I Know Why Everyone Hates The Tortured Poets Department (And I Love It)

I am a Taylor Swift fan but not a Swiftie. I have a ticket to see the Eras tour, but only because I was able to purchase one at face value. I have tried to convince a boyfriend, in Paris, that we should dance ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light, while listening to Taylor Swift sing about doing exactly that, an exercise in imitation that I do not recommend, not least because how is this done? How does the refrigerator door stay open, so that it might shed its light? Do you stand there with one hand on the door and the other hand on your partner’s waist? Do you prop it open with a broom? Do you do this in time for the line to play while you are still dancing, rather than only figure it out in time for “22,” which is a completely different vibe, and not at all appropriate for dancing in a mostly dark kitchen in Paris?

I did not seek out the leaked Tortured Poets Department tracks, or even stay up late on Thursday watching the Spotify countdown timer tick down to zero, but I did listen to the new album on my way to the grocery store on Friday morning. I did not hear the hits! I heard the Post Malone song, and the Florence song, and a bunch of other songs that sounded quite a bit like each other. I walked into Hy-Vee listening to “Fortnight” and walked out with three oranges, two mangoes, and “Cornelia Street” playing through my headphones. I read the NME review, which concluded:

To a Melbourne audience of her Eras Tour, Swift said that ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ came from a “need” to write. It’s just that maybe we didn’t need to hear it.

Was this fair? Yes, I thought. It was fair. I read other, and more personally vexed takes on Reddit, many of which united on a central theme: Taylor had never matured in an appropriate and agreed-upon way of how a person’s maturation should unfold, though whether the blame fell to her status as a cosseted billionaire, or as a cosseted young star — was unknown. This was why she could only write songs about heartache or romantic foibles; no “I’ve been selling my soul working all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay” from her. The album was not, in fact, about her longtime love, Joe Alwyn, and it would not function as a bookend to the album focused on their promising relationship, Lover. Instead, it was mostly about Matty Healy, of The 1975, the sort of person who says racist things on podcasts and about whom people tweet “What is wrong with this fucking guy” and 4800 people take a second out of their day to agree with them.

Matty and Taylor’s public relationship was brief. They had first connected in 2014, exchanging phone numbers; nine years later, in May 2023 — a month after the public end to the Alwyn relationship — they were photographed together in Nashville. (BTW if you google “matty taylor timeline” you will get 7.25 million results. This is the one I consulted.) The most empathetic comment put the question thusly: What if throughout the sad, slow end of her relationship with Joe Alwyn, Taylor had kept the idea of Matty Healy alive in her heart, a little flame nurtured carefully into a sort of guide light? What if throughout the end of that relationship, she had been led forward not quite into the unknown, but into a more exciting and dynamic and new relationship, with Healy? And what if it all blew up shortly thereafter? It’s the better, longer narrative: Joe was not the end of the story, but only the preamble, the set up to the fairy tale. Only that guy’s kind of a dick, maybe.

Can you imagine the disappointment? The way that that dream had sustained you through the end of a failing relationship, and you get there, only to realize it was vapor?

This, I think, is the disconnect between Taylor and the disappointed listeners in Taylor’s audience when it comes to this album: the incredulity that that guy should have been the cause of all this. He has not been relegated to footnotes. He got the whole fucking thing, and the NY Mag stories like ‘Is The Tortured Poets Department Really About Matty Healy?

The answer, obviously, is yes, and no one likes it, because Matty Healy seems like he sucks, and we’ve all had that friend who wouldn’t stop talking about that guy. The flavor of that guy is different: Maybe he’s not saying shitty things about Ice Spice. Maybe he’s sleeping on his ex-girlfriend’s couch (what?) or says he wants to keep things low-key because he’s moving to a commune in Bali. “That guy?” we say. “Are you serious?”

Long relationships can end with nothing left to say — and, presumably, no songs left to write. The almost-guy relationships, though — you have so much to say! You have so much to say to that guy! To your friends! (“I look unