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  • Lauren Johns

“The Tortured Poets Department” The Anthology: Poetry First, Music Second

By: Lauren Johns



On April 19, Taylor Swift released her eleventh studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department”, with the help of Jack Antonoff, (American singer-songwriter and guitarist for “The Bleachers” band), and Aaron Dessner, (American musician and one of the founders of “The National” band). But these names are commonplace by now. And so is all the criticism this album has already received. The singer turned “Mastermind” has an unrelenting target on her back. Despite winning thirteen Grammys, her mere existence is a controversy.



TTPD album cover, credit to: 9Honey


As fate would have it, (“fate” being her Marketing team), her album of poetry was released in the midst of National Poetry month. The record is like “Folklore” on narcotics, instead of drawing from others’ experiences, she is taking pages out of her own diary. An amplification of ponderings. Does this mean that every single lyric is heart-wrenching and profound? No. But “bad” poetry is still poetry, and everything is subjective. When you look at an abstract painting, do you automatically decide that you hate it because it doesn’t look like anything? Or do you try to find your own meaning, widening the confines of your narrow mind? 


We are all critics, regardless of whether or not we have the talent to create anything better ourselves. That’s why social media is blowing up with comments like, “it all sounds the same”, “she’s whining from her mansion”, or a pretty clever one, “this is audio melatonin”. Let’s not forget all the comments reminding her that she needs to be a better role model, or that she needs to grow up a bit and stop acting like she’s a teenager. In turn, her songs mirror society’s opinions, (“So High School” talks about the nostalgia of teenage puppy love). It’s all intentional. 


While all this publicity keeps bubbling to the surface, TTPD is breaking records. The album has hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, making this her fourteenth album at that tier, (CTinsider). To add, in the U.S, 2.6 million albums have been sold, with a surprising 1.91 million of those being Vinyl. On Spotify, where I reside, the album hit over 300 million streams on the day of its release. For being a “mediocre” album, it’s going down in history.


If you push the poetic aspect aside, the album is a beautiful mess. Firstly, it’s 31 songs, which is quite the music binge for one-sitting. Music just turns to white noise after a certain point. Furthermore, this is absolutely the kind of album that requires multiple listens to adequately interpret. It’s like aged Gouda, it takes patience to appreciate.


The downside to all of this, we live in a society of goldfish brains, (my attention span is my Kryptonite). In this way, this album requires what it lacks. 


Memorability. 


In a world of fast fashion and overnight delivery, we need something with a hook, something that reels us in. Lyric-wise, she delivers, but her soundscape is rather bleak. To elaborate, despite listening to this album on repeat, I cannot recall what some of these tracks sound like, everything blends together like muddied paint. I’ve had to channel my inner Sherlock to find these choruses, or maybe a game of “Where’s Waldo” if you will. 


However, I don’t hate this album. I appreciate its slow build, and multi-dimensional perspectives. Listening to these songs is like looking at a kaleidoscope, you see something different every time. 



Taylor Swift's note to her fans, credit to: Blue Valley Tiger News



Let’s start with my least favorites, and rip off the band-aid:


“So High School'', as previously mentioned, sounds like a generic guitar sample put on loop and the lyrics don’t make up for it, particularly the line about “Grand Theft Auto”. Wandering into conspiracy territory, Gabriella Kahn, Education major, believes that this song is about football star, Travis Kelce and how they will get married because he’s her thirteenth boyfriend, (Taylor’s lucky number). 


“loml” (loss of my life), is the definition of bland. The instrumentals, while twinkly, have the dynamic range of a stagnant pond. On the plus side, the lyrics are so masterfully crafted that it won’t be a consistent skip. I love the line, “Our field of dreams, engulfed in fire, I’ll still see it until I die”, because it vividly paints a picture of her wandering through a decaying landscape full of wasted potential.


“Fresh Out the Slammer”, feels like a department store hit. The kind of song that is heard in the background, while something more intriguing is happening. The singing is never a miss, but the accompaniment feels clunky, like it doesn’t fully match the tempo. 


“The Tortured Poets Department”, is a lovely song but it sounds like an only slightly altered copy of “Fortnight” feat. Post Malone. She seems to recycle the same synth-based sound palette on other tracks as well, but I don’t mind it as much. Also, the lyrics feel randomly generated. For instance, “you smoked and ate seven bars of chocolate” turns into a line about Charlie Puth, and then a metaphor about a tattooed golden retriever. It has a bit more flow than that, but still. 


Before I discuss my personal favorites, I want to reinstate that while this album hits its mark lyrically, (as she experiments with a very raw and unfiltered narrative), she isn’t doing anything musically that she hasn’t done before. But, if it isn’t broken, why fix it? 


To add some outside perspectives into the mix, Kahn adores “The Smallest Man who Ever Lived” for its therapeutic qualities.


It’s so relatable because everyone has that one person that you feel like you wasted your younger years on,” Kahn said. “It's so therapeutic to blast that out loud and shout it with her.”


I agree wholeheartedly. The song initially feels like a carbon copy of “loml” until it goes off on a daring and rather aggressive tangent. The instrumentals build and swell like a rampant tidal wave and wash you away with the severity of the lyrics, “you deserve prison but you won’t get time”. Seems like a song that might wreck one’s “Reputation”. 



"Who's Afraid of Little Old Me", song thumbnail, credit to: YouTube



Speaking of “Reputation” vibes, (her sixth studio album), “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me” should’ve been a vault track for the re-release. Despite being my favorite song on TTPD, it stuck out like a sore thumb. The rest of the tracks were mostly soft pop and dismal, while this one could be in an action film. It’s all about her trying to find her own identity, amidst a world that only wants to kick her while she’s down. 


“I love the lyrics, ‘I was tame, I was gentle 'til the circus life made me mean. Don't you worry folks, we took out all her teeth’”, Valerie Furlong, Communication major said. “This made me think that she was kind before the [turmoil of her life], then during it she lost pieces of herself and her voice, and the circus was the shitshow she was in and playing a part for others.”


The “circus” could very well be the music industry in this case. She also mixes metaphors a bit, likening herself to a witch as she did in “Reputation”. In all truth, she’s just a person trying to put out music and follow her passions, but being at the highest rung of the societal ladder allows for a lot of power (via her influence on fans, her wealth, etc.). So don’t be afraid…but also be very afraid.


The music swells to cinematic proportions and really brings on the chills, especially when she scream-sings the title line. The imagery is crystal clear, we can perfectly imagine this wretched old witch living in a dilapidated home. It reminds me of the 2006 cartoon film “Monster House”, directed by Gil Kenan. However, as much of a build-up as the song has, I feel it reaches its peak too prematurely. I think utilizing bolder harmonies or acquiring another collaboration would do the trick.


“thanK you aIMee”, wasn’t my favorite song by any means, but I found it to be very clever and almost comedic in a clapping back at haters kind of way. It’s meant to spell out “KIM” as in the Kardashian lady. While some may view the song as immature, Kahn sees it as a much-needed form of catharsis. 


“Kim made her go into hiding for a year, so Taylor’s basically saying that she still hasn’t forgotten about what's happened,” Kahn said. “Also, I'm not sure if this is an actual thing or not, but I saw on TikTok that North [Kim’s daughter] is now saying that Taylor Swift is one of her favorite artists.”


Moving away from the vengeance side of the album, and more into the bitter acceptance stage, “How Did It End”, is a stormy and somber ballad that acknowledges the end of a love affair. And, Taylor falling into the regret loop we all fall victim to, most likely questioning, “what could I have done differently?” As the chorus trickles in, “come one, come all, it’s happening again”, it seemingly represents how everything in the singer’s life is a public spectacle. 


Lastly, I love how she utilizes an old childhood rhyme but adds a darker twist, “my beloved ghost and me, sitting in a tree, D-Y-I-N-G”. This motif of childhood innocence and happiness seems to spark up at multiple points in this album. 


Here are some honorable mentions:

  • “Guilty as Sin”, a sparkly and vibrant track that juxtaposes darker lyrical themes referencing religious repentance. 

  • “I Look In People’s Windows”, sounds like a mix of “Cardigan” and “Willow”, very folksy, very cottage-core and the lyrics manage to be mildly goofy while still pulling at your heart strings. In particular, “I look in people’s windows, like some deranged weirdo, what if your eyes looked up and met mine, one more time”.

  • “So Long, London”: While this song is still growing on me, Abigail Melchior, MFA student, savors its strong lyricism. “Often relationships don't end with a big bang, but they fade away as people slowly grow apart,” said Melchior. “There is a lot of grief in losing hold of someone you love in the way.” This song is theorized to be a final farewell to her six year relationship with British actor Joe Alywn. 

  • “Daddy, I Love Him” is an almost six minute track that feels very reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and the entirety of the “Fearless” album. The chorus fires up like dynamite, igniting memories of better country music days. What ever happened to Carrie Underwood? 

  • Florida!!!, feat. Florence + The Machine, is a bit clunky with the abrupt beat slam in the chorus, (headphone users beware), but Taylor’s voice melds seamlessly with the guest artist, creating some stunning harmonies. It’s the perfect addition to a road trip playlist. Destination: Destin. 


For some final notes, Melchior seems to share similar beliefs in regards to the sporadic energy of this album.  


This album is a bit more chaotic than her others, but not in a bad way,” Melchior said. “In the past, she gave us albums that were country, or pop, or folk. But here she shows her range by bringing all these sounds into one album. Her art is showing how her emotions and creativity do not always need to be boxed in. She seems much more unleashed.”


Taylor Swift has the money, the looks and the success. But at the end of the day, she’s still a human being. She’s “tortured” in ways the average person will never comprehend, constantly being poked and prodded on such a public scale. Therefore, I advise all consumers to tread lightly with this album, for these are Taylor’s most vulnerable thoughts and feelings, and she’s given us the privilege of seeing them. 



 






 




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