Categories: News

Taylor Swift seems sick of being everyone’s best friend

Taylor Swift performs during the Eras tour at the National Stadium in Singapore on March 2, 2024. | Ashok Kumar/TAS24/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

The Tortured Poets Department sees Swift tormented by her boyfriends, her haters, and even her fans.

Taylor Swift has spent the past two years on top of the world.

Her worldwide Eras tour is the highest-grossing music tour of all time. It’s made her a billionaire. Her 2022 album, Midnights, won Album of the Year at the Grammys, making Swift the solo artist with the most wins of all time in that category. Her high-profile romance with football star Travis Kelce has delighted her fans while keeping her in the spotlight. She’s defeated all her haters; her fans are legion; practically everyone admits, now, that she’s very good at the job of being a pop star. Right now, Taylor Swift exists at a pinnacle of fame and success that few can ever even dream of reaching.

Yet Swift’s latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, leaves listeners with the distinct impression that Swift is not entirely content with her current high status. The album suggests nothing so much as Swift chafing furiously against the limits of the image that’s taken her so far — and even, perhaps, her beloved fanbase.

Decoding the storyline of The Tortured Poets Department

The Tortured Poets Department sees its central character reeling from two breakups: one with a long-term lover whose depression has begun to drag the narrator down (“So Long, London”), and one a brief fling with a tortured bad boy who no one seems to approve of (“Fortnight”). As the album goes on, the narrator veers between teenage infatuation with her new bad boy (“Down Bad”), resentment with everyone who tells her they shouldn’t be together (“But Daddy I Love Him”), the slow, grudging realization that perhaps there are some problems with the relationship (“I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”), and fury when he eventually leaves her (“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”).

The narrator’s despair over her love for the lost depressed boyfriend threads its way through the whole album (“loml,” “The Black Dog”). Sometimes, imagery associated with him ends up in a song about the bad boy (“Fresh out the Slammer,” which ends on an ambivalent line about “imaginary rings”), like an intrusive thought. At times, her heartbreak over both breakups is so intertwined it becomes impossible to tell who, exactly, she’s singing about (“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart”).

Albums aren’t autobiographies, but Swift tends to play with the blurry line between song and fact, and that tendency is on full display here. Famously, she writes songs about her real life and encourages her fans to make connections between her lyrics and her biography. Here, the depressed ex-boyfriend lines up with actor Joe Alwyn, who Swift dated for six years, and the tortured bad boy seems to mirror 1975 frontman Matt Healy, who Swift dated for a controversial few weeks shortly after her breakup with Alwyn.

It’s the controversy that gets particular airtime in The Tortured Poets Department.

The very brief but very controversial story of Taylor Swift and Matt Healy

In terms of public image, edgelord Healy was always an odd match for good girl Swift. He’s the kind of provocateur who comments on the far right by doing ironic Nazi salutes onstage, while Swift apparently has to fight her team to make any political statement at all, provocative or otherwise. In February 2023, before news of their relationship broke, Healy appeared on a podcast where he laughed through a series of racist jokes from the host and cracked one of his own about watching violent, racist, and misogynistic porn.

Swift’s fans were outraged. They launched a hashtag, #SpeakUpNow, under which they begged her to break up with Healy and not to tarnish her name and her brand by associating with someone who would make such racist jokes. How, they demanded, could she show such poor judgment? How could she use her platform to elevate someone who has said and done such hurtful things? Was she simply lashing out after her breakup with Alwyn? What was she thinking?

In The Tortured Poets Department, Swift suggests that she did not particularly care for the outrage or the concern about her dating choices. “I’ll tell you something about my good name,” she sings in “But Daddy I Love Him:”

It’s mine alone to disgrace
I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing
God save the most judgmental creeps who say they want what’s best for me
Sanctimoniously performing soliloquies I’ll never see
Thinking it can change the beat of my heart when he touches me
And counteract the chemistry and undo the destiny

There’s a certain layer of irony to the lyrics here. This is the section of the album in which the narrator is feeling particularly defensive about her relationship with her tortured poet, and the tongue-in-cheek song title and over-the-top hysterics of the chorus suggest that she shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously. In later songs, the narrator will conclude that her tortured poet was bad news after all — that he is “the smallest man who ever lived” and that her desire for him stemmed from self-destructive urges.

Still, at no point does the narrator suggest that all the people who warned her about her boyfriend were correct, or that she’s glad they spoke up, or that she feels she should have listened to them, or that she shouldn’t have taken the brand hit for dating him. By the end of the album, she still seems fairly annoyed with the people who thought they got a say in her love life, even if they think they want what’s best for her.

What happens if Taylor Swift decides she’s tired of being her fans’ best friend?

Swift built a not-insignificant amount of her fame on bringing her fans into the story of her romantic choices. Her most potent artistic weapon is her ability to write lyrics about her own life that read as totally vulnerable and totally honest. Then she seeds Easter eggs into the liner notes, inviting her fans to match the heartbreak of each song with a real-life ex. She invites her fans over to her house for homemade cookies and secret album-listening sessions. She sends them Christmas packages. Swift’s star image is built around the trope of the best friend, the girl who lives next door to you and tells you everything about her life.

In The Tortured Poets Department, it’s starting to sound as though Swift is not completely satisfied with living out that image anymore. She resents that her fans begged her to dump her boyfriend. She resents that dating a bad boy put unsustainable stress on her good girl image. She seems to resent, to a certain degree, that she feels compelled to keep existing at the pinnacle of pop perfection she has finally achieved.

“I’m miserable, and no one even knows!” she crows in a spoken interlude at the end of “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” the song where she brags about being able to smile her way successfully through the Eras tour while dealing with her breakups. As the song fades out, she adds, “Try and come for my job,” with an exhausted sigh. Swift seems proud of reaching the top of the world, but all the same, she doesn’t exactly seem to be enjoying her time there.

Throughout Poets, she ruminates obsessively on the past. The surprise second half of the album features songs about that old Kim and Kanye feud (“Cassandra”) and even Swift’s middle school bully (“thanK you aIMee”) (unless that’s just Kim Kardashian again — see those capital letters?). In “The Manuscript,” she goes back over a tortured affair she had in her 20s with an older man (referring plausibly to either Jake Gyllenhaal or John Mayer or both) and realizes, with a sweet wonder, that turning the story into art can redeem it. “Looking backwards might be the only way to move forward,” she sings. Sure, but if Swift keeps looking backward at her old betrayals, when does the moving forward part start?

There are other signs that Swift might feel stuck. Sonically, Poets does not move significantly forward from the dreamy synth pop of Lover and Midnights, with Swift’s primary collaborator Jack Antonoff going back once again to the sound he developed for Lana Del Ray’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! in 2019. Swift used to make a point of developing a new sound with different albums, but Poets is treading the same musical ground she’s been exploring for a while.

Swift’s clothes, too, have been static lately, although she used to switch up her looks dramatically as she moved between album eras. The Cut’s fashion critic Cathy Horyn recently described Swift’s style as “self-conscious” and suggested that the many vocal critics of Swift’s fashion choices are “probably bored” with her college-girl-next-door outfits, which are beginning to come off as a little disingenuous on 34-year-old Swift. “It’s worth remembering that Taylor Swift has always been older and wiser than her years,” Horyn noted. “The girl can’t be discovering herself forever.”

Swift has discovered herself and rediscovered herself in tones of girlish wonder in albums for over 20 years now. She’s taken that girl-next-door image as far as she can take it, farther than almost anyone ever has before, to the very tip top of where mainstream pop can carry her. She capped that portion of her career off with the Eras tour, and now, it seems as though she’s in search of something new.

When Swift won that record-setting Grammy for Album of the Year in February, she said something unusual in her speech. Historically, Swift has made no secret of how much award recognition means to her and how much she craves it. This time, however, she suggested she was ready to move past that desire.

“I would love to tell you that this is the best moment of my life,” Swift said, “but I feel this happy when I finish a song or when I crack the code to a bridge that I love or when I’m shotlisting a music video or when I’m rehearsing with my dancers or my band or getting ready to go to Tokyo to play a show. For me, the award is the work.”

One way to think about The Tortured Poets Department is as an announcement that Swift is no longer so interested in the people-pleasing, high-achieving, best-friend image she has spent her whole career thus far perfecting. In which case, the big question becomes: What next?

Vox - Huntsville Tribune

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