More Popcorn Please: Taylor Swift Doesn’t Really Understand Poetry — According to The New York Times

Taylor Swift criticisms
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Taylor Swift criticisms
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Photo Credit: Paolo Villanueva / CC by 2.0

Taylor Swift is back to her old stomping grounds (doomed romance) in her latest LP, but the lyricism becomes ‘unnecessarily verbose,’ revealing only a surface-level understanding of poetry — according to The New York Times.

Taylor Swift’s fans are well-fed when it comes to content; the 34-year-old is more famous than ever before in her nearly 20-year career, with a record-breaking tour and a near-constant release of music. Between her new albums and her re-released Taylor’s Versions, the streaming release of her Eras Tour concert film, she has been a veritable source of abundance for her countless adoring fans.

But in her latest era, lines have been drawn in the sand between those who found her latest LP, The Tortured Poets Department, to be far from her best work, and the rest of her sprawling fandom. To wit, The New York Times’ Lindsay Zoladz found that the expansive and largely “self-indulgent” album was “curiously insular,” and hints that perhaps Swift has become “too comfortable,” and maybe her partnership with her most consistent collaborator, Jack Antonoff, “risks growing stale.”

“Swift’s lyricism starts to feel unrestrained, imprecise, and unnecessarily verbose,” writes Zoladz. “Breathless lines overflow and lead their melodies down circuitous paths. […] Internal rhymes multiply like recitations of dictionary pages [in] one of several songs that lean too heavily on rote prison metaphors; narcotic imagery is another inspiration for some of Swift’s most trite and head-scratching writing.”

“Plenty of great artists are driven by feelings of being underestimated, and have had to find new targets for their ire once they become too successful to convincingly claim underdog status,” The NYT continues. “Beyonce, who has reached a similar moment in her career, has opted to look outward. On her recently released ‘Cowboy Carter,’ she takes aim at the racist traditionalists lingering in the music industry and the idea of genre as a means of confinement or limitation. Swift’s new projects remains fixed on her internal world.”

Whereas Swift’s previous album, Midnights, found her asking “deeper and more challenging questions about gender, power, and adult womanhood,” The Tortured Poets Department is a return to an “almost singular” focus on the “salvation of romantic love.”

“It is to the detriment of The Tortured Poets Department that a certain starry-eyed fascination with fairy tales has crept back into Swift’s lyricism,” says Zoladz. “I tried to keep a tally of how many songs yearningly reference wedding rings and ran out of fingers. By the end, this perspective makes the album feel a bit hermetic, lacking the depth and taut structure of her best work.”

But is a return to the idealized vision of romantic love that made her famous in the first place a bad thing? Many fans say it’s what she does best, and this album’s poetry themes and “dark academia” motifs just amplify her palpable love of language. Yet Zoladz says that doesn’t make her a poet.

“A fascination with the ways words lock together in rhyme certainly courses through Swift’s writing. But poetry is not a marketing strategy or even an aesthetic — it’s a whole way of looking at the world and its language, turning them both upside down in search of new meanings and possibilities. It is also an art form in which, quite often and counter to the governing principle of Swift’s current empire, less is more.”

“Sylvia Plath once called poetry ‘a tyrannical discipline,’ because the poet must ‘go so far and so fast in such a small space; you’ve got to burn away all the peripherals.’ Great poets know how to condense, or at least how to edit. The sharpest moments of The Tortured Poets Department would be even more piercing in the absence of excess.”

Perhaps Swift’s decision to pull away from Big Machine and its editors was a double-edged sword; surrounded by yes men, the stakes are lower. But an artist shouldn’t feel stifled in their creativity, and few Swifties would argue that the good afforded to her by Big Machine outweighed the bad at that point in her career. Still, for some listeners, an album themed around the academia of poetry would have benefitted from a second draft.