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The Tortured Poets Department: Is It Really Poetry or just Torture?

By Staff Writer Lucy Yao

Some call it torture, others call it poetry. Either way, singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s newly released 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD), has been one of the most anticipated album releases of this year. Swift even surprised fans with an additional 15 songs, including a new half of the album in her deluxe version titled The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology. From Apple Music to Spotify, Swift reached a historic 2.61 million streams in the album’s debut week on the Billboard 200, with all 31 songs charting on Billboard. 

In some ways, the attention is completely deserved. The album — both its first and second half —  is Swift’s best in terms of lyrical cohesion, themes, and symbolism, save for a couple of lines. Unfortunately, it’s one of her least recognizable sonically — boring and easily blended together. 

Not only are the instrumentals similar to songs already found in her discography, but especially within the album itself, the synths and beats all become one continuous stream. This is in part because the album lacks upbeat songs, meaning that for traditional pop listeners, the tracks just morph into the same genre of slow, edgy, synth-indie-pop-mix. 

Swift also completely omits what made her music so catchy in the first place: the instrumental melodies, instrument-based motifs typically found at the beginning of pieces. 

With Swift’s roots in country music, most, if not all, of her earlier songs have these easily-recognizable instrumental breaks (such as the drum set pattern in “Shake It Off”, the guitar melody in the first 22 seconds of “All Too Well”, or the small piano pickup into “cardigan”).

In contrast, every song in TTPD and The Anthology begins with either a crescendoing synth, a generic drum track, or an immediate jump into the lyrics. This often continues throughout the rest of the song, with the scarcity of instrumental motifs leaving every song sounding the same. From this complete lack of balance between melodies and lyrics, it seems as though Swift’s focus for this album isn’t on the actual songs, but rather on sharing her messages about each emotion of heartbreak, and how even at thirty years old the pain is the same as her younger years. 

In attempts to show that, Swift deliberately caters to younger audiences by making the song titles as silly and relatable as possible. With excessive references to trendy sayings (“I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”) and overly punctuated titles though (“Florida!!! (feat. Florence + the Machine)”), the titles fail to match the album’s marketing, dating the album and leaving a bad initial impression on her older audiences. This extends to her most talked-about lyrics too. For an artist known for her gorgeous, lyrical songwriting, she makes overly graphic, blunt references to modern pop culture, drug use, and even her sex life, which ultimately ruin the value and imagery inspired by her songs. 

These lyrics aren’t frequent either; Swift just goes through extra effort to highlight them for audiences to catch onto. For example, in the title track, Swift intentionally lowers the volume of the instrumentals after the chorus so she can sing loud and clear, “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate / We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist.” In “But Daddy I Love Him,” she breaks immersion directly in the chorus with the tongue-in-cheek lyrics: “I’m having his baby / No, I’m not, but you should see your faces.” The worst one is in the song “So High School” — “You know how to ball / I know Aristotle / Brand new, full throttle / Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” — which feels completely out of place and leaves listeners with a bad image. 

If ignoring these over-the-top references, the album title, artwork, and songs themselves actually align perfectly with what Swift herself said on her Instagram: that this album “reflects events, opinions, and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time – one that was sensational and sorrowful in equal measure.” Many fans have speculated that this “moment in time” is this past year — her breakup with long-time boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn; short-lived rebound with fellow musician Matty Healy; and her current boyfriend, NFL champion Travis Kelce. This theory matches the bulk of Swift’s poetically profound lyrics, which happen to be some of her best work yet. 

She adds to her typical storytelling approach in albums like folklore and Red TV by utilizing more literary devices to show the deeper nuances in her abstract messages. For example, she utilizes wordplay for the lyric “I died at the altar waiting for the proof,” with the altar symbolizing both a wedding ceremony and a religious sacrifice. Others, she utilizes song-wide metaphors such as when she compares herself to a circus animal and proclaims “Don’t you worry folks / We took out all her teeth.” Most obvious is her widespread use of allusions to inspire entire choruses, titles, and songs. In “Peter,” Swift takes an original one-liner about Peter Pan losing Wendy from the song “cardigan”, and extends it to this entire song about Wendy’s feelings about Peter abandoning her (“You said you were gonna grow up / Then you were gonna come find me”).

What really makes this Swift’s best work lyrically, though, is the cohesion in the first and second halves of the albums. The first half clearly demonstrates the destruction of two relationships — one agonizing and love-stricken and the other, mercurial and idealistic. She takes listeners  through the chronology of all the emotions, grief, and manic escapades she has endured throughout her relationships. 

The second half doesn’t have as clear of a storyline, but remains cohesive, instead covering a chronologically-backward tale of sleepless nights scattered throughout her life, just like her previous album Midnights. Swift reminisces on each life-changing moment, channeling and questioning her rawest thoughts at these times. What begins with lyrics about painful lingering in “The Black Dog” (an alleged reference to a pub Alwyn frequents), soon moves to a song reflecting her feud with celebrity Kim Kardashian in 2016, before finally ending with the importance of treasuring childhood in the song “Robin.” Rather than lamenting this “self-inflicted” fate, Swift’s final line declares that “the story isn’t mine anymore.” Rather, her stories have become sendoffs in glass bottles for her sea of fans to find their own joy in. 

Ultimately, with an album featuring some of her worst one-liners and production, but also her truest lyrics yet, it’s clear that Swift is testing the depths of her fame. She trusted that her massive, rabid fanbase would reach numbers, while tabloids and gossip would bring her to the public’s eye — and it worked. 

This album may not be one of her classic summer hits and fun karaoke nights, but it’s still a valuable addition to her discography. It serves as her diary about grief — sobbing in quiet recognition and screaming out the bittersweet that’s still present well into her thirties. It’s for those who need to relate to Swift’s vulnerability in capturing every waking emotion of a failing relationship. 


Grade: B-

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