The Masochistic Acrobatics of Taylor Swift

In the wake of The Tortured Poets Department's release, fans, haters, and ambivalent listeners alike are now reckoning with the pop star's new “greige” era.

Music Features Taylor Swift
The Masochistic Acrobatics of Taylor Swift

I am not a skeptic nor an apologist. I understand Taylor Swift is omnipresent, like air or water. She is an element of the music landscape that some who write about the industry seem ashamed of despite her enormous influence. Every era of my life has been soundtracked by Taylor Swift. I can recall where I’ve been before every major drop. I pre-ordered Fearless after hearing “Teardrops On My Guitar” on Radio Disney and I put the poster up in my room of a decked out princess. When Speak Now came out it took me a while to get into it, but when high school ended I found myself driving around Indianapolis with the CD in my car crying to songs like “Dear John” and “Last Kiss” and their lush, evocative poetry. Red was instant, just like the color itself. I went to Nashville with my family when the album came out; I remember putting “Treacherous” as a Facebook status and getting bewildered comments.

All of that changed in college. I lost the privacy of my music taste. Suddenly “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” were everywhere. Between lattes and Grey’s Anatomy reruns, everyone was listening to the princess of pop. Somehow she’d outplayed even Lady Gaga with her sheer relatability. She was no longer mine, but a phenomenon—or so I finally came to realize. Gone were the days of watching her YouTube diaries. I went to a stadium and watched her carefully calculated performance perfectly executed. She reminded me of Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl, a girl who was trying so hard to execute every last step with precision. That, I would come to realize, was the same kind of girl I was—trying so hard and wanting it to look effortless. A few months later, I briefly dated someone who charmed me by saying they learned “Mine” on guitar. “You are the best thing that’s ever been mine,” I thought, as we waded in a lake in Bloomington, Indiana. Someone got it.

I got my first job after college around the time “Look What You Made Me Do” came out. The backlash was immediate. I said I liked the song and everyone else was confused. I liked Sade, Blondie, Mitski—how the hell could I like Taylor Swift? Wasn’t that what the music the Upper East Side kids we served cake and ice cream liked? The truth was: My feet were in both worlds, a desire for the delicious transgression of a repressed girlhood and the longing for cool, something I was always worried I was decidedly not. Still, I loved Reputation even after reading the damning New Yorker review. I listened to the album on planes and felt the slick sexiness of her new songs. Her cursing, even. “Only bought this dress so you could take it off,” I intoned as I made my way to the Met for a first date, hoping my chosen location would obscure the fact I was barely making enough to pay my rent.

Vindication was sweet. Lover inaugurated the girlboss’ comeback. She talked openly about Kanye West, snakes, her feuds and her new boyfriend. She had a new life. The hazy pink hues gave signs of renewed life. Every few years were a reset—maybe for all of us, too. Reputation was inspired by Game of Thrones, a take on violence and love. She released a documentary and talked about her fears over talking about politics publicly. Her father tried to shut her down. Couldn’t we relate? Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince?

All of this you know. There’s no way to avoid it. Laura Snapes of The Guardian has a dedicated newsletter. There is a Taylor Swift “beat.” I am feeding the beast now; the stakes have never been higher. Folklore and Evermore were both critically-acclaimed for their turn towards characters, lyrical songwriting and indie collaborations with the Dessner brothers and Bon Iver. They’re lush albums with cutting edges—“This is Me Trying,” “Mirrorball,” “Invisible String,” “Cowboy Like Me” and “Closure” offered some of her best musical moments. When those albums came out, she seemed far from over. Unlike artists like Madonna or Gaga, her reinventions were slight but effective. She’d keenly attuned to her image. “I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight,” she croons, like an Adult Contemporary artist.

Midnights, then, struggled under the weight of expectations. Further dogged by the many album re-recordings she’s done to earn back her masters (another highly publicized and discussed event). More like 1989 than any previous album, the bubbling electropop of songs like “Maroon” and “Lavender Haze” sounded almost like impersonations of Lorde or Lana Del Rey. Yet, paradoxically, she has never been more Taylor Swift ™. The Eras Tour movie was a hit, even if skeptics may have been even more wary of her omnipresence. (The Guardian noted the US leg of the tour was larger than the GDP of 35 countries.) She’s even collaborated with endless artists: Phoebe Bridgers, Hayley Williams, Ice Spice, Fall Out Boy, Lana Del Rey, Ed Sheeran, Bon Iver, Kendrick Lamar. Yet her ubiquity has caused issues. Niko Stratis has described the hate mail she received after her review of Midnights came out. Herein lies the problem—to declare oneself a fan one must align with the fandom, now known for its often vicious attacks on critics and writers, we must love things enough to take them apart.

She is a lightning rod for the Right, who see her as a cudgel of normality. Even if she wants to put space between herself and the “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday Best,” she has struggled to not be crowned an Aryan princess. B. D. McClay has covered this beat extensively on Substack (and appeared on Know Your Enemy to talk about Taylor Swift Derangement Syndrome.) She gets under everyone’s skin. The Right decry her boyfriends as not fertile enough, the Left wants her to do more than ask people to vote—and somehow, she is sort of just down the middle. She’ll decry Marsha Blackburn but refuses to endorse Biden. Oddly, that second sin makes both the Left and Right happy. “The bigger reason that I find all this a bit pathetic is that Taylor is… normal. That’s her whole thing. Her brand is that she’s a sweet blond lady who loves her cats, her family, baking, and making music,” McClay wrote.

Taylor Swift is a woman who turns delicacy into a sparkly weapon. She’s coordinated enough good press the past few years to inspire a new wave of backlash over her participation in a new Miss Americana dream: dating a football player. Award shows are opportunities for new album announcements and chimera-like reinvention. Now, she’s a musical theater kid again: tortured, journaling bad poetry and speaking with a melodramatic flourish. Unlike the horrible, cheery kitsch of songs like “ME!,” she’s self-serious now. Her new album has not one but four bonus track versions only available through buying the full album on her online shop. Gone are the days she was compared to Joni Mitchell—she’s a Madonna without the humor; she wants to be graceful, a masochistic acrobat showing us her wounds. When she strikes gold, she can deliver pop polemics like “All Too Well,” but when she gets lost in the electro-ooze of a project like Midnights, she can sound just like every other Lana Del Rey wannabe. Too often Swift assimilates her competition through features rather than fully evolving. Still, we listen anyway, hopeful the American Dream holds something different.

And when she sounds different, we’re stunned. “Anytime now he’s gonna say it’s love / You never called it what it was,” she chants on the 10-minute version of “All Too Well”—perhaps when all is said and done her best diatribe, her most honed critique of patriarchy and emotional depth. Screaming along in the car is cathartic. She is for the girls driving in the suburbs high on rage over boys or men or painful friendships. She is a poet for the wounded. “So casually cruel in the name of being honest” understands the misogyny inherent in the everyday language of men. Even words like honesty become code words, bombs. Yet can’t women use knives too? That’s vigilante shit.

Swift is more comfortable singing about misogyny now. “The Man” was a big step, but developed into something more nuanced on Midnights. “1950s shit they want from me… the only kind of girl they see is a one night or a wife.” The problem is when a break-up’s horror stretches beyond the framework of misogyny to include the dire straits of class. Her new album has already struggled under the weight of Swiftian over-saturation. Pitchfork, Paste and The Washington Post have all penned pans.

The Tortured Poets Department is the vision of a high schooler—down to the track entitled “So High School” and her use of the word “greige” as an actual color. It’s high concept without depth—the illusion of sex without texture. A sprawling, light electro beat where one track flows into the next without much differentiation. Jack Antonoff never uses too much percussion, preferring instead for songs to meander—as evident on Lana Del Rey’s more recent output—and for his muses to sing lullabies of AI where poetry sounds like “vipers in empath’s clothing.”

