Taylor Swift The Tortured Poets Department
The Bolter edition of The Tortured Poets Department

Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Is Ambitious and Experimental

The Tortured Poets Department‘s songs are calculated, complete, and the most experimental and ambitious of Taylor Swift’s work to date.

The Tortured Poets Department
Taylor Swift
19 April 2024

“Growing up precocious sometimes means not growing up at all,” sings Taylor Swift on her heavily dissected 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department. The notion of being an adult who never grew up has been a frequent theme throughout Swift’s work over the last few years, during which she commented in her 2020 documentary Miss Americana that she was “frozen” at the age she became famous.

For Swift, that would be when she was 16 when she first released her self-titled debut album to the country music sphere. Much has significantly changed for the singer since then, as she rose from a teen country star to a global pop culture phenomenon in under a decade. Her pandemic albums Folklore and Evermore helped soften Swift in the public eye from a polarizing pop star to a versatile songstress, the latter being a title she’d always held for those paying attention.

Indeed, the discourse surrounding every Taylor Swift studio release (and re-release, for that matter, given that she has re-recorded four of her six first studio albums to considerable fanfare) can get exhausting. Eleven records later, including two released in one year, Swift is less a singer to pick apart than a brand whose complicated web isn’t even about her. Taylor Swift doesn’t simply release albums anymore; she makes cultural moments that no one is immune to.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Artists who are billionaires don’t automatically lose artistic integrity just because they’re billionaires. Instead, Swift has shaped herself as somewhat of a cultural fashionista in that she can write pop songs for the masses or incredibly niche acoustic songs that resonate with misunderstood portions of the population.

Both types of songs will ultimately amass billions of streams across music subscription services and still sell enormous amounts of physical units, including but not limited to several different vinyl editions of her latest albums that are way too expensive for a casual fan. Her latest LP, The Tortured Poets Department, fits precisely into this intellectual slot she has carved out.

Since the culture still proves to be misogynistic again and again, the general public will always find ways to find fault with extremely mainstream-visible female pop stars. But in the same way that it won’t matter if the latest Star Wars film was terrible or your favorite drag queen was eliminated too quickly on the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, criticism and discourse won’t take us very far. Those things are brands worth millions of dollars, just like Taylor Swift. They will go on no matter what you think, and to paraphrase the singer herself, haters will hate.

A double album coming in at 31 songs, The Tortured Poets Department is an excessive listen since Swift isn’t an artist who will fill space with a minute-long interlude into a quick two-minute track. These songs are calculated, complete, and the most experimental and ambitious of Swift’s work to date. She tries her hand at crafting new pop hooks and production for herself in the first half of the album while still staying within her proverbial range as a songwriter.

“But Daddy I Love Him” reads as an alternate take of her 2008 classic “Love Story”, and remnants of 2019’s “The Archer” can be heard on “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”, ultimately the record’s best track. “I’m fearsome, and I’m wretched, and I’m wrong / Putting narcotics into all of my songs / And that’s why you’re still singing along,” she proclaims. A theme of victimhood generally runs through most of Swift’s work from the past decade, yet her naysayers still provide her with enough ammunition for new material—a vicious circle.

However, Swift also uses her cultural position to her advantage by crafting songs that appeal to her fanbase’s more academic side. The Tortured Poets Department is largely literary in concept, even if the literary references aren’t as incredibly complex as you’d expect them to be. The title track refers to artists and places like Dylan Thomas, Patti Smith, and the Chelsea Hotel, instantly recognizable to any listener who has read Smith’s immensely popular memoir Just Kids. Citations to Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Shakespeare appear elsewhere.

The first part of The Tortured Poets Department concludes with “Clara Bow”, a soft underdog anthem about following your dreams: “No one in my small town thought / I’d see the lights of Manhattan.” Then Swift fades into the second part, The Anthology, which sounds less like an experiment and more like the best parts of Swift as a performer that the sexist public tends to overlook. While some of the questionable lyrics to “I Hate It Here” have already become the subject of Internet think-pieces, it’s songs like these that the singer was born to write. “I’m lonely, but I’m good / I’m bitter, but I swear I’m fine / I’ll save all my romanticism for my inner life, and I’ll get lost on purpose.”

In the digital era of social media, it’s often difficult to separate one’s thoughts from those of the masses, the cesspool of negativity bred by our impulses to poke fun at what we don’t understand the minute it passes our screens. The Tortured Poets Department is the perfect prey, given how much Taylor Swift has been at the forefront of pop culture for the last five years.

The album’s songwriting is rich with metaphors and literary references and takes a minute to digest. Perhaps the culture’s issue with Swift is their constant expectation for her to be something she’s not: a multi-talented, wealthy white woman. But that’s who she is, and if The Tortured Poets Department shows us anything, it’s that she’s made a respectable career for herself as a musician because of it.

RATING 8 / 10