FIRST LISTEN: Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets Department

Throughout the years Taylor Swift has fought back at music critics for making her out to be a boy obsessed, immature songwriter. She’s been pigeonholed into one defining judgment as critics have said that she fails to hit the mark every time. This is why I am hesitant to focus on the typical narrative we hear about Swift– the question asked over and over again: Why can’t she get over these boys already? Sure, it’s easy to dig into that, because let’s face it, Swift romanticizes her love life to the point of self-deprecation. But the Tortured Poets Department has something else to offer.

This new anthology is 31 songs, a length that adds up to about two hours. This could be interesting, maybe even a great opportunity for story building if the songs weren’t so boring. Both producers on the album, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, fail to bring anything new to the table. It almost feels like the music is a second thought to Taylor’s vocals, which most of the time sound monotonous and underdeveloped. Swift approaches the majority of tracks with the same cadence, whiny tone, and exasperated breathiness. I kept waiting for her to shake things up, to use the true power of her voice, or to belt something out but those moments were rare.

And the title? Yikes. I hoped it was a playful joke, but as I listened to the album it became clear that Swift was probably taking herself a bit too seriously. She has a candid approach to pain which exposes her own imperfections and humanity to the world(I think this is a powerful act). But calling herself a “tortured poet” seems a bit much, considering the fact that she is an incredibly successful billionaire. And on top of that, even though Swift’s lyrics are shockingly honest, the bland production strips away any feeling of intimacy or presence within the songs. It feels like she’s playing a part, emoting for the sake of emoting, without really feeling what she’s expressing. 

Along with this hollow disposition Swift sets herself up as the victim in the majority of stories she tells. No matter whether the story is about a boy who deserts her, a small town that uses her as a scapegoat, the music industry that exploits her, or a religious denomination that casts her as a sinner–she maintains a defenseless, black sheep attitude through it all. One of the most absurd and now heavily memed quotes summarizes this standpoint: Swift sings in ‘Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me‘, “You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum where they raised me“. And unfortunately listeners must wallow in this drabness for all 31 tracks. There is no forward movement in processing pain, no gained wisdom or self-evolution–rather a cyclical return to the same state of mind.   

That being said, there is a stand-out lyric in ‘Cassandra‘ that poignantly expresses Swift’s dilemma: “They say what doesn’t kill you makes you aware/what happens if it becomes who you are?” Swift is currently the most famous figure alive. In the grips of the money hungry music industry, the omnipresent media and watchful eyes of millions of Swifites she can never truly escape herself. It’s no wonder she can’t help but get lost in all of her own reflections. 

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.