It seems that with every album, Taylor Swift reaches a new final form. On Midnights, her tenth studio album, she returns to synthpop, one of the various iterations of “the Old Taylor” that have come to define her present persona.
Taylor Swift is nothing if not self-referential. She cemented her mythology in 2017’s “Look What You Made Me Do” music video when she dressed up as her various past selves, who broke out in an argument with each other at the end of the video. Each “Taylor” expressed a concern regarding a controversy specific to her own era, giving the viewer an indication of how Swift has attempted to digest the public’s perception and regurgitate it in a new image while marketing it as personal growth. Swift’s late-career self-references succeed because she has been self-referential all along, with each persona a direct reaction to public feedback on the last one.
In the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, Swift references the early-career controversy surrounding her facial expressions at awards shows. In the video, a new-age Taylor, dressed in a fur coat, turns to the 2009 VMAs Taylor and says, “Stop making that surprised face. You can’t possibly be that surprised all the time.” The 2009 Taylor whimpers. We’ll never know whether or not Swift was really surprised during her early-career award-show-winning streak. But it is clear that after the release of Midnights, not much may be able to surprise her.
Midnights would have succeeded, although maybe not to the stratospheric level it has, whether or not it represented quality work by Swift’s standards (which it does). Swift knows how to market an album. Indicative of its pop sound compatible with both streaming and radio, Midnights received a marketing blitz reminiscent of 1989, the height of Swift’s commercial power. Swift’s poppiest albums, including Lover, receive the biggest marketing pushes because Swift knows how to combine forward momentum in her career with artistic shifts to dominate the cultural conversation and charts. The existence of Midnights reveals Swift has learned how to turn oversaturation into demand for more content by diverting the public’s narrative of her away from what she has been working towards as soon as she gets there.
On the album’s final track, “Mastermind”, Swift’s personal confessions become an analogy for her carefully-plotted career. In the song’s bridge, she admits, “No one wanted to play with me as a little kid / So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since / To make them love me and make it seem effortless.” Although indeed a striking revelation, this paradox has existed throughout her career. Swift finds ways to bombard the public with new “shiny” facets of herself that also scan as uniquely her. In this case, the new, shiny aspect of Swift’s persona has existed all along: it’s what the New York Times called her “villain original story”. Following five albums within the last four years, Swift remains compelling by revealing the source of her deep need to share her creations. “Mastermind” continues the work of 2017’s reputation by embracing certain aspects of Swift’s persona that the public views negatively. In this case, Swift not only critiques herself but reminds the public that their harsh judgment of her results in unnecessary cynicism. “I’m only cryptic and machiavellian because I care,” she confesses, at once scolding and validating her critics.
Midnights‘ penultimate track, “Sweet Nothing”, revels in the uncomplicated aspects of falling in love, with an acoustic arrangement to match the song’s change of pace from the synth-driven album. In this song, Swift comes to terms with the high-stakes environment that breeds a scheming pop star by enjoying her isolation from it. She asks, “Do you ever miss Wicklow sometimes?” referring to the town in Ireland where her romantic partner of six years, British actor Joe Alwyn, filmed Conversations With Friends. Although this detail is a classic Swiftian journalistic nod to her real life, the album’s overall lack of detail points out that “Sweet Nothing” is a song about anonymity.
In the bridge, Swift connects the pensive persona of Midnights with the pop star capable of making it: “And the voices that implore / You should be doing more / To you I can admit / That I’m just too soft for all of it.” Swift’s confession underscores her core persona: the underdog and sensitive singer-songwriter. However, this humble persona has served as a vessel for larger-than-life stardom throughout her career. Swift toggles back and forth between these two poles on Midnights, whereas the journey from one to the other initially took several albums.
Swift co-wrote “Sweet Nothing” with William Bowry, the pseudonym for her partner Joe Alwyn. The decision to co-write a song with its muse makes the track a meta-project. The song is about finding solace from the chaotic world in a private relationship. However, Alwyn’s pseudonym, as well as the designation of “Sweet Nothing” as the only song on the album co-written with him, also makes a statement about maintaining privacy. Here, a track about simplicity elevates itself into a narrative ready for public consumption.
