Pop Culture

The Taylor Swift ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Exit Survey

Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, is here … and it’s bigger than anyone anticipated. It turns out all those peace signs she’s been making (during “Midnight Rain” on her most recent Eras Tour performances, on stage at the Grammys, in seemingly every social media post since) were’t actually a reference to how many weeks are in a “Fortnight” (TTPD’s lead single) but a double album, the back half of which dropped at 2 a.m. ET on Friday. We’ve spent 12 hours with all 31 (!!!) songs and have 10 questions (at least a couple of which will deal with the Matty Healy of it all). Let’s discuss:

What’s your immediate and maybe-a-little-longer-than-a-tweet-length review of TTPD?

Nora Princiotti: I have said it before and I will say it again: Taylor Swift and Drake are the same person.

Katie Baker: I think this album (and by album I mean the full 31-song “anthology,”) needs to be approached like a hotel brunch buffet station—it looks chaotic and feels overwhelming, but it’s actually intentionally designed for you to curate your own plate and select what to devour or ignore.

Helena Hunt: A wallow in the 1975–style synth-pop until Taylor pays attention to something more interesting than heartbreak and Matty Healy (herself, duh).

Lindsay Jones: This is as raw, deeply sad, and flat-out angry as we’ve ever seen Swift. And this album definitely contains the most references to depression, drugs and guns, and murder in her catalog. The first listen to the first 16 tracks was almost too much, as there was simply no reprieve from the heaviness (and the Healy-ness). I doubt it’ll wind up among my favorite Swift albums, but it might be her most lyrically interesting (as long as we pretend “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle” was actually written by AI).

Bridget Geerlings: Oh, Tree Paine. I hope you’re being paid handsomely.

Julianna Ress: An album of Midnights B-sides improved by adding an album of evermore B-sides.

Alexa Coubal: TTPD reminds me of Reputation, in that she’s addressing a bigger outside problem while also addressing something new and personal, i.e. her relationships with Joe Alwyn and Matty Healy. Ultimately it addresses the embarrassment of the hope she felt in her relationships and the embarrassment of staying with a man for so long who obviously was never going to give her what she wanted. I’m not saying that those guys are embarrassing to be with and it’s not embarrassing to be in love and to give it your all, but being so down bad for a guy and telling the world you want to marry him but ultimately he didn’t want to be with you is the most embarrassing thing that could ever happen (at least for my 27-year-old self).

So, what is this album about, really?

Princiotti: I can’t say it better than this:

Baker: It’s about the experience of baring your soul in back-to-back intimate partnerships with extremely different men—in other words, it’s about working with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner! (Side note, I heartily recommend doing a Twitter search for “aaron dessner” and drinking in the memes and spiraling, platonic adoration; it’s a salve.)

Hunt: Like any Taylor Swift album, this is about a lot more than the breakup songs. Songs like “Florida!!!” and “Fresh Outta the Slammer” mostly feel like vessels for her to reclaim her agency and say, “Yeah, I’m just gonna do whatever the hell I want now,” whether she’s hiding bodies in the swamp or running into the arms of a rebound everyone disapproves of (ahem, Matty Healy). Taylor spent a long time caring a lot about what literally everyone thought of her; songs like “Mad Woman” and “Anti-Hero” dismantled that long-lingering good-girl image, and “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me” and “But Daddy I Love Him” and “Guilty as Sin?” continue to weigh the things she’s supposed to do, as an avatar of white womanhood and success, against who she really is (flawed!) and what she really wants (sometimes, a mess!).

Taylor’s reminding us that everything we say about her, just like a bad relationship, is another cage or jail cell; but she writes the story, and she can reframe the stories everyone tells about her.

Jones: It’s less a breakup album and more catharsis, and the art that emerged from a very specific and highly fraught time in her life. That she wrote and recorded these songs as she was ascending to the peak of her fame and while under the biggest spotlight of her career cannot be understated.

But it also might just as easily be explained like this:

Geerlings: I genuinely cannot tell whether this project was:

(a) a collection of unedited lyrics written in iPhone notes while under the influence of edibles;

(b) a throwaway project to complete her contract with Republic Records;

(c) a plea for society to stop buying SKIMS for the sixth album in a row.

Ress: This album is about getting over the only other person on Earth who understood that Charlie Puth’s Voicenotes slapped.

