represented ms. swift’s apotheosis in the eyes of the public, but the peripeteia in the eyes of the critics. red tv followed, with some incredible vault tracks, but far more duds (the album is almost two!!! hours long) and even more success. the idea of the vault encapsulates the core of the taylor’s version: ostensibly imprisoned riches, only left in the prison to mature in wealth. restricting the deluge of songwriter taylor swift to when the culture at large was conducive to a deluge of songwriter taylor swift was her masterstroke: the usual album and press cycle being avoided due to the nature of the taylor’s versions prevented her overexposure, and allowed her to let the runaway train keep ploughing to a land of untold riches.

where the train reaches its destination is before the release of midnights. with the rate of taylor’s versions, releasing an album at that time, especially one that signalled a return to making the music of her mid 2010s represented the first chink in her armour. what made the taylor’s versions so popular, aside from the aforementioned reasons, was how they represented her earlier career as being slightly quaint: reflections of a different time for both ms. swift and music at large, forced through a rose-tinted lens for us all to enjoy (and ignore that the production quality was steadily getting worse!) until the end of time. the vaulted nature of the extra tracks provided another layer to her mystique: the fervour surrounding the all too well ten minute version was almost unforgettable. hearing more lurid details of a relationship that had been over for five times the length that it happened enraptured a vast swathe of people, and showcased the unstoppability of ms taylor alison swift. the fact that i didn’t have to look her name up should be evidence in and of itself that taylor swift had command of many people’s minds and hearts. how did midnights loosen this spell on us?

with the release of midnights, the previous overexposure ms. swift avoided came to the forefront. releasing new music, so similar to her pre-pandemic work, so obviously created to go to number one, without the thin veneer of reclaiming her stolen work/getting in touch with her ‘authentic’ songwriter self was the beginning of the end. the remix of karma, with focus-grouped ice spice there to give a boring rap verse was almost a carbon copy of what she did with bad blood. however, ice spice doesn’t have even a modicum of the critical adoration that kendrick lamar does, yet captured more of the cultural zeitgeist. such a blatant cashgrab put this image of taylor at odds with the image she had fostered over the last couple of years, and without the catchy music of red/1989 to facilitate this second turn to uber-poppy pop music, and with far more of a critical darling persona fostered around her, what did she expect to happen?

this is not to say that i think midnights is a bad album. i think it is an ok album, with a second album companion providing an alternative, if too bloated view at how midnights could have bee. many people considered it the Platonic ideal of what a taylor swift album should be: in the music and in the release strategy, it drew a middle-ground between the two sides of taylor swift. doing a traditional album rollout for new music, and then doing a surprise drop of- more music!- combined the pre and post-pandemic new taylor swift album approaches. however, this created an awkward deluge of taylor swift-ness in the culture: everyone couldn’t stop talking about taylor swift for a long time, but the music became lost in the shuffle, except for brief glimpses of opinionated commentary. the eras tour, a tour that was as much about showcasing what life touring as taylor swift was like, as it was about showcasing the music of taylor swift, continued this simulacraic position of taylor swift in the public’s mindset. amalgamating your past music into one collection is both the stated aim of most tours, and usually saved for artists who were past their prime, reliving the glory days by playing songs from 1993 terribly, with a terrible voice to boot. the absolutely colossal amount of money made from the tour, which still hasn’t made it to europe, shows that taylor swift was not past her prime commercially. sonically? it perhaps came off as an (albeit, very successful) attempt to paper over the slightly tepid reception to midnights, and show that after all, this is Taylor Swift, with more hits in one album than most artists would dare to dream of.

another two taylor’s versions followed midnight in 2023, with the speak now tv passing by with little fanfare, and the 1989 re-release being greeted with bemusement as to why all of the songs sounded much, much worse- i will never forgive the production team for what they did to style, one of the best songs in her discography. it seemed as if 2024 would only produce the last two re-releases: her self-titled debut (the tv i am most interested in, just because i want to see how the vault tracks shake out!), and the much-vaulted (well, not by me) reputation re-recording. until the leaks started trickling out.

i have avoided talking about the newest addition to ms. swift’s mystique: the lore, the red herrings, the clues that signal a new release. to be a fan of almost any artist involves, first and foremost, enjoying the music. to be a fan of taylor swift (and at a stretch, bands like sonic youth), involves first and foremost enjoying the concept of enjoying their music. to be a swiftie, you have to buy into the lore of taylor swift: you must know about all of her ex-boyfriends, which ones treated her awfully, and the current state of her relationship. the natural progression from this during the pandemic was to simply dial up the amount of lore you had to know about Taylor Swift. once she started dropping hints about her new music through cryptic ciphers, becoming a fan of taylor swift gained a new requirement: you must buy in to everything taylor swift does, and enjoy talking about everything she does. for dedicated swifties, you had to both dissect and enjoy talking about dissecting every tweet, every instagram post, every conspicuous website update. the lore morphed from being about taylor swift’s personal life, to how things from her private life were released. considering that ms swift’s music had already moved to being primarily about the lore surrounding it, since probably the infamous vmas in 2010, the lore entered a state of being hyperreal: it was originally a representation of real events, then became a representation of a representation of real events, and has simply spiralled from there.