Swift told Sirius XM Radio that although many of Midnight’s songs reference her past work, they’re all new material. This admission has set off a scavenger hunt, similar to the ones surrounding Swift’s previous albums, where fans attempt to assign each song to a specific subject. This discussion cements Midnights’ status as a capstone to Swift’s career. Swift has made synthpop before, and the astronomical sales and streaming numbers for the album serve as a reminder that Swift can outdo herself whenever she pleases. The album’s concept as a revisitation of sleepless nights throughout Swift’s life serves as a vessel not just to explore her past, but to reenact the media spectacle that surrounded it. By creating an album more designed for public consumption than any of her other albums besides 1989, Swift reveals her true creation isn’t the music alone, but the cultural and commercial hype surrounding it, which, after ten albums, Swift can control as well as any other part of her art.
Speaking of control, in the past, Swift has framed the downfall of her relationships as the result of the emotional abuse of a partner (“Dear John”), or her own neglect and indecisiveness (“Back to December”). However, Midnights consistently chafes against the idea of marriage, an instance of Swift doing an autopsy on a relationship before the deciding factor comes into play. In this exploration, Swift completes the primary task of eschewing public opinion about her relationship in the opener “Lavender Haze,” saying, “The only kind of girl they see / Is a one-night or a wife.” The duality of this accusation cashes in on one of Swift’s most useful skills: allowing her songs to function as avatars for the feelings of many as well as highly personal confessions. Throughout her entire career, Swift has looked for love. Even reputation, an album that addressed public controversy, centered on a love story. However, on Midnights, Swift contradicts public assumptions, specifying that her life-long search for love never meant a desire for marriage.
In “Midnight Rain”, she says, “He wanted it comfortable I wanted that pain / He wanted a bride I was making my own name.” The implicit admission of guilt in choosing pain over presumably domestic comfort reveals that Swift lets herself feel guilt over breaking free from circumstances that may have been suffocating, to begin with. As a country star, Swift emerged in an arena where women either aspired towards marriage or lamented the struggles of it. As an astute chronicler of love, a young Swift fit nicely into this environment. However, as her pop crossover implied, Swift had more than one objection to the parameters of country music. “No deal / That 1950s shit they want from me,” she insists on “Lavender Haze”. Swift’s pop contemporaries may not have even considered a “1950s” lifestyle- however, Swift’s wrestling with internalized misogyny creates the central tension of her music.
Swift’s ruminations have taken place in the wee hours of the morning throughout her career, with the time “2 A.M.” mentioned in at least one song on each of her first five albums. However, the standout track “Karma” on Midnights doesn’t hide from the daylight. This public-facing song stirs public speculation by shifting the perception of Swift’s anger as petty and misplaced to the righteous result of a sour business transaction. “Karma” encapsulates the culmination of Swift’s good karma by accomplishing this transition. Once seen as a “serial dater” for her prolific breakup songs, Swift now writes similar tell-offs about business rivals and receives positive feedback for it.
Despite Swift’s anger towards the song’s subject (allegedly Scooter Braun, the infamous buyer of her back catalog), “Karma” doesn’t focus on channeling that emotion directly at its cause. Instead, Swift wields the realization of her good karma as the ultimate putdown, saying, “Karma’s a relaxing thought / Aren’t you envious that for you it’s not?” This time, Swift doesn’t need to prove that there is “nothing [she] does better than revenge.” In a feat of character development, Swift concludes that the best revenge is a life well lived. However, some things never change. Swift still loves her cats: “Karma is a cat/purring in my lap ’cause it loves me.” After many failed public relationships, romantic and otherwise, Swift knows she is the best foil to herself.
Midnights may not be a step forward for Swift sonically, but its success at mimicking her past, both through its lyrical content and through its level of commercial success, is its own accomplishment. By reminding the public that she can dominate the music industry at will, Swift creates something new: a legacy. “I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this,” she confesses in “You’re on Your Own, Kid”. Midnights is the culmination of that struggle because it allows Swift to do what she has always wanted: make an album for its own sake that is received primarily as a work of art instead of a commercial entity or tabloid fodder. The album’s success, clearly a result of her savvy marketing, draws attention to the product itself. On “Anti-Hero”, Swift declares, “It’s me / Hi / I’m the problem, it’s me.” But what would we do without her?
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