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Taylor Swift's 'Tortured Poets' is written in blood

Courtesy of the artist

For all of its fetishization of new sounds and stances, pop music was born and still thrives by asking fundamental questions. For example, what do you do with a broken heart? That's an awfully familiar one. Yet romantic failure does feel different every time. Its isolating sting produces a kind of obliterating possessiveness: my pain, my broken delusions, my hope for healing. A broken heart is a screaming baby demanding to be held and coddled and nurtured until it grows up and learns how to function properly. This is as true in the era of the one-percent glitz goddess as it was when blues queens and torch singers organized society's crying sessions. It's true of Taylor Swift, who's equated songwriting with the heart's recovery since she released "Teardrops on my Guitar" 18 years ago, and whose 11th album, The Tortured Poets Department, is as messy and confrontational as a good girl's work can get, blood on her pages in a classic shade of red.

Back in her Lemonade days, when her broken heart turned her into a bearer of revolutionary spirit, Swift's counterpart and friendly rival, Beyoncé, got practical, advising her listeners that while feelings do need tending, a secured bank account is what counts. "Your best revenge is your paper," she sang.

For Swift, the best revenge is her pen. One of the first Tortured Poets songs revealed back in February (one of the album's many bonus tracks, it turns out, but a crucial framing device) is called "The Manuscript"; in it, a woman re-reads her own scripted account of a "torrid love affair." Screenwriting is one of a few literary ambitions Swift aligns with this project. At The Grove mall in Los Angeles, Swift partnered with Spotify to create a mini-library where new lyrics were inscribed in weathered books and on sheets of parchment in the days leading up to its release. The scene was a fans' photo op invoking high art and even scripture. In the photographs of the installation that I saw, every bound volume in the library bears Swift's name. The message is clear: When Taylor Swift makes music, she authors everything around her.

For years, Swift has been pop's leading writer of autofiction, her work exploring new dimensions of confessional songwriting, making it the foundation of a highly mediated public-private life. The standard line about her teasing lyrical disclosures (and it's correct on one level) is that they're all about fueling fan interest. But on Tortured Poets, she taps into a much more established and respected tradition. Using autobiography as a sword of justice is a move as ancient as the women saints who smote abusive fathers and priests in the name of an early Christian Jesus; in our own time, just among women, it's been made by confessional poets like Sylvia Plath, memoirists from Maya Angelou to Joyce Maynard and literary stars like the Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux. And, of course, Swift's reluctant spiritual mother, Joni Mitchell.

Even in today's blather-saturated cultural environment, a woman speaking out after silence can feel revolutionary; that this is an honorable act is a fundamental principle within many writers' circles. "I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay, how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only home I ever have," Natalie Goldberg declares in Writing Down the Bones, the most popular writing manual of the 20th century. When on this album's title track, Swift sings, "I think some things I never say," she's making an offhand joke; but this is the album where she does say all the things she thinks, about love at least, going deeper into the personal zone that is her métier than ever before. Sharing her darkest impulses and most mortifying delusions, she fills in the blank spaces in the story of several much-mediated affairs and declares this an act of liberation that has changed and ultimately strengthened her. She spares no one, including herself; often in these songs, she considers her naiveté and wishfulness through a grown woman's lens and admits she's made a fool of herself. But she owns her heartbreak now. She alone will have the last word on its shape and its effects.

This includes other people's sides of her stories. The songs on Tortured Poets, most of which are mid- or up-tempo ballads spun out in the gossamer style that's defined Swift's confessional mode since Folklore, build a closed universe of private and even stolen moments, inhabited by only two people: Swift and a man. With a few illuminating exceptions that stray from the album's plot, she rarely looks beyond their interactions. The point is not to observe the world, but to disclose the details of one sometimes-shared life, to lay bare what others haven't seen. Tortured Poets is the culmination of a catalog full of songs in which Swift has taken us into the bedrooms where men pleasured or misled her, the bars where they charmed her, the empty playgrounds where they sat on swings with her and promised something they couldn't give. When she sings repeatedly that one of the most suspect characters on the album told her she was the love of her life, she's sharing something nobody else heard. That's the point. She's testifying under her own oath.

Swift's musical approach has always been enthusiastic and absorbent. She's created her own sounds by blending country's sturdy song structures with R&B's vibes, rap's cadences and pop's glitz; as a personality and a performer, she's all arms, hugging the world. The sound of Tortured Poets offers that familiar embrace, with pop tracks that sparkle with intelligence, and meditative ones that wrap tons of comforting aura around Swift's ruminations. Beyond a virtually undetectable Post Malone appearance and a Florence Welch duet that also serves as an homage to Swift's current exemplar/best friendly rival, Lana Del Rey, the album alternates between co-writes with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, the producers who have helped Swift find her mature sound, which blends all of her previous approaches without favoring any prevailing trend. There are the rap-like, conversational verses, the reaching choruses, the delicate piano meditations, the swooning synth beats. Antonoff's songs come closest to her post-1989 chart toppers; Dessner's fulfill her plans to remain an album artist. Swift has also written two songs on her own, a rarity for her; both come as close to ferocity as she gets. As a sustained listen, Tortured Poets harkens back to high points throughout Swift's career, creating a comforting environment that both supports and balances the intensity of her storytelling.

It's with her pen that Swift executes her battle plans. As always, especially when she dwells on the work and play of emotional intimacy, her lyrics are hyper-focused, spilling over with detail, editing the mess of desire, projection, communion and pain that constitutes romance into one sharp perspective: her own. She renders this view so intensely that it goes beyond confession and becomes a form of writing that can't be disputed. Remember that parchment and her quill pen; her songs are her new testaments. It's a power play, but for many fans, especially women, this ambition to be definitive feels like a necessary corrective to the misrepresentations or silence they face from ill-intentioned or cluelessly entitled men.

***

"A great writer can be a dangerous creature, however gentle and nice in person," the biographer Hermione Lee once wrote. Swift has occasionally taken this idea to heart before, especially on her once-scorned, now revered hip-hop experiment, Reputation. But now she's screaming from the hilltop, sparing no one, including herself as she tries to prop up one man's flagging interest and then falls for others' duplicity. "I know my pain is such an imposition," Swift sang in last year's "You're Losing Me," a prequel to the explosive confessional mode of Tortured Poets, where that pain grows nearly suicidal, feeds romantic obsession, and drives her to become a "functional alcoholic" and a madwoman who finds strength in chaos in a way that recalls her friend Emma Stone's cathartic performance as Bella in Poor Things. (Bella, remember, comes into self-possession by learning to read and write.) "Who's afraid of little old me?" Swift wails in the album's window-smashing centerpiece bearing that title; in "But Daddy I Love Him," she runs around screaming with her dress unbuttoned and threatens to burn down her whole world. These accounts of unhinged behavior reinforce the message that everybody had better be scared of this album — especially her exes, but also her business associates, the media and, yes, her fans, who are not spared in her dissection of just who's made her miserable over the past few years.

I'm not getting into the dirty details; those who crave them can listen to Tortured Poets themselves and easily uncover them. They're laid out so clearly that anyone who's followed Swift's overly documented life will instantly comprehend who's who: the depressive on the heath, the tattooed golden retriever in her dressing room. Here's my reading of her album-as-novel — others' interpretations may vary: Swift's first-person protagonist (let's call her "Taylor") begins in a memory of a long-ago love affair that left her melancholy but on civil terms, then has an early meeting with a tempting rogue, who declares he's the Dylan Thomas to her Patti Smith; no, she says, though she's sorely tempted, we're "modern idiots," and she leaves him behind for a while. Then we get scenes from a stifling marriage to a despondent and distracted child-man. "So long, London," she declares, fleeing that dead end. From then on, it's the rogue on all cylinders. They connect, defy the daddy figures who think they're bad for each other, speak of rings and baby carriages. Those daddies continue to meddle in this newfound freedom.

In this main story arc, Swift writes about erotic desire as she never has before: She's "fresh out the slammer" (ouch, the rhetoric) and her bedsheets are on fire. She cannot stop rhapsodizing about this new love object and her commitment to their outlaw hunger for each other. It's "Love Story," updated and supersized, with a proper Romeo at its center — a forbidden, tragic soulmate, a perfect match who's also a disastrous one. Swift peppers this section of Tortured Poets with name-drops ("Jack" we know, "Lucy" might be a tricky slap at Romeo, hard to tell) and instantly searchable references; he sends her a song by The Blue Nile and traces hearts on her face but tells revolting jokes in the bar and eventually reveals himself as a cad, a liar, a coward. She recovers, but not really. In the end, she does move on but still dreams of him hearing one of their songs on a jukebox and dolefully realizing the young girl he's now with has never heard it before.

Insert the names yourself. They do matter, because her backstories are key to Swift's appeal; they both keep her human-sized and amplify her fame. Swift's artistry is tied up in her deployment of celebrity, a slippery state in which a real life becomes emblematic. Like no one before, she's turned her spotlit day-to-day into a conceptual project commenting on women's freedom, artistic ambition and the place of the personal in the public sphere. As a celebrity, Swift partners with others: her model and musician friends, her actor/musician/athlete consorts, brands, even (warily) political causes. And with her fans, the co-creators of her stardom.

Her songs stand apart, though. They remain the main vehicle through which, negotiating unimaginable levels of renown, Swift continually insists on speaking only for herself. A listener has to work to find the "we" in her soliloquies. There are plenty of songs on Tortured Poets in which others will find their own experiences, from the sultry blue eroticism of "Down Bad" to the click of recognition in "I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)." But Swift's lack of concern about whether these songs speak for and to anyone besides herself is audible throughout the album. It's the sound of her freedom.

She also confronts the way fame has cost her, fully exploring questions she raised on Reputation and in "Anti-Hero." There are hints, more than hints, that her romance with the rogue was derailed partly because her business associates found it problematic, a danger to her precious reputation. And when she steps away from the man-woman predicament, Swift ponders the ephemeral reality of the success that has made private decisions nearly impossible. A lovely minuet co-written with Dessner, "Clara Bow" stages a time-lapsed conversation between Swift and the power players who've helped orchestrate her rise even as she knows they won't be concerned with her eventual obsolescence. "You look like Clara Bow," they say, and later, "You look like Stevie Nicks in '75." Then, a turn: "You look like Taylor Swift," the suits (or is it the public, the audience?) declare. "You've got edge she never did." The song ends abruptly — lights out. This scene, redolent of All About Eve, reveals anxieties that all of Swift's love songs rarely touch upon.

One reason Swift went from being a normal-level pop star to sharing space with Beyoncé as the era's defining spirit is because she is so good at making the personal huge, without fussing over its translation into universals. In two decades of talking back to heartbreakers, Swift has called out gaslighting, belittling, neglect, false promises — all the hidden injuries that lovers inflict on each other, and that a sexist society often overlooks or forgives more easily from men. In "The Manuscript," which calls back to a romantic trauma outside the Tortured Poets frame, she sings of being a young woman with an older man making "coffee in a French press" and then "only eating kids cereal" and sleeping in her mother's bed when he dumps her; any informed Swift fan's mind will race to songs and headlines about cads she's previously called out in fan favorites like "Dear John" and "All Too Well" — the beginnings of the mission Tortured Poets fulfills.

Swift's pop side (and perhaps her co-writers' influence) shows in the way she balances the claustrophobic referentiality of her writing with sparkly wordplay and well-crafted sentimental gestures. On Tortured Poets, she's less strategic than usual. She lets the details fall the way they would in a confession session among besties, not trying to change them from painful memories into points of connection. She's just sharing. Swift bares every crack in her broken heart as a way of challenging power structures, of arguing that emotional work that men can sidestep is still expected from women who seem to own the world.

Throughout Tortured Poets, Swift is trying to work out how emotional violence occurs: how men inflict it on women and women cultivate it within themselves. It's worth asking how useful such a brutal evisceration of one privileged private life can be in a larger social or political sense; critics, including NPR's Leah Donnella in an excellent 2018 essay on the limits of the songwriter's reach, have posed that question about Swift's work for years. But we should ask why Swift's work feels so powerful to so many — why she has become, in the eyes of millions, a standard-bearer and a freedom fighter. Unlike Beyoncé, who loves a good emblem and is always thinking about history and serving the culture and communities she claims, Swift is making an ongoing argument about smaller stories still making a difference. Her callouts can be viewed as petty, reflecting entitlement or even narcissism. But they're also part of her wrestling with the very notion of significance and challenging hierarchies that have proven to be so stubborn they can feel intractable. That Swift has reached such a peak of influence in the wake of the #MeToo movement isn't an accident; even as that chapter in feminism's history can seem to be closing, she insists on saying, "believe me." That isn't the same as saying "believe all women," but by laying claim to disputed storylines and fighting against silence, she at the very least reminds listeners that such actions matter.

Listening to Tortured Poets, I often thought of "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance," a song that Sinéad O'Connor recorded when she was in her young prime, not yet banished from the mainstream for her insistence on speaking politically. Like Swift's best work, its lyrics are very specific — allegedly about a former manager and lover — yet her directness and conviction expand their reach. In 1990, that a woman in her mid-20s would address a belittling man in this way felt startling and new. Taylor Swift came to prominence in a culture already changing to make room for such testimonies, if not — still — fully able to honor them. She has made it more possible for them to be heard. "I talk and you won't listen to me," O'Connor wailed. "I know your answer already." Swift doesn't have to worry about whether people will listen. But she knows that this could change. That's why she is writing it all down.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.