take the cardigans sold as merch on her website: originally coming into existence because of the song cardigan, being a way for devoted fans to buy a tangible reminder of taylor swift, and literally wear it around in a way that was previously impossible, these cardigans sold like wildfire. wearing the same cardigan that taylor swift wore was a dream fulfilment for many swifties, no longer feeling like an old cardigan under someone’s bed, but being able to take part in a cultural trend (the dreaded fascist-adjacent cottagecore that sprung up during the pandemic [i do love to call things fascist ironically, but the idea of cottagecore is one of three cultural movements i wholeheartedly believe are some level of fascist]) while also being able to secretly fulfil your swiftie desires made the cardigans a must-buy for many fans (not even swifties! just fans) of taylor swift. the cardigan, i think, looks good. where the cardigans become hyperreal is because of the how these cardigans now exist for every album that she released post-folklore. the core essence of why the cardigans were sold was lost, and buying the cardigans instead became a hobby in and of itself: they are a representation of the idea of taylor swift, instead of being linked to an actual song. me looking up that image of ms. swift wearing the titular cardigan produced an article on “all of the taylor swift album cardigans,” which i think only further illustrates my point. why would 1989, the furthest from any cardigan-wearing, cottagecore loving album in her discography need a cardigan? and, in an example of the cardigans delving further into hyper-reality, as time has gone on, the reviews of the cardigan’s quality and designs have plummeted. the tortured poet’s department cardigan is just a grey cardigan! looking at the article about the cardigans, ttpd’s (the acronymisation for the tortured poets department) cardigan only describes how the cardigan looks as a piece of fashion, as opposed to the rest of the article, which has increasingly tenuous links to ms. swift’s oeuvre. whats the point!

and now, we finally come to the tortured poets department. the culmination of the hyperreality of taylor swift: where the music is secondary to talking about how other people talk about taylor swift. where there is a debate on whether she just stole dead poets society’s name for the album (it is uncannily similar, but ariana grande cribbed from eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, and look at how people talk about her [i.e. they don’t!]), whether she is a tortured poet (in a sense, yes), whether the surprise drop of the anthology worked (it didn’t. i refuse to listen to it off a matter of principle. i have better things to do with my life!), and whether she is secretly a bad songwriter for having cringy lyrics (she is a great songwriter. most lyrics are cringy if you look at them outside of the music. see: st. vincent’s sweetest fruit backlash [no-one cares about this, but i think it works].) my review of the album: it is decidedly mediocre. some of the songs are good, with the title track actually being pretty great, but i only like that so much because it sounds like afterglow and mariners apartment complex put in a blender. the rest of the songs are alright, apart from florida!!! which i despise. but that i respect, because it actually made me have thoughts about the music itself. no-one, not even the dynamite combination of taylor swift and florence welch, can make a chorus consisting of ‘florida’ work. it sounds terrible, and is far too derivative of no body, no crime, which is one of my favourite songs from evermore.

in this piece, ostensibly started as an addendum to my previous manifesto against daylists talking about my thoughts on the tortured poets department, we have spent half a paragraph talking about the music of taylor swift, and an inordinate amount of words talking about taylor swift, and indeed talking about talking about taylor swift. perhaps, even, talking about talking about talking about talking about taylor swift. a reflection of taylor swift’s celebrity: where the actual music gets lost in the shuffle of a musician’s reputation. while writing this, pet shop boys singer neil tennant commented that taylor swift, despite being a great and uber-popular musician, doesn’t have The Song that other massive artists, like michael jackson, has. many people have talked about how having a billie jean is impossible in our modern fragmented culture, but critics said the same about oasis and wonderwall decades ago, how it was impossible to be as big as the beatles. i posit, perhaps this is by design. the one song that, i believe, could have taken her there remained an album cut until last year, where it was finally pushed as a single and rocketed straight to number one. in a just world, cruel summer would be taylor swift’s billie jean. yet, this is an unjust world, and perhaps ms. swift doesn’t want a billie jean to loom over her entire discography. she remains in the middle of being a singles and album artist, despite singles far overshadowing albums in the popular culture: a genius manoeuvre for her popularity, perhaps less so for her music…