Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ rollout reveals her inability to trust the listener

The glorious thing about the specificity of Taylor Swift‘s storytelling is that it somehow becomes universal. You apply it to your life; her late-night phone calls, car rides, and whirlwind of emotions become your own. 

But lately, the billionaire songwriter and her immense fan base appear more concerned with Swift’s narrative than the beauty and freedom of its interpretation. Where fans once envisioned their own flings and feelings, they now look for clues and identities. Instead of assigning songs to moments in their lives, fans now assign songs to often unsubstantiated celebrity gossip. 


Rather than listening to her lyrics in isolation, Swift has become the omnipresent “Songwriter.” Listeners have likely already seen her post clues about the tracks on X / Twitter or directly explain her songwriting on TikTok. Her music is woven into her celebrity. And even if you don’t engage with Swift directly, Swifties and their ongoing speculation over the concrete subject matter — as if a track can be neatly organized into one of her public relationships — are hard to avoid. Swift encourages this behavior, dropping clues and creating puzzles for her fans to decipher. (Currently, she has fans scouring cities for QR codes to reveal hidden messages.)

Equating her music with the public narrative of her life has always been a part of her brand and the center of much of her critique. In the past year, Swift won Album of the Year at the Grammys (and hijacked it to announce The Tortured Poets Department), became the poster child of the NFL, and put pressure on Ticketmaster after millions of fans were unable to purchase tickets to her Eras Tour due to high demand. Not to mention, The Eras Tour relies on rereleasing her older albums and, in doing so, her reexamination of those past eras, causing her celebrity to eclipse her songwriting. 

At its best, her obsession with the past allows us to relive those eras with her. At its worst, we are beholden to her narrative. There’s no better example of this than Swifties crowning Taylor’s Version villains: Joe Jonas for Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Jake Gyllenhaal for Red (Taylor’s Version), John Mayer for Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), and Harry Styles for 1989 (Taylor’s Version). Just look to the Grim Reaper meme as an example.

As Janessa Williams wrote for The Forty-Five, “We’re still feeling the ripples of the height of cancel culture, and so a ‘call-out’ anthem about a bad relationship or troubling experience tends to translate really well, especially when we know exactly who to aim our anger at. Even better is when they can be neatly lined up against paparazzi photos and cryptic Instagram posts, creating a metaverse of reality-soap madness.”

Reclassifying old songs and the death of interpretation

A fortnight before the April 19 release of The Tortured Poets Department, the Midnights singer created five “stages of heartbreak” playlists for Apple Music — notice the sponsorship, a further dent in her artistic integrity — recategorizing her catalog to fit the themes of denial (“I Love You It’s Ruining My Life”), anger (“You Don’t Get To Tell Me About Sad”), bargaining (“Am I Allowed to Cry?”), depression (“Old Habits Die Screaming”), and acceptance (“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart “). 

This puppeteering, some would say rewriting, of her past music sent fans into a tizzy and led to a new target: her ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn. 

After releasing the “Stages of Heartbreak” playlists, fans immediately took her lead and began reexamining her songs through this new lens. They decided the heartbreak in question was her breakup with her longtime partner Alwyn and ran with it. 

Many were shocked to see “Lover” on the denial playlist, especially those who danced to it at their weddings. Fans tore through the lyrics, creating holes in its once-established romance. On the fan-favorite love song, she sings, “At every table, I’ll save you a seat,” and pleads, “Can I go where you go?” A TikTokker decided this meant she saved the seat “because he was absent at her most important events,” and she wanted to follow him because “they weren’t together often.” The theory was reposted on X. 

Some pushed back against the urge to rewrite the narrative of the songs. One fan wrote, “Idk I kinda wish Taylor didn’t post those playlists, y’all are crazy.” Another said, “If you only consume Taylor’s music through HER lens you gotta really reconsider, there’s so much beauty in her music because there’s so many interpretations.”

Fans took the playlists as a license to further scrutinize Alwyn — the “bad guy” to Swift’s “good guy” — spreading unfounded rumors that he cheated on Swift with his Conversations with Friends co-star Alison Oliver. Fans went so far as to use scenes of him acting in the show as evidence of his baseless “affair” and harrassed Oliver in her Instagram comments section. 

The promo move is reminiscent of when she made another set of playlists — again, in partnership with Apple Music — sorting her songs into the easy categories of “glitter gel pen” songs, “fountain pen” songs, and “quill pen” songs, about her songwriting principles. She has gone to lengths to ensure fans know exactly when an album was written (keep your eyes peeled, detectives) and explain whether or not a track is fictional.

Swift insists on keeping her music and its interpretation within her control. Despite an early career dedicated to honesty and relatability, Swift boxes her fans into these shallow delineations of her songs, rather than trusting her music to speak for itself. 

Her promo cycles incentivize fans to generate meaning before they hear any music. Would a painter provide museum attendees with a bunch of clues before seeing the art? No. Whatever happened to releasing a single ahead of an album release? Unlike cryptic messages and knowing winks, a single hints at what’s to come. I previously explored how commercial the promo for Midnights felt, writing, “I connect with Swift the songwriter, not Swift the brand.” But with The Tortured Poets Department, it feels like the songwriter is the brand. 

Similarly, Swift’s tendency to lean into celebrity gossip readings of her music seems like a business choice, rather than an artistic one, because it sells. Just look at what her relationship with Travis Kelce has done for the NFL. 

Tavi Gevinson, former fashion blogger and founder of Rookie Mag, explored listeners’ urge to search for Swift’s life in her music. “We don’t need to be able to picture ourselves in the song because we can just picture what we are sure is her reality — which is so much realer than ours — and sublimate our own desire and frustration into the narrative of this ultimate, ideal protagonist.” 

Swift’s mastermind approach conflates her music’s protagonist with her celebrity image and the fans and men wrapped up in it all, making it consumed less like art and more like fan fiction. Everything feels predetermined and stagnant if nothing is left up to interpretation, and you’re only listening to something to fit your preconceived narrative. Isn’t that boring?

Maybe Swift still has more tricks up her sleeve. Initial reports claim The Tortured Poets Department is mainly about Matty Healy, so the joke is on you!

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