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'The Tortured Poets Department': A Deep Dive Into the Lore, Parallels and the Deeper Meaning, by Rachel Foley

The release of a new Taylor Swift album is always the most exciting time of the year for me. Counting down each day leading up to the release, I couldn’t decide what I was most excited for: the slander of her past 6-year relationship — the lyrics that a fan can expect of a Taylor Swift album with “poet” in the title — or a Post Malone feature. The album encompasses themes of lost love, childhood, and escapism, marking another breakup album for Swift. The lyrics and melodies reflect this period of Swift’s life post-breakup and mid-Eras Tour in an intensely honest way. An all-encompassing dive into the depths of vulnerability and raw emotion, The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD) is a testament to Swift’s lyricism and emotional power. Clocking in at 31 songs in total after the surprise release of the second half two hours after release, TTPD addresses Swift’s long-term relationship with Joe Alwyn, the opposite short-lived fling between herself and The 1975 frontman Matty Healy, escapism and life in the public eye, new boyfriend Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce, and even some past feuds.

TTPD incorporates elements of Swift’s albums folklore and Midnights while featuring lighter rock beats from Red and themes of life in the public eye, which we all know from reputation. TTPD distinguishes itself by fearlessly exploring the depths of despair and hope, singling it out among modern pop music, which can be surface-level at times. It’s as though Swift has poured out every emotion for us all to witness, putting it down on the page and transforming anguish and grace into melodies and verses that resonate deeply. This album is a work of art, celebrated not only for its musical brilliance but also for its ability to touch the untouchable and to express emotions that elude verbalization. No other recent album has explored true despair this honestly and deeply while also keeping positive notes and multiple themes.  

As the Swifties expected, TTPD is chock-full of Joe Alwyn slander. In the early summer of 2023, the couple broke up after six years of being together, which surprised many fans. However, the slander Alwyn faces in this album is not entirely shocking. The red flags started to line up leading up to the album’s release. Swift tells her audience up-front in many songs how her relationship with Alwyn was magical in the beginning but quickly faded. In My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys,” Swift expresses this by telling the audience they “should have seen him when he first saw me.” She feels this love slip away from her “like Eve got bitten” (The Prophecy). Swift wishes for another outcome and acknowledges that her fans knew how happy she was at the beginning of the relationship. 

The second I saw So Long, London on the tracklist, the parallels to London Boy from Lover immediately came to mind. The fact this song is Track 5, the most emotional track on all of Swift’s albums, made me even more excited. This song is incredibly deep, with a bridge that solidifies this story of a relationship fading and Swift being blamed. Lyrics from this song tell the story of the lost love with “how much sad did you think I had in me.” Swift goes on to depict the feeling of holding onto a relationship with a “white-knuckle dying grip,” only to give up and surrender in the end, saying she “stopped CPR, after all, there’s no use.” The bridge of this song shuts down the blame that Swift’s ex-partner put on her for the relationship fading, claiming he said “[she] abandoned the ship but [she] was going down with it” and that she “died on the altar waiting for the proof.” By the end of the song, however, Swift is just beginning to pick herself up and write down these emotions. 

The other main song Swift uses to address her past breakup is loml,” which subverts the usual expectations of the abbreviation, changing “love” to “loss.” While most expected this song to be about Alwyn already, the line “never quite married” solidified this for me. The progression Swift takes from “I’d marry you with paper rings” (Lover) to “and I wouldn’t marry me either” (Midnights) to this album is unmistakable. One of the best aspects of Swift’s discography is the ability to see her life and each story play out. “loml” does an excellent job portraying the end of the relationship and how Swift has “never felt a hole quite like this.” Similarly, the songs The Black Dog,” a common symbol for depression, The Albatross,” and imgonnagetyouback all tackle this long-term relationship and similar emotions left behind. 

Shortly after her break with Alwyn, Swift became publicly romantically involved with Matty Healy, lead singer of The 1975, for a very brief period of time. Because they had been together for only around a month, I was surprised to see that almost 10 songs were about him. While Swift hasn’t confirmed who each song is about, we can all guess that Healy is the one she loved just for a Fortnight.” Even the album’s title song disses Healy, with Swift claiming that nobody will be able to love him like her. Short-lived as it might have been, the “rusted sparkling summer” with Healy was incredibly staggering. 

