Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Culture > Entertainment

Breaking Down Taylor Swift’s ‘THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT’ From Heartbreaking Truth to Subpar Synth Pop

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at NYU chapter.

Two weeks after the release of Taylor Swift’s eleventh studio album, “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT,” fans are still deciphering metaphors and debating personal favorites.

At 2 a.m. on the day the album was released, an entire additional anthology (“THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT: THE ANTHOLOGY”) of 15 more songs was announced alongside the standard album of 16 songs, bringing the total number of new Swift songs to 31. It has, understandably, taken a second for the dust to settle.

The first week sales were predictably huge. “TTPD” (“THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT”) debuted with a record-breaking 2.6 million album sales and set the record for the highest streaming numbers of all time in a single week.

The album is delivered like a frantic diary entry written in the middle of the night. Much of the glamor and allure of the late-night thoughts of “Midnights” has been stripped away, leaving behind an unfiltered collage of chaos and tragedy. 

Like every new Taylor Swift album, “TTPD” has been met with praise, as well as an abundance of criticism, some lazy and some thoughtful. To criticize “TTPD” for sounding the same as past work from Swift is unfair. Many artists go through entire successful careers without outside pressure from fans and critics alike to change genres. The expectation for Swift to do so comes from her ability to successfully work within multiple genres and her desire to change her sound often, but it is by no means a desire that fans should expect her to act on.

However, it’s fair to wonder whether or not it might be time for Swift to test the waters with different collaborators or at the very least, to have a conversation with her collaborators about pushing each other farther into new terrain. I have no issue with Swift’s preference for the production and writing of Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, but “TTPD” is the first time that I didn’t feel particularly excited about the work that they had made together. Both Dessner and Antonoff have very distinct styles, and their work on “TTPD” at times felt too familiar to their work on “Midnights,” “folklore” and “evermore.”

Additionally, the visual aesthetic of the album photoshoot feels removed from the actual sound. Swift poses in black and white portraits in bed and along a shoreline, like a half-asleep siren, while she sings over modern synth-pop tracks, ad-libbing, “Try and come for my job!” Like her long-term collaboration with Antonoff and Dessner, Swift has shot every album cover since “folklore,” including the re-recordings, with photographer Beth Garrabrant. A quick look at Garrabrant’s website makes it clear that, besides her work with Swift, her photography tends to be small shoots done on film. This worked beautifully for “folklore” and “evermore,” but not nearly as well for the albums after that. “TTPD” demands more absurdity in visuals (see: the “Fortnight” music video) than the photoshoot provided. 

There is definitely a value in developing these long standing relationships with other creators—it means Swift feels comfortable, which makes it easier to get to the truth of a project faster. However, Swift’s commitment to working with the same photographer and the same producers is only stunting her ability to push into more complex territory than she’s ever been before. 

Another major criticism of the album has been that the songwriting is bad, but this doesn’t leave nearly enough room for nuance. It’s a bold move on Swift’s part to title an album “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT” because it immediately frames the entire project as something to be compared to poetry. People are scrutinizing these lyrics even more than they usually would because she made her writing the album’s entire brand. In the context of the album’s title track, the lyric “the tortured poets department” is used as a sarcastic dig at a pretentious man. It makes a lot more sense within the song than it does as the album’s title. 

Swift’s songwriting often walks a fine line between astute, specific honesty and honesty that feels irrelevant. I would personally put the lyrics, “You left your typewriter at my apartment/ straight from the tortured poets department/ I think some things I never say/ like ‘Who uses typewriters anyway?’” in the astute camp, but other lyrics like “You smoked then ate seven bars of chocolate/ We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist” fall flat.

Many defensive Swifties have taken to saying that anyone who doesn’t like “TTPD” simply doesn’t understand it or hasn’t tried hard enough to read through the lyrics. This is a bad take. Swift’s songwriting is not hard to understand when she’s doing a good job. The joy of a Taylor Swift song has always been realizing that she has managed to sum up an incredibly complex emotional situation in three short minutes with a catchy chorus. She has always been a master of balancing extreme specificity with extreme relatability. The moments where her lyrics fall short on “TTPD” are the moments when it feels like she is trying to be clever. The lyric “What if he’s written mine on my upper thigh only in my mind?” in the chorus of “Guilty as Sin?” might be catchy, but it produces a convoluted image that distracts from the rest of the song. 

It’s not that anyone doesn’t understand what Swift is saying; it’s that they don’t understand why she’s saying it that way. For example, in “I Hate It Here,” there must be a better way to convey a desire for escapism than by saying “We would pick a decade/ We wished we could live in instead of this/ I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists and getting married off for/ the highest bid.” In fact, I know there is a better way to convey this feeling because the rest of the song does so quite effectively. Just a few lines later, she says “Nostalgia is a mind trick/ If I’d been there I’d hate it.” 


Replying to @em (hoziers version) ill explicate any lyrics yall want me to poetry analysis is my bread and butter

♬ original sound – kaileigh 🍉

By Taylor Swift’s standards, this album is not her strongest writing. However, it’s important to note that she is playing with humor and sarcasm on this album in a way that is fresh and exciting. She’s also directly calling out her fanbase and the press in some moments, like when she breaks the fourth wall on “But Daddy I Love Him” with “I’m having his baby/ No I’m not, but you should see your faces.” Whether or not you like the lyric, it is exciting to see Swift play out a joke in real-time.

Swift has spoken before about how the process of re-recording her first six albums has inspired the new music she’s making, and this influence of her past self and past style is much clearer on “TTPD” than it was on “Midnights.” 

The sound and sentiment of “So High School” are reminiscent of “Fearless” with its bright power chords on electric guitar and references to the giddy initial stages of falling in love (“I want to find you in a crowd just to hide from you.”) 

In moments like the bridge of “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” and the entirety of “Who’s Afraid of Little Me,” we see Swift reaching for a level of theatrical drama that she hasn’t touched sonically since “Red” or “Speak Now.” She hasn’t belted over heavy drums on a new album in over a decade. Those tracks, along with “The Black Dog,” a sad story reminiscing on an old favorite bar after a breakup, are the strongest songs on the album and are joining the ranks of the best heartbreak songs she’s ever written. 

“TTPD” is full of deep cuts and b-sides that will grow to be fan favorites, but it lacks cohesion. Not necessarily sonic cohesion, but it needs some kind of through line that isn’t rooted in a witty album title. “THE ANTHOLOGY” provided 15 bonus tracks that sound too much like bonus tracks to create any cohesion. Most of the songs on “THE ANTHOLOGY” are better suited to her “tortured poet” persona and are, in my opinion, better songs, but she had an opportunity to create an intriguing double meaning or provide the last piece of the puzzle of the album’s concept, and she didn’t. There is no double meaning, just more of the same ideas explored in Dessner’s sound instead of Antonoff’s.  

With that being said, I’ve never met a Taylor Swift album that hasn’t included a couple of new favorite songs. Her ability to curate haunting pop melodies shines on “Fresh Out The Slammer” and “imgonnagetyouback.” Her emotional vulnerability is on full display on the quietly desperate track “The Prophecy,” detailing a fear of being cursed to go through life alone. “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” provides a brief moment to dance and make light of pain in the midst of many heavy, convoluted storylines. As self-aware and theatrical as ever, Swift is simultaneously at her best and her worst on “THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT.” It’s a tragic homecoming.

Eliana Brown is a writer studying Journalism, English Literature, and Creative Writing at NYU. She is an editor and a staff writer for NYU's chapter of Her Campus. She self publishes a monthly newsletter through Substack and is also a contributing writer for the Washington Square News. With a passion for literature and writing about culture and art, she spends most of her time stressing about her yearly Goodreads challenge and talking about Taylor Swift. More often than not, she can be found at a concert somewhere.