Why Normal Music Reviews No Longer Make Sense for Taylor Swift

Ask music critics what they think of Taylor Swift’s eleventh studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” and those who aren’t afraid of getting doxed might say something about the interminable length, the repetitive synth overlays, or the uninspired lyrics. Take “imgonnagetyouback,” a track that’s notably similar to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back!” In the chorus, Swift sings that she hasn’t yet decided “whether I’m gonna be your wife or gonna smash up your bike.” Perhaps the lyric is meant to be somewhat infantile, but even the most novice editor should have pushed Swift toward the more obvious rhyme: “whether I’m gonna be your wife or gonna smash up your life.”

Ask a Swiftie what they think of the album, though, and they may very well say that it’s her best work yet. Yes, it would have made more sense for her to rhyme “wife” with “life” in “imgonnagetyouback.” But Swift obsessives know to connect “imgonnagetyouback” with “Fallingforyou,” a song by the 1975 that was written by Swift’s ex-boyfriend Matty Healy. In it, Healy sings, “I’m so excited for the night / All we need’s my bike and your enormous house.” Swift’s mention of a bike, in “imgonnagetyouback,” is therefore an intentional creative decision, like the lack of spaces in the song’s title. Some fans have gone even further, claiming that the lack of spaces not only invites a comparison to “Fallingforyou” but to Swift’s own “Blank Space,” a song on her “1989” album. (1975, 1989—there are a lot of years to keep track of here.) “In Blank Space music video, Taylor Swift is smashing things and sings ‘Cause you know I love the players And you love the game,’ ” a YouTube user called Miranda-ry9tf writes in a comment. “In imgonnagetyouback she says ‘We broke all the pieces, but you still wanna play the game.’ ” Perhaps “Blank Space,” released in 2014, was about Healy, too? Those Swifties who have gone far down the rabbit hole might argue that Swift, by leaving out the spaces in her new song’s title, has created a kind of ouroboros—a running theme in the artist’s work since 2016, when Kim Kardashian referred to her as a “snake.” If you write the words “imgonnagetyouback” in a circle, you’ll notice that the “k” and “im” are right next to each other. This might seem like a reach—but, six tracks later, Swift mentions a mysterious rival named Aimee, on a song titled “thanK you aIMee.” It doesn’t take a Swiftie to figure out whose name the capital letters spell.

There has long been a disconnect between how music critics and Swifties consume Taylor Swift’s work, but never before has that split been so pronounced. We saw it back in 2014, when “1989” became the fastest-selling album in more than a decade, but went unreviewed by Pitchfork. (The next year, the music publication instead reviewed Ryan Adams’s “1989” cover album.) In 2017, Swift’s “Reputation” was the best-selling album of the year; it received lacklustre reviews and got snubbed at the Grammys. During the pandemic, Swift narrowed the reception gap by releasing “folklore,” an album beloved by critics and fans alike. (“Some of us have spent years dreaming Taylor would do a whole album like this, but nobody really dreamed it would turn out this great,” Rob Sheffield wrote, in Rolling Stone, declaring it Swift’s “greatest album—so far.”) But whereas critics came for the “folk,” fans stayed for the “lore,” and that is the primary appeal of Swift’s latest release. “The Tortured Poets Department,” or “T.T.P.D.,” is nothing short of a Rorschach test. The tepid music reviews often miss the fact that “music” is something that Swift stopped selling long ago. Instead, she has spent two decades building the foundation of a fan universe, filled with complex, in-sequence narratives that have been contextualized through multiple perspectives across eleven blockbuster installments. She is not creating standalone albums but, rather, a musical franchise.

“T.T.P.D.” has helped Swift break nearly every possible streaming record. Upon its release, it became the most-streamed album on Spotify in a single day, and Swift herself became the most-streamed artist in a single day. It was streamed 314.5 million times the day of its release; the second-biggest Spotify début this year was Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter,” at 76.6 million. Ariana Grande’s “eternal sunshine” came in fourth, at 59.1 million. “[Swift]’s on another level, let’s start comparing Ariana with like Olivia Rodrigo instead,” a Grande fan account wrote on X. This poster might have the right idea: Why do we compare Swift with singer-songwriters like Grande and Beyoncé, and not with Bob Iger, the media executive who turned Disney into a two-hundred-billion-dollar company? Disney owns two of the largest fan properties in existence: Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel villains include Thanos and Doctor Doom; Taylor Swift’s villains include Scooter Braun and Kim Kardashian. (And, now, perhaps Healy.)

Like the M.C.U., the Swiftverse is more than a series of plotlines and characters. It is thousands of comments under Instagram posts, an additional three hundred and thirty-two million dollars for the N.F.L., a worldwide run on bracelet beads, and the Fed wondering why inflation persists. In the Swiftverse, the music itself is not the point but the way in which the point is delivered. That’s not to say that the music is irrelevant; it serves a crucial purpose. But this purpose is different depending on whether you’re a diehard Swiftie or a casual listener. A common critique of “T.T.P.D.” is that it’s devoid of stylistic evolution, with too many references to Swift’s previous albums. Swifties understand that these Easter eggs add another dimension to a song or story they thought they knew. In the opening of “So Long, London,” a track on “T.T.P.D.,” staunch fans will recognize a pulsing sound akin to an effect used in “Call It What You Want,” from the album “Reputation.” Roughly halfway through the song, there’s also an “ah, ah” sound similar to part of the chorus of “Dress,” another “Reputation” track. On one hand, it’s reasonable for non-Swifties to assume that the artist, working with her longtime collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, has unintentionally rehashed some of her old work. On the other, it’s kind of crazy to think that Swift is capable of doing anything without intentionality. Assuming the callbacks in “So Long, London” are deliberate, they rather beautifully bookend the beginning and ending of Swift’s six-year relationship with the actor Joe Alwyn. Most musicians—and artists more generally—can only dream of their fan base picking up on such subtleties. It’s ironic that, in Swift’s case, these subtleties have led to some of her fiercest criticism.

Some of the cleverest callbacks on “T.T.P.D.” are not to Swift’s old music but to Healy’s. Fans have discovered that Swift’s “Guilty as Sin” works eerily well as a musical overlay to “About You,” a song by the 1975 that is widely thought to be about Swift. Skeptics will note that both songs were produced by Antonoff, and claim that “Guilty as Sin” raises the question of whether the Swift-Antonoff collaboration has finally grown stale. But, for Swifties, “Guilty as Sin” offers answers. It connects two crucial pieces of a puzzle, and makes fans feel as if they are tantalizingly close to solving the mysteries upon which Swift’s universe is built—the identity of her muses, the uncertainty as to whether “folklore” and its follow-up “evermore” are based on real events. Following this train of thought, Swift’s and Healy’s combined three-hundred-and-fifty-plus-song discography leaves at least twenty-two thousand one hundred and ninety-four possible combinations of track overlays for fans to manically work through, in order to answer the biggest question posed by “T.T.P.D.”: Was Matty Healy the main character all along?

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