Taylor Swift no longer has an editor. Surely no one tells her no (certainly not her parents, as on display in “But Daddy I Love Him”). Like the queen bee of the musical theater department, her metaphors twist around familiar themes that feel more high stakes than the games they play call for. She wants to seem like a professor to the youthful profits of grief, to outdo Lana at her own game—but she’s not only no Patti Smith, she’s no Sylvia Plath. Mental illness, asylums, Dylan Thomas, the slammer, matrimony and suicide all appear on the gray horizon of The Tortured Poets Department, to an almost charmingly absurd degree. “Were you sent by someone who wanted me dead? Were you a sleeper cell spy?” she lilts with an acid tongue. She even takes the place of Christ on the album: “I would’ve died for your sins,” she sings before invoking the Holy Ghost. Swift wants to be an effigy for heartbreak, to take our pain with whispering sighs in a stadium, dazzling us with the amount of tear-drunk pain she can take on.

Swift’s clever turns of phrase vanish under the mist of Antonoff’s dull production. There’s little to distinguish one song from another, little to say about the monotonous melodies and programming. She wants us to buy into this slick electronic haze, a play about romance for “modern idiots.” But it’s tacky. It doesn’t help that Swift has been glaringly apolitical the past few months. She would like us to think her razor sharp wit is still in tact, but the vulnerability and complex harmonies of her previous albums are mostly absent. For an album billed as a cycle about the five stages of grief there is remarkably little sorrow. The torture is told in shades of gray—bad boys gone wild, good girls who fall under their spell, and the twisted games they play. It’s a breakup album about the long tail of pain, the stunted emotions that we try to suppress. One almost wishes she would try to crack more jokes or go full-throttle on the craziness—“I’m havin’ his baby, no I’m not but you should see your faces” she jokes, while turning down her fan’s concerned prayers. Mourning, melancholia and manic episodes take turns steering a sinking ship.

The album is rumored to be primarily about three men. Two exes and one highly-publicized current lover (who I hear plays football). The songs that allude to her London lover are some of the strongest, not long-winded or overly ornate and dramatic but crystalline encapsulations of loss. “So Long London” and “Down Bad” offer some of the better production, too—the Dessner touch is sorely lacking from the first half of the record, though when it comes full-force on the second it often loses its typical symphonics. The second half of the surprise double-album, The Anthology, gets lost in simplistic, acoustic songs that circle their themes with trite sayings. When Swift is nihilistic, she offers her best confessions: a shifting aesthetic signals alcoholism on “Fortnight,” the grim perpetual performance of joy while on tour on stand-out “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” But these songs are easy to lose in the album’s massive run-time scrunched between slow, reverberating snoozers like “Fresh Out the Slammer” (featuring a bizarre beat change) and “loml” (doubling as love and loss of my life). She’s done downbeat songs well before—folklore and evermore are filled with blistering hymnals like “peace” and “hoax.”

But often her new batch of songs take bizarre turns that have already been dragged online for their lack of self awareness. (“We would pick a decade / We wished we could live in instead of this / I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists.”) Other ludicrous thrills include poets in the guise of finance bros and getting fingered while her boyfriend’s pals play Grand Theft Auto. These hyper-specific moments used to seem quaint—the texture of ache—but now they seem out of place, like a megastar trying to seem relatable with her inside jokes. Other metaphors about beasts and birds on songs like “Robin” never quite cohere. For anyone expecting the brokenhearted witty detentes of “All Too Well,” this is a lackluster album.

The closest cuts come on “So Long London”: “How much sad did you think I had… And I’m just getting color back into my face.” Soaring choruses try to match the energy but struggle to deliver the drama Swift usually exorcises. She ignores people’s warnings about a racist boyfriend on “But Daddy I Love Him” and levitates through town on a supernatural revenge mission in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” A slight country twang creeps into her guitars on these power ballads: “You don’t get to tell me about sad.” The careful ticking clock of Midnights is gone, everything has disappeared into the ooze. After this song, my boyfriend begged to turn the album off on our car ride across America. “We can all just laugh until I cry,” Swift deadpans. She builds on the idea of a caged woman she’s previously developed on songs like “Mad Woman” and “The Man” but without the catchy chorus or edgy diatribe. On the second half, finger-picked sour songs trade places with low-key kiss-offs like the not-so-subtle “thanK you aIMee.” Misogyny isn’t a catch-all when you’re a billionaire. “You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylum that they raised me” has already become a meme, and that’s only one of the many lyrics that might make you laugh. “I’ll sue you if you step on my lawn.” And she will. Her team is quite litigious. “I’m miserable and no one even knows!” she laughs, before cutting herself off at the root: “Try and come for my job.”