Swift’s main qualm with the 1975 lead singer is that he was a horrible rebound. In The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” she says that he was supposed to cheer her up after her breakup but only made things worse. Swift says the relationship “wasn’t sexy once it wasn’t forbidden” because of how he paraded her in public and didn’t keep the same energy in private, leaving her “down bad, crying at the gym” during an Eras Tour rehearsal (referenced in Down Bad). She expresses that the both of them moving on from their past relationships with each other may not work out the best in Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus and highlights his issues with addiction in multiple songs. In the end, Swift only wants honesty and closure about this relationship. 

I simply cannot mention Swift and Healy’s relationship without mentioning public opinion and the backlash that came along with it. Healy has said very horrible things on social media about women and even Swift herself, another theme addressed in the album. The songs I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can) and Guilty as Sin? are the perfect examples of this, saying the public “shake their heads sayin’, ‘God, help her’ when I tell ’em he’s my man.” Swift acknowledges the negativity surrounding Healy in the media, claiming that she didn’t do anything wrong. Asking the question, “How can I be guilty as sin?” conveys this idea. Social media is quick to blame women for their significant others’ words and actions as if they are meant to control them. While what Healy said shouldn’t just be excused, it also isn’t Swift’s job to hold him accountable, and it certainly isn’t her fault. In the beginning of their relationship, it is clear she thought she could “fix him,” but she learns she can’t and doesn’t have to by the end of the song. 

While we’re on the topic of public opinion, this is another theme that emerges quite forcefully in TTPD. Without even listening to a single song, the track title Clara Bow gives way to this theme. Clara Bow was a silent film star who suffered from mental health issues, including periods of hospitalization and psychosis, because of her film and tumultuous love life. Swift draws parallels of this to her own life, saying fame is “the new god we’re worshipping.” Being in the public eye clearly has its cons, as Swift explores her struggles with it in multiple songs. “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me” reflects the time of her life right after the split with Alwyn, when Swift is in the midst of the Eras Tour. During this time, rumors are still circulating about Healy and a suspected beef with Olivia Rodrigo, a feud with Ticketmaster, and even speculation that her new relationship with Travis Kelce is a publicity stunt. This all seems to echo the reputation era, just as the song itself does with its anthemic chorus and overall production. With this and the two songs that are possibly referencing the feud between Swift and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, it seems that Swift still feels the same way about public opinion as she always has. 

Reinforcing the potential downfalls of fame, TTPD also brings an element of escapism, a present theme throughout literature. The first reference to escapism is in “Fortnight” where Swift uses “move to Florida” as a metaphor for following your dreams or escaping. This then gives way to the track titled Florida!!!,” which is all about running away from home and “work[ing] your life away just to pay for a time-share down in Destin.” While this song could also be a metaphor for Matty Healy, I’d say you can interpret it either way. Further, the song involving escapism the most is I Hate It Here,” which echoes many poems and short stories in which Swift escapes in her own mind. Swift confesses, “I hate it here so I will go to secret gardens in my mind,” and says that she spends “most of the year” vacationing to this private place in her mind. We can see Swift deeply yearning for a world where she can escape her “mid-sized city hopes and small-town fears” and a world where “only the gentle survived.” Harsh public opinions have always cut deep for Swift, who claims to be “too soft for all of it” in her album Midnights

We can’t mention Swift and fame without mentioning her new relationship with Superbowl LVIII champion Travis Kelce. With two songs written about Kelce, fans’ anticipation of lyrics about the tight end was finally brought to an end. I predicted her song The Alchemy would be a reference to Alwyn, as alchemy has historically been the practice of trying to turn lead into gold, and Swift usually associated Alwyn with gold. However, Swift spins this on her head, saying that her version of alchemy is coming out of the dark and finding her person, claiming there was no fighting it. There are also countless football references, with lyrics like “touch down,” “warm the benches,” and “Where’s the trophy? He just comes runnin’ over to me.” The song So High School only further expresses her happiness in this relationship, outlining conventions of young love to express the giddiness she felt being with Kelce. My favorite lyric by far of this song is “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle,” which perfectly sums up Kelce and Swift’s dynamic. 

Overall, Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department has taken over my life since release day. As I continue to listen, I discover more lyrical connections and references to other songs. With a grand total of 31 songs, I’m sure my favorites will shift constantly. TTPD is the most vulnerable we have seen Swift thus far, which says a lot, considering she is known as a breakup writer. Aside from the pain of leaving a 6-year relationship, Swift explores the pain of being in the public eye and having everything she does scrutinized. However, there are upbeat elements and happier songs about her new relationship. With the sheer number of songs and themes and the lyrical depth, I’m pretty sure I’ll have The Tortured Poets Department on repeat for the foreseeable future.

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