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Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Isn’t As Edgy As She Thinks

Taylor Swift in music video black and white
Image CreditTaylor Swift/Youtube
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After over a year of extensive press coverage thanks to The Eras Tour, Taylor Swift has claimed her spot as America’s top celebrity.

After winning Best Album of the Year at this year’s Grammys, Swift announced her new album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” which was released last week. For Swifties, it was the next thing to look forward to after establishing cultural hegemony over the past few months.

According to Fox Business, “[H]er 11th studio album also [became] Spotify’s most-streamed album in a single day in their history.” If there was any doubt that she has outmaneuvered all competition in her genre, the commercial success clearly favors her music. Does she still have any daring edge left in her? Will the fans be right that the new album is merely an extension of the uptempo “Midnights” album? Not quite.

What got fans and media outlets raving about the album was the drama surrounding her notorious celebrity romances outside the studio. Songs taking fans through the gossip with former boyfriends Joe Alywn and Matt Healy is exactly what tabloid journalists are looking for. Was this more of the same “trying to move on but can’t” theme? Swift decides to don the mask and pour it into Lana Del Rey’s type of material. Rather than stick to the typical high school dating drama, Swift took the gloves off in bringing up decades-old grudges and new love interests alike.

The opening tracks set the stage for the “Midnights”-esque tone, however, diehard fans will notice a new tone with “The Tortured Poets Department.” Swift goes full femme fatale with her ruthless lyrical rants. “So Long, London” and “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” dive into a darker side. She wants the romance to continue but may go rogue if things don’t pan out. The amount of hostility is present with the lyrics taking an angrier turn, which often contrasts with the upbeat backing track.

This is where the contrast is most visible between Swift’s lighter and darker side. Perhaps, she’s channeling her strongest competitor, Del Ray. A competition that stems back to 2012. The legacy of pop was up for grabs, and Swift took the mantle from the dreary Tumblr girls. With “Red,” they found their new anthems in country-fused pop with a modern twist. Now the same romanticism caught up with her in “The Tortured Poets Department.” The blend of both worlds came together, a pivot that may help future pop singers have longer careers — a theme that fans might find in the final song, “Clara Bow.”

Music critics have been more cynical of the formulaic Jack Antonnoff style that doesn’t dazzle fans the way it did with the more eclectic Del Ray albums he also worked on. Beyond the sound, her lyrics ooze an elitist snark on songs like the overly meta title track and “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me.” Her self-serious “poetry” leaves Swift’s girlboss persona hanging in the balance. The romance appears to go one way while what used to be relatable teen angst now goes the other, exposing the limited range of her topics and imagination. Maybe a closer look at Swiftian psychology will present the narcissistic personality that remains an albatross around her neck.

Swift becomes her own weakness. A symbol that overstayed its welcome. The it girl that fell on her own sword. The country era was replaced. Now the only place to go is to remaster past albums. A step in the right direction, yet directionless nonetheless. It’s a cyclical career unable to step outside itself and expand on more interesting output like the “Folklore” or “Evermore” era.

Her inflated stature becomes a theme in the album. She leans into the tragic celebrity archetype that we’ve seen emerge in recent years in Hulu documentaries and celebrity memoirs. Yet in an era where musicians lean on familiar cliches rather than daring projects, Swift has been rewarded for staying in the same lane. Fans love her with or without tragic motifs. “The Tortured Poets Department” is not quite as edgy as she might imagine it to be, but she at least found a way to hark back to the Tumblr girl angst that was missing in many albums prior.


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