Who could? Yet she wants us to know her life isn’t without discontent. “My friends all smell of weed or little babies,” she croons on the Florence + the Machine-assisted “Florida!!!,” bemoaning the distance between her life and that of her peers. Florida becomes a haunted swamp of ex-lovers, a place to get away, though it’s hard to imagine the pop star ever finding solace in the middle of the woods. “Florida!!!” never quite manages to rise to the heights of a Florence song, though—it’s a more sonically interesting song than much of the compositions that surround it.

The slinking churning only occasionally rises out of a dozing register as on the smoky “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” a seductive, pleading song where the title completely gives away its message. This is the thing: Swift wants us to buy her as a tortured poet, but there’s nothing beneath the surface. Everything is as it seems. Lines like “All her fucking lives flashed before her eyes” do not sound better underneath a languishing beat, nor do convoluted arrhythmic couplets like “At dinner, you take my ring off my middle finger/ And put it on the one people put wedding rings on / And that’s the closest I’ve come to my heart exploding.” Expecting something else may be foolish, but even as a Swiftie I think she’s done better. I will be excommunicated for this, but Swift’s Americana is a world where she is rarely culpable and always dressed to kill—to critique her is to be a bully, even as she doles out the punishment herself. The kind of people who take ink pens and sorceress tables for profundity are high school girls, the kind writing hexes on their ex-boyfriends in their notebooks. It’s cute until it’s cloying. Referencing Aristotle or Cassandra is not the same thing as reading them. Even on the pleading “The Prophecy,” Swift sounds like an icon without authority.

By the end of the album I felt like a bad fan. I wanted the slog to be over. I want to say I stuck by her despite what other people thought. But I can’t. When asked what I thought of the album over the weekend, I said I thought it was bad before pathetically saying some songs weren’t so bad. It’s a curious cultural object more than a fully-executed artistic vision. Calling songs “The Albatross” or “The Black Dog” may sound like Swift is reviving the practice of Romantic poetry, but in reality she is writing in Tumblr superscript—the poems that got reblogs because they appealed to the masses without conjuring any real devils. All that she does here she has done better elsewhere. “The Manuscript” is a lesser version of “Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve.” “Clara Bow” was better as “Dorothea.” The corollaries go on—“Daylight” and “The Alchemy,” even “thanK you aIMee” and “Mean.” Her self-referential mythology feels stale now, instead of pushing into more adult territory and visceral storytelling, she returns to the neutral beige palette that brands like Skims love so much. Kim K should be proud.

In the coming months, I’m sure the new album will dominate my most-played rotation. Already I’m coming around to songs like “Fresh Out the Slammer,” despite its disturbing glaze of carceral aesthetics. It’s comforting to hear a new Taylor Swift album now. It’s a water cooler record, something everyone can have an opinion on—that’s how she became a billionaire now. The problem is that, despite her millions of eras, her color palette no longer seems to be expanding. Pop music isn’t dead. It never will be, Swift continues to roll the stone away from the tomb on the third day. Still, this muted era isn’t as grandiose as Swift claims it to be. She wants to be read as a dartboard for her critics—the witches—but in truth “only the devil can eat the devil out.” A victim needs a persecutor and vice versa, love is always a pyre even at its most beautiful. Marriage is not a metaphor. Neither are prisons. Swift wants to be our Joni Mitchell, but she struggles to see love from both sides now, to admit that even two hours worth of words is never enough to capture the ineffable gray skies of heartbreak.

Grace Byron is a writer from the Midwest based in Queens. Her writing has appeared in The Cut, Vogue, Bookforum, The Nation, The Baffler, LARB, Lux, Screen Slate, frieze, Joyland, The Believer, Parapraxis, The Whitney Review, Gulf Coast, AnOther, and other outlets. Find her @emotrophywife.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin