This is Not a Review of The Tortured Poets Department by Taylor Swift

I’ve been obsessed with Taylor Swift since I was about 8 years old. That’s not meant to be a brag, nor is it a great shame of mine. I like her music. I cried at the Eras tour like everyone else. I’ve seen all the music videos, all the tour movies, and I know all the words, so on. I’ve studied the details of her career since I was a kid, and I’m genuinely not sure I’d be the same person now if I hadn’t. There are countless memories of mine throughout my life that are tied up in a Taylor Swift song. In some cases, that means Today Was A Fairytale coming on over the radio on the bus ride home in 2011. Other times, I spent hours on internet searches and watching YouTube videos to satisfy my curiosity. I’m willing to credit Taylor Swift with the bulk of my media literacy and academic skill. – I started early. What can I say? That said – I am a week away from turning 23 today, and I don’t see the value in writing a review of her latest album – The Tortured Poets Department.

I thought about writing a little album review, don’t get me wrong. Some friends asked what I thought of the album when it came out on April 19th. Of course, I listened to it. I spent all day listening to the monster double album. And I miss writing my reviews. I miss focusing on an album for about a week, going through listening and recording my initial thoughts, researching each song, and following a track-by-track format I’ve done 18 times over the last few years. I recorded my thoughts on this album, as I listened for the first time – mostly to share with my reformed Taylor-Swift-hater girlfriend. So you can see those below if you like, as a consolation prize.

Anyway, I don’t want to go into too much more detail about the songs themselves, or whether I like them. This is for a few different reasons, but mostly because I am overwhelmed with the insane amount of information there is to digest about it. And at a certain point, an excess of subtext has to be reductive to a piece of artistic work. I don’t think the internet needs to know what I personally think of every track on this album. A good 45 minute doom scroll on TikTok will inform you of every possible opinion on every single song, anyway. I don’t think that Ms Billionaire Taylor Swift, queen of America, needs my personal approval of this.

Ms. Swift has released her first new album since she announced her breakup with her boyfriend of 6 years, Joe Alwyn. In terms of album analysis, this detail brings on a level of expectation and anticipation that is unprecedented in the history of Swift’s career so far. Perhaps this seems insignificant in a purely musical discussion of the album – but Taylor Swift’s music cannot be considered outside of the context of her life. You know adamantly that you are listening to the latest album of Global Superstar Taylor Swift, and it’s a real challenge to hear the notes for what they are and not get caught up in speculating what the lyrics might mean. While I have enjoyed collecting information surrounding Taylor Swift’s relationships, breakups and alleged flings over the years – and continue to read headlines and watch TikToks and wonder, I think I’d enjoy this album more if I knew less.

I can’t speak about everyone’s experience. I know that not everyone has spent years with their head under the glittery sand searching for clues. And I’m certainly not against listening to music just to enjoy it. But I like to listen to music that I can interpret to pertain to me personally. I like to get something out of it, and at this stage, we have so much information available to us about Swift’s experiences that I really struggle to re-contextualise her lyrics as they might attain to me. That might be selfish of me, but it used to happen with ease. I think that the last time I was able to do that was in 2020, with the release of folklore and evermore. I don’t think it is coincidental that these are albums that Swift insists are not about her own life. I also don’t think that it is coincidental that these albums came out early in lockdown, arguably before TikTok’s exhausting invitation for every single person to share their every single thought.

It’s undeniable that Taylor Swift has mastered her marketing scheme. Especially in recent years, it’s undeniable that Taylor Swift has mastered her marketing scheme, making it hard to find someone under 30 who doesn’t enjoy her music. And even if you come across such a person, I would confidently bet that they are at least familiar with the basics of her identity and recent activities. So clearly she’s doing something right – who am I to question her millions? Right? Well… I am a fan. Which brings me to my next point of tension.

Taylor Swift, like every other musician, makes money from her fans. She, in particular, makes a LOT of money from her fans. At a certain point, her marketing scheme takes up more of her career than her discography does. I think she reached this certain point some years ago, and I think that’s rather obvious through her last few albums. It’s hard to ignore, actually. I’ve tried. Tracks like Anti-Hero set themselves up quite nicely as an 8 second TikTok clip. It’s particularly evident on TTPD that fans are intentionally being drip-fed just the right amount of information through her lyrics to keep them hooked. And it works. It absolutely, without a doubt, works. I love it – the drama, the questioning, the stories buried under stories… I love it through its vaguely referential lyric skin, down to its bouncy beat bones. But it doesn’t bring on revelations or challenge me to think of something new – I don’t learn anything except a few new vocab words. And I am left both unsatisfied, and aware that my dissatisfaction with this album will encourage me to listen to the next.

The thing is that I, a 23-year-old, am capable of recognising what I am being sold and how it is being sold to me. I know what I like about Taylor Swift’s music, and why it is important and interesting to me. That said, I have never bought Taylor Swift merchandise, and aside from Eras Tour tickets, I’ve spent no money on this interest of mine. I don’t need to and honestly; I am resentful of being convinced that I do. Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Fearless comforts me the same, alone in my car, as it would if i were wearing one of her $70 cardigans. I just don’t need to spend the money. However, there are kids who are growing up right now who I feel sad for. They’re going to have to try to explore and learn and find things that are meaningful to them in a world where they are constantly being told what to like. With the amount of information available to them, they might not have the opportunity to care deeply about any one thing on their own accord. And not to be sappy, but when I was a kid, Taylor Swift’s music felt like it was just for me – and there wasn’t much evidence to suggest otherwise. Now, 9-year-old girls who love something are the backbone of the economy, and frankly, it makes me feel icky to watch late stage capitalism snatch them up.

Some people say she’s a genius, songwriter of our generation, all that. Some people say she sucks live, and she’s an overrated liar and cheat. Both could be true, both could be false, regardless – it doesn’t matter what your opinion is of Taylor Swift, because either way, she’s a billionaire. She’s a billionaire even if you hate her. Dare I say, she’s a billionaire specifically because you hate her. I’m not writing a review of her album today, but I couldn’t help myself – I had to write something about it. And it makes no difference that it’s not a review.

P.S: ‘Guilty as Sin?’ is #1 in my track ranking, and ‘So High School’ is last. Thanks for listening.