Coubal: TTPD is about your first real mature love; the love that you thought you’d actually spend your life with, the first type of love you actually saw potential in and gave everything to, just for your feelings to come back around and slap you in the face and you feel SO fucking embarrassed for how much you gave of yourself with nothing to show for it. It’s about getting over the hope you sustained on for so long. Hope for a marriage with someone, hope for someone you love to love you back the same way, hope that you’ll actually get what you want.

Were you ready for so much of this album to be about Matty Healy?

Princiotti: I was definitely not ready for so much of this album to be about Charlie Puth.

Geerlings: I was not. But I think we need to ask Travis Kelce this question more than anyone else.

Baker: No!!! And you know what, I really appreciate that about this album. It’s always the Matty Healys of the world that leave us the most shaken to our core! They are a vital part of the ecosystem of the self—kind of like emotional pollinators, if you think about it.

Jones: I thought we had all agreed that we were just going to pretend the whole Matty Healy thing never happened, and he’d have gone the way of Calvin Harris? Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because plenty of Swift’s most inspired breakup songs were also about tumultuous short-term relationships, but somehow Healy simply just didn’t seem worth it. But clearly that tryst left deep scars, perhaps because of when it happened, her emotional state when it began, how quickly it ended, and how much of her reputation she put at stake to be with him.

Hunt: I was not! But I should have been. After all, the relationship that inspired Red (still, I think, her breakup opus) lasted all of three months; in the liner notes for that album, Taylor included a Pablo Neruda quote that says, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” When something burns hot and fast, you want to capture it even more; you haven’t had the time to obsess, burn out, and get bored like Taylor (probably) did with Joe Alwyn. The length of a relationship doesn’t matter if it pushes you to new boundaries of yourself, which the Matty Healy fling apparently seemed to do for her. Plus, it’s always about the stories she tells, not where they came from. (Remember “Enchanted”?)

I think songs like “Guilty as Sin?” and “But Daddy I Love Him” might be the key to this whole Matty Healy mystery. This album (the first half anyway, lol at that surprise drop) is, over and over, about Taylor escaping: from London, to Florida, out of cages, onto ocean rocks, away from what people expect of her, into the arms of someone no one would have wanted for her. Taylor lives in a glittery, gilded cage, and if Healy was her way out (even if only in her mind), more power to her.

Ress: I honestly forgot Matty and Taylor were a thing, but anyone surprised that she’d make an album about someone she was in such a short-lived relationship with is clearly new here. Taylor and Jake Gyllenhaal were together for basically one photo-op to promote a logo-out maple latte and awkward arm placement and we’re still talking about them.

Coubal: We all have that one guy that we’d go back to if we had the opportunity—whether it’d turn into something real doesn’t matter. There’s always that one guy, the one who makes us wonder if it would work if we just tried one more time—and even if it doesn’t work then at least we can have fun with him. But there’s always an element of “what if?”

Especially these lyrics in “The Tortured Poets Department”

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

Matty’s teasing her with what she wanted from Joe, but Matty’s not the guy she wants it from. Their whole relationship reminds me of Julia Roberts and James Franco’s characters’ relationship in Eat, Pray, Love. It’s fun, it’s moody, it’s semi-serious, but ultimately we both know it’s not going anywhere.

What’s your favorite song?

Princiotti: The strength of Tortured Poets is its perspective, and there isn’t a more interesting POV on either side of the album than “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” This is “Anti-Hero,” but all the goofy camp is gone, replaced with the venom of Swift at her most vindictive, paranoid, and aware of her own power.

Baker: I won’t truly know the answer to this until I have a random three-hour drive during which I can test the singalongability of various songs, but at the moment my hotel brunch buffet plate (see above) includes: “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys;” “So Long, London;” “Florida!!!;” “The Albatross;” “So High School;” “I Hate It Here;” and “The Prophecy.”

Hunt: I’m a sucker for a Track 5! Especially after the first four tracks on this album, I found myself worrying that every song would be backed by that insistent “Robbers”-by-the-1975 synth beat. (Actually, the synth is on “So Long London,” too, but at least there it comes courtesy of Dessner and not Jack Antonoff.) And while I thought she sounded a little bored (but in a sexy way!) on those first four songs, she finally taps into some real emotion here (even if it’s just remembered bitterness). It shades some color (even if it’s just blue) into the blacks, whites, and grays of the album, and its callbacks to Lover—that opening reminds me of the choir in “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” she’s leaving the city of “London Boy,” and it inverts “Afterglow,” letting us know that she was the one in jail the whole time, not Joe Alwyn—put a bittersweet final bow on the Alwyn era. It also signals that the sounds of this album are about to open right up, segueing from simmering, looping synths to some twang (“Fresh Out the Slammer”), good old piano ballads (“loml”), and lite indie rock (“Guilty as Sin?”).

Jones: I’ve got two that I’ve found myself coming back to multiple times since I first pressed play. First: “So Long, London.” It’s everything I wanted from this album, and it’s heartbreaking and vulnerable in a way a classic Swift Track 5 should be. I’ve been obsessed with “You’re Losing Me” since it dropped last June, and “London” is a direct line from where Swift was then, trying to save a dying relationship, to where she and Alywn ended up: “I stopped CPR, after all it’s no use / the spirit was gone, we would never come to / I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free.” The other is “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me” because it feels like the most surprising track on the album—dark and moody and powerful in a way we’ve rarely heard from Swift before.

Geerlings: It’s a tie for me between “So Long, London” and “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus.”

Ress: As a “Betty” head, it has to be “But Daddy I Love Him.”

Coubal: “So Long, London.”

What’s your least favorite song?

Princiotti: I’d give Taylor Swift a kidney but I’m not going to try to defend this:

My friends used to play a game where
We would pick a decade
We wished we could live in instead of this
I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists
And getting married off for the highest bid

Baker: I’m sorry but I really don’t know that I can deal with Taylor repeatedly, earnestly singing the words “fresh out the slammer.” SKIP.

Hunt: “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived.” I don’t love when Taylor forces her voice into some of Aaron Dessner’s weird time signatures, and by this point I thought we were done with Healy (just assuming here that he’s the smallest man who ever lived). And that pounding piano in the last verse reminds me of … Coldplay? Train? Keane??? I’m not sure what it is, but I know I don’t like it! At least it provides some closure between Swift and (again, I’m guessing here) Healy. Where the earlier tracks pined and looked for answers about why he was such a fuckboy, this one accepts that even if there are any answers, they’re not worth knowing. Also, that “You said normal girls were boring” line just made my blood boil. Long live normal girls!!

Jones: The football-y lyrics in “Alchemy”—the first Travis Kelce-coded song on this album—from kicking the “amateurs” off her “team” and a reference to the Patrick Freaking Mahomes’s Chiefs being underdogs, felt just a little too on the nose. (That said, if TS12 has more Travis-inspired bops like “So High School”—Ed Kelce references and all—I am so here for it.)

Geerlings: Easily, “The Tortured Poets Department.” What drug gets anyone to think about Charlie Puth? I truly need an answer to this.

Ress: “thanK you aIMee.” I was forced to think about Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian’s feud in the Gregorian year two thousand twenty-four? Taylor, you made a song called “I Forgot That You Existed” four albums ago. Give it a rest!

Coubal: “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart”—it feels like she’s channeling her inner angsty alter ego (it’s giving Olivia Rodrigo) but it’s not working. I get the sentiment, it’s extremely difficult to play one of the biggest tours ever while simultaneously going through an extremely painful breakup. She’s trying to convey that she can still do it all no matter what she’s going through, but it feels like they threw this on over sped up instrumental of Bejeweled.

She’s allotted at least one super cringey song per album (see: “Look What You Made Me Do,” “Shake It Off”) and this was it.

Swift has a long history of choosing the wrong song to be a lead single. Did she make the right choice with “Fortnight”? (And is it better than the AI version?)

Princiotti: Ah yes, “Fortnight,” a song I absolutely remember listening to 12 lifetimes ago (midnight last night).

Baker: Eh, it’s fine; the people love Post Malone, and so forth. (What, no Noah Kahan collab, tho?) The next single should be “So High School”—I’m digging its ’90s Juliana Hatfield feel.

Hunt: I might have dissed those the 1975–indebted songs, but they’re not THAT bad! I think Taylor learned from the “ME!” backlash; none of her singles (or songs, period) have been nearly that dire since the Lover era. I like how bored Taylor sounds when she sings, “Your wife waters flowers, I wanna kill her,” and I’m partial to softboi Post Malone. That said, I would have gone with “Guilty as Sin?,” which has the same tortured, forbidden love vibes but is just more, well, poetic. It’s also a better thesis statement for the front half of the album, and it would turn more people onto Blue Nile. Less murder, though.

(And yeah, of course “Fortnight” is better than the AI version. How could you even ask that?!)

Jones: “Fortnight” is … fine? I enjoy Post Malone! “I love you, it’s ruining my life” is a bar (even if it might be about Matty Healy). And “Fortnight” is probably her best chance at a big mainstream hit given what the rest of the album sounds like.

Geerlings: She did not. Is the AI version better? Yes. But are both options the best song these two could create? Absolutely not. My guy killed it on “LEVII’S Jeans” with Beyoncé three weeks ago. What happened here? This sounds like it desperately wants to be on the soundtrack for the 2011 movie Drive.

Ress: “Fortnight” is pretty forgettable, and the blockbuster pop album from three weeks ago made a better use of Post Malone. That said, it’ll probably chart for 900 weeks in a row.

Coubal: I think it’s actually a good choice. It’s a catchy bop that you can sing along to, but not a cringey bop like “ME!” I’m just grateful she didn’t choose “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” If this was 2019 that would’ve probably been her choice. I just wish she would’ve used Post Malone better especially after hearing his vocals on Cowboy Carter.

What’s the most instantly quotable lyric?

Princiotti: I think giving fans, and certainly the general public, 31 songs to sort through gets in the way of a lot of instant quotations. For me, right now, it’s: “I hope it’s shitty! In the Black Dog!” She was a real one for that.

Baker: You mean besides the timeless classic (I say that sincerely) “Fuck me up, Florida!”?? Or the invocation of Charlie Puth, whose name always makes me think about this Sarah Silverman bit? Look, I am going to be real with you—it is really hard to answer this question because I’m still trying to remember which of these 31 songs is which!!! The Swiftie ability to speed-parse is unrivaled and unrealistic!!

Hunt: “All my friends smell like weed or little babies” is maybe specific to Florida but is also so relatable for anyone in their late 20s/early 30s. All your friends are either getting high or having babies to get through their lives. An instant classic.

Jones: Is “Florida Is One Hell of a Drug the new state slogan yet?

Geerlings: “Who’s afraid of little old MEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!” I am, to be honest.

Ress: “I’m having his baby / No I’m not, but you should see your faces,” is an instant classic, but if I’m being honest I’m probably going to think about “Touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” the most.

Coubal: There’s one answer and it’s obviously “who uses typewriters anyway?” (Who’s Taylor Swift anyway?)

What’s the most devastating lyric?

Princiotti: You want me to say something like “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free.” But what I want to know is: how does one come back from “you know how to ball / I know Aristotle.”

Baker: Either “touch me while your bros play Grand Theft Auto” or “tell me something awful / like you are a poet trapped inside the body of a finance guy.” Taylor,,, I understand.

Hunt: “You’ll find someone” reminds me a little too much of my last breakup! You just know it comes from pity, exhaustion, and being totally over it, not from any real compassion or concern: “You’ll find someone; sorry it can’t be me tho!” It’s Taylor in her acceptance stage, but when you’re on the receiving end of that line, you have a lot of grieving left to do.

Jones: “You don’t measure up to any measure of a man” is the meanest line in the meanest song (“Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”) Taylor Swift has ever written.

Geerlings: “You know how to ball / I know Aristotle.” This is devastating because this is the woman who also wrote “Marjorie.”

Ress: “He said that if the sex was half as good as the conversation was / Soon they’d be pushing strollers / But soon it was over.”

Coubal: From “loml”:

You shit-talked me under the table
Talkin’ rings and talkin’ cradles
I wish I could unrecall
How we almost had it all

The feeling of getting played HURTS! When you’re looking for reasons to stay in a relationship, you’re kept going by the little glimmers of hope that your partner seemingly knows exactly when to drop. Once you’re out of it, you realize how embarrassing it is that THAT’S what kept you going. Always remember ladies, if he wanted to, he would!

Track you most want to see added to the Eras Tour setlist?

Princiotti: “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” for the meta-narrative of Taylor Swift telling a rapt audience of 70,000 that they’re making her absolutely mISerable!!! Drag me queen!!!

Baker: “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”! It would sound so good in a stadium, whoa-oh-oh-AH-oh, and also Taylor can do her thing where she’s like “everyone ready for this bridge?” Separately, I also would like Taylor to start doing jam-band style transitions. Give us “Mad Woman” leading into “Cassandra”! We want a medley of “I Hate It Here,” “The Albatross,” and “Seven”!

Hunt: “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” would make a very meta edition to the setlist. And honestly, it’s a bop; I’d be screaming, sobbing, and singing along at the concert, aware that I’m maybe just contributing to her misery. Just keep singing and dancing, I guess!

Jones: I’ll take an acoustic “Cornelia Street,” “You’re Losing Me,” “So Long, London” mashup, thank you.

Geerlings: I think we keep these songs locked away for about 10 years until someone decides to make a campy Broadway show with them.

Ress: Taylor should be legally required to play “Mirrorball” every night. Wait, were we supposed to pick something from this album?

Coubal: “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys.” It feels like the antithesis of “Call It What You Want.” “Down Bad” is also a second strong choice. Would love to hear Swifites scream “fuck” that many times.

You’ve had about 12 hours with all 31 songs with the album. How do you think TTPD will be received broadly? Will it—and by extension, Taylor—be considered a success, a failure, or somewhere in between?

Princiotti: I think nobody moved, basically. Do you love getting deep into the lore behind Taylor Swift’s relationships, career arc, and public persona? You probably love this album! Do you find Jack Antonoff’s production style grating? You probably don’t! Swift is flooding the zone, which will blunt some of the potential criticism of this album, but also some of its potential to really connect outside of the inner Swiftie zone.

Baker: Somewhere in between! I feel like there are just far too many songs for this to be seen as some triumph of an album qua album. But on a song and lore level, there’s definitely stuff here to obsess over

Hunt: This is maybe the most thorough topography of Taylor’s mind that we’ve ever had? (Especially after those bonus songs got added, sheesh.) Her fans devour any crumb she gives them, and this is … more than a damn meal. It’s a little hard for me to see this album landing in the public consciousness like, say, Midnights, Red, or 1989 did. Just like any of the poems it references, it seems meant more for careful consideration by serious scholars than casual consumption by the unwashed masses. But who knows! Even Taylor’s biggest pop hits have a way of being esoteric, deeply personal, and broadly appealing all at once. At this point, there’s no way Taylor can avoid being a success, and that’s exactly how she can get away with making an album like this, which doesn’t have a “Cruel Summer” or “Karma” or “Blank Space” but which will, inevitably, carve out its own place in the pop culture canon.

Jones: The core Swifties, especially the “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” and the Aaron Dessner stans and Folklore girlies (it’s me) will be all in. But the heaviness of this album and the lack of poppy hits and new, experimental sounds probably means this album won’t be as accessible to a wider audience. And there is certainly the risk that with 31 new songs—just a year and a half since Midnights, and within a year of two re-recordings that each included vault tracks, and in the middle of the Eras Tour and how she’s seemingly everywhere with Travis Kelce—there may be a point when there will be just Too Much Taylor in the public consciousness. But I also wonder if, maybe for the first time, she doesn’t care.

Ress: Swifties will love it, everyone else a little less so, and she’ll probably win a couple Grammys for it. On paper, it will undeniably be a success, but I think Midnights and Tortured Poets will be looked back on as a pretty creatively stagnant moment in Taylor’s career. The peak of her unparalleled ascension seems to be lining up with her leaning into her more boring inclinations (downbeat synth pop, repetitive melodies, using a thesaurus on every other word). She made my favorite album of hers, Reputation, when she was actually facing some criticism, so it might take another wave of Taylor fatigue and a step away from dominating every facet of our pop culture for her to get that fire back.

Coubal: I don’t love it and I don’t hate it. I strongly feel like she’s trying to give us more moody, insightful music similar to Lana Del Rey, but it just doesn’t hit the same. Lana has the mysterious, sultry vibe and her voice is able to convey hurt a little bit better. In my mind Taylor is always going to be the artist who delivers the fun, upbeat bops, so it’s hard for me to see her in the lens of an intense indie artist. I know she has Folklore and Evermore, but those don’t feel as if they are trying hard as perhaps TTPD does. I didn’t really have any expectations with this album, but it’s been reaffirming to me that she’s creatively hit her ceiling. Either she needs a new producer or Jack Antonoff needs to evolve.

Geerlings: God Bless Aaron Dessner. That’s all I’m going to say. Also, I’m now rooting for Joe Alwyn. I never thought I’d see the day. I can’t wait to see you on The White Lotus Season 4, King.

Original Source