Swift reclaims her ‘good name’ in ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” released April 19, is best explained with a quote from the musician’s Time Person of the Year article: “Are you not entertained?”

This cover image released by Republic Records show “The Tortured Poets Department” by Taylor Swift (Republic Records via AP)

At midnight ET, Swift released a 15-track album featuring collaborations with Post Malone and Florence + The Machine. Two hours later, she released the second half of the album, titled “The Anthology,” which contained 15 more songs. In all, Swift released 31 songs to eager fans and even more eager critics. 

In a body of work containing so much content, there are obvious standouts, such as “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” and “Cassandra,” as well as weaker tracks like “The Tortured Poets Department” and “Robin.” Swift reunited with frequent collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner for the bulk of the songs on the album, with Patrik Berger, who worked on “SLUT!” for “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” on the “Anthology” track “I Look In People’s Windows.”

Taylor Swift’s lovers and haters alike will search the lyrics for evidence of which Tom, Dick, or Harry must be the muse for the songs, but the heart of the album goes far deeper than that. Swift is coming to terms with an aspect of her career that she has only touched on in the past; she introduced a surprise song on The Eras Tour with, “[this is] about how horrible being famous is.” 

The lyric video for the jaunty pop tune “I Can Do It With A Broken Heart” was set to footage of the record breaking tour, as Swift crooned, “Breaking down, I hit the floor, as the crowd was chanting more.”

On “Anthology” track “I Hate It Here,” Swift describes how, in times of struggle, she goes to “secret gardens in [her] mind,” potentially a reference to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s popular children’s book “The Secret Garden,” but perhaps also a reference to the speech she would give before “Betty” on The Eras Tour, in which she would describe the escapism of the folklore album during 2020. 

Each song on The Tortured Poets Department is steeped in years of Swift’s lore and history, the blurred lines of her professional and private lives. “But Daddy I Love Him,” is a tongue-in-cheek response to the constant scrutiny Swift faces for the public perception of her relationships. 

“God save the most judgmental creeps who say they want what’s best for me,” Swift sings as she begins the bridge (a group of fans infamously circulated a petition for Swift to call things off with her short-term boyfriend in 2023.) In another part of the song, she declares, “I’ll tell you something ’bout my good name, it’s mine alone to disgrace.”

“The Tortured Poets Department” will be scrutinized for years, perhaps even recognized as the beautiful body of work it is, but the core of the album is about the ever-present pressure, if not the inherently destructive nature, of fame. 

Eventually, this work will be recognized in its rightful place among the best of her discography, even if it will take distance from her success as an artist for some music lovers to accept that. The album has already been widely criticized by fans for being too confessional but not personal enough, or too long but lacking substance, and even too sonically different but too musically similar. As Swift deals with the price of fame, what is expected of her once she has surpassed infallibility and become culture’s favorite target?

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