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

Estimated read time 10 min read

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.

She’s rejecting idealisation

Taylor Swift and Matty Healy seen leaving Electric Lady studio in Manhattan, 16 May 2023.View image in fullscreen

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.

… and her most brutal

Swift performing All Too Well (10 minute version) at the Ryman auditorium in Nashville, 20 September 2022.View image in fullscreen

When Swift released Red (Taylor’s Version) three years ago, it came with an expanded 10-minute version of All Too Well that deepened the song’s already considerable evisceration of a past relationship with an imbalanced power dynamic. Swift seems to have brought that kind of digressive, detailed writing to LOML (with the great line “a con man sells a fool a get-love-quick scheme”) and The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived, which questions the reality of her relationship with (one suspects) Healy, telling him “you deserve prison” and skewering some textbook fuckboy-ery: “You said normal girls were ‘boring’ / But you were gone by the morning.”

Swift’s own wounds are as deep as those she inflicts. From the tracklist, fans assumed that TTPD would go deep on her relationship with Alwyn. It’s actually surprisingly sparing, with the majority of the songs seeming to address the Healy situation. So Long, London – track five, traditionally a spot that Swift reserves for total gut-punches – is the only song explicitly about their collapse, portraying Swift carrying “the weight of the rift”, her “white-knuckle dying grip holding to your quiet resentment”, a theme she gently expands on a few other songs. Over a simple bed of trembling, heart-in-mouth synths and soft piano, she sings in a tone of crushed devastation, in perhaps her most affecting vocal performance.

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It’s a refinement, not a reinvention

Since 2019’s Lover, it has felt as though Swift has been searching for an adult pop sound to call her own. That album had some gaudy misfires in the lead singles Me! and You Need to Calm Down and tucked some quieter experimentalism in its back half – songs that seemed to be trying out potential futures for an artist on the cusp of 30 who had already summited higher than anyone had ever summited. Around this time, Swift also seemed to be negotiating a shift from the pop mainstream to a more alternative, songwriterly lane. In the documentary Miss Americana, released in January 2020, she made a scathing comment on the pressure put on female pop stars to reinvent “but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you”. A fortnight later, she attended the NME awards – an unusually homespun event for a regular Grammys fixture – and was pictured alongside Robyn, whose cool example felt indicative of how she might like to grow into her career.

Later that Covid-struck year, Swift released two surprise lockdown albums, the folksy Folklore and Evermore, made in part with Aaron Dessner of the National and featuring guest spots from their frontman Matt Berninger as well as Bon Iver. It was all very tasteful, a vibe continued by 2022’s Midnights, which seemed to draw from her re-recording project by consolidating previous new dawns into a more mature pop sound tinged by atmospheric vintage synths (though it still contained conspicuous lead-single material in Anti-Hero). Made again with Dessner and regular collaborator Jack Antonoff, The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD) is another refinement, filtering the booming synths of 2014’s 1989 through a muted Midnights-y filter that makes her stories of being gutted by two major romantic disappointments sound authentically bruised and wearied. Dessner’s influence is there in the ticking pianos and pulsing synths that give even the more anthemic moments a homespun feel; Antonoff’s many detractors will have plenty to complain about in the Bleachers-worthy boom.

As for newer directions, Florida!!!, Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me and I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can) make a great, subtle virtue of the southern gothic melodrama Swift tried out on Evermore’s shlocky No Body, No Crime; while the only supersized pop moment is I Can Do It With a Broken Heart, which blows dazzling arpeggiated synths worthy of Robyn or the Pet Shop Boys stadium-wards. The whole album seems to pulse with an anxious, human heartbeat.

Lana Del Rey’s influence looms large

Lana Del Rey and Swift attend the Grammy awards in Los Angeles, 4 February 2024.View image in fullscreen

In 2019, Swift singled Del Rey out for praise when she accepted the Billboard woman of the decade award calling her “the most influential artist in pop”. They collaborated on the Midnights track Snow on the Beach, and when that record won the Grammy for album of the year in February, Swift reiterated her praise: “I think so many female artists would not be where they are and would not have the inspiration they have it if weren’t for the work that she’s done.” (Swift also brought Del Rey to the Super Bowl in February to watch her boyfriend, the Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce.) Quite a bit of TTPD sounds like Del Rey’s brand of desolate Americana – Florida!!! in particular – but her influence is clearer in the rambling immediacy of the lyricism. (As well as, perhaps, the speed with which this album has appeared, following Del Rey’s quicksilver example.)

It contains its own micro-playlist

In addition to namechecking Patti Smith – and, oddly, Charlie Puth – on the title track, TTPD also mentions the Blue Nile’s The Downtown Lights on Guilty as Sin? after a guy sends her the song and it sends her spiralling (it’s patently Healy – they’re his favourite band); Stevie Nicks on Clara Bow (Nicks also writes a poem in the liner notes); and Pennsylvania (Swift’s home state) pop-punk band the Starting Line – who the 1975 covered live last year – on bonus track The Black Dog.


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