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‘Tortured Poet’ Taylor Swift offers troubled tales of our time

Singer Taylor Swift performs during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland Oct. 30, 2021. (OSV News photo/Gaelen Morse, Reuters)

When Taylor Swift sings, people pay attention. Over the past two decades, her words have become the backdrop of movies, life milestones, wedding dances and long car rides. Love her or hate her, the pop star’s cultural influence is undeniable. Swift grapples with the weight of her words in her latest offering “The Tortured Poets Department,” a 31-track double album that explores heartbreak, fame and longing.

The album is written in a confessional style with blunt lyrics that are also gritty and insightful.

Disappointingly for those who preferred Swift’s cleaner tracks from her teens and 20s, the new release has the most explicit tracks of any of her albums and is definitely intended for more mature audiences. The songs contain many direct and indirect references to sex and drugs.

While listeners should approach her latest offering with caution and discernment, Swift’s songs explore interesting cultural themes with scathing criticisms and more lighthearted self-examination.

In her song “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” Swift appears to playfully mock the critics baffled by her success.

“I’m always drunk on my own tears, isn’t that what they all said / That I’ll sue you if you step on my lawn / That I’m fearsome and I’m wretched and I’m wrong / Putting narcotics into all of my songs / And that’s why you’re still singing along.”

The point is that people are still singing along — to the tune of $1 billion in revenue for her Eras Tour, the highest grossing concert tour ever. “Poets” became the most-streamed album of 2024 on Spotify within a week.

What keeps people singing along? Swift’s imagery and knack of capturing complex sentiments in pithy turns of phrase continue to resonate, whether the listener is searching for insight into Swift’s past relationships or whether it captures a moment or romance in their own lives.

An ancient Greek philosopher, a doomed prophetess and references to classic children’s literature are all tools of her craft in “Poets” as she processes the past with wit and self-awareness.

“You know how to ball / I know Aristotle,” Swift sings in “So High School,” a song that is likely both about high school nostalgia and her new romance with Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce.

Can Taylor Swift name Aristotle’s four causes from memory? The depth of the pop star’s familiarity with the ancient philosopher is unknown, but at the very least, for many, her work seems to bring about the catharsis he talked about in his “Poetics,” a purging or purifying of emotions highlighted in his writing on tragedy.

“I cry a lot / but I am so productive / it’s an art” is a line that many on social media embraced from her eerily upbeat “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” about moving forward with hidden wounds, likely inspired by her tour following the 2023 ending of her six-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn.

“Poets” features more religious imagery than her past albums. Some of the references may be troubling to many Catholics, particularly in “Guilty as Sin?” where she sings about hidden longings and guilt over sexual fantasies.

“What if I roll the stone away / They’re gonna crucify me anyway / What if the way you hold me / Is actually what’s holy?”

Her blending of religious imagery with sexual references is reminiscent of “False God” from her 2019 “Lover” album. However, she also appears to be referencing the harsh judgment she gets from the public regardless of her actions.

This theme is apparent throughout the album, including in the song “But Daddy I Love Him,” where Swift’s ire is very particularly aimed at hypocritical Christians who act not out of love, but from hatred towards others.

“Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best / Clutching their pearls, sighing ‘What a mess’ / I just learned these people try and save you /… cause they hate you.”

She asks God to “save the most judgmental creeps,” saying that she doesn’t need the prayers of those “sanctimoniously performing soliloquies” about her.

Swift also appears to express vulnerability and self-doubt in her references to religion. In the somewhat tongue-in-cheek “I Can Fix Him (No Really, I Can),” she sings “They shake their heads sayin’, ‘God, help her’ / When I tell ’em he’s my man / But your good Lord doesn’t need to lift a finger / I can fix him, no, really I can / And only I can.”

But by the end of the song, she acknowledges “Woah, maybe I can’t.”

In “The Black Dog” depicting a struggle to get over a former lover, she sings about hiring “a priest to come and exorcise my demons.”

A biblical reference is featured in “The Prophecy,” where she sings of failures in love and wanting “someone who wants my company,” lamenting, “And it was written / I got cursed like Eve got bitten / Oh, was it punishment?”

As Eve was metaphorically “bitten” by the consequences of her own action of biting into the forbidden fruit, Swift seems to be singing of her fears that she is the reason why she hasn’t found her soulmate: “I’m so afraid I sealed my fate / No sign of soulmates.”

Swift actually recognizes how valuable it would be to have faith here, praising the woman of faith and acknowledging her superiority. But she confesses her impatience and paints her search for answers as becoming increasingly unmoored.

“And I look unstable / Gathered with a coven ’round a sorceress’ table / A greater woman has faith / But even statues crumble if they’re made to wait.”

This is one of several references to witchcraft in the album, which seem to be tied more to her embrace of witch hunt imagery than an actual sympathy for the occult. She began using such imagery in her 2017 “Reputation” album after she faced intense harassment on social media following a feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian over his inclusion of explicit lyrics about her in his song “Famous” without her permission.

“The Prophecy” is also just one among many songs in the album that show a deep yearning for committed love in marriage.

In the song “loml” — an acronym that typically stands for “love of my life,” but in the song ultimately means “loss of my life” — Swift remembers “talking rings and talking cradles” with a former love, wishing she could forget “how we almost had it all.” In the titular track “The Tortured Poets Department,” Swift sings about how “At dinner, you take my ring off my middle finger / And put it on the one people put wedding rings on / And that’s the closest I’ve come to my heart exploding.”

In “So Long, London,” she sings, “You swore that you loved me but where were the clues? / I died on the altar waiting for the proof” in an apparent reference to hoping for a marriage that never happened.

As Swift continues to wrestle with her past, the song “Clara Bow” turns her gaze to questioning society’s idols in a critique of the entertainment industry that also prompts reflection on the culture’s dangerous tendency to deify performers.

An aspiring artist is told “You look like Clara Bow / in this light” in a reference to the silent film star who was the first “it” girl after she starred in the 1927 silent film “It.” Bow was a flapper icon in the Roaring Twenties and her success continued through 1933, but she left Hollywood to start a family and suffered from severe mental health issues which she struggled with the rest of her life, attempting suicide and spending some time in an asylum.

Bow was snubbed by the Hollywood in crowd and deemed lower class with her Brooklyn accent, despite being wildly successful with audiences. “All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a feeling of tragedy underneath,” Bow once said. “She’s unhappy and disillusioned, and that’s what people sense.”

The star in Swift’s song is told, “You’re the new god we’re worshipping / Promise to be … dazzling.” The weight of that expectation becomes apparent as Swift sings, “Only when your girlish glow / Flickers just so / Do they let you know / It’s hell on earth to be heavenly.”

Finally, the rising star is told she looks like Taylor Swift, but “you’ve got edge she never did.”

Swift’s self-exploration comes full circle in “The Manuscript,” a song where she reflects on the story of a past love.

“And the years passed / Like scenes of a show / The Professor said to write what you know / Lookin’ backwards / Might be the only way to move forward.”

After all of these years, Swift continues to write what she knows of heartbreak, life in the public eye and facing her darkest fears and deepest longings. The singer who once swore to be “overdramatic and true” fulfills that pledge in her confessional album, poking fun at herself along the way.

Amid her biting critiques and purging of past wounds, Swift sees the painting of these tragedies as part of her journey forward.

She said of the album that “there is nothing to avenge, no scores to settle once wounds have healed. And upon further reflection, a good number of them turned out to be self-inflicted. This writer is of the firm belief that our tears become holy in the form of ink on a page. Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it.”

While these “saddest stories” show dark moments of disillusionment with the false gods of fame and men with “impressionistic paintings of heaven” that “turned out to be fakes,” they also illustrate a recognition of the value of faith and lasting love — even if that value is mostly apparent through the suffering their absence causes.

Lauretta Brown is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @LaurettaBrown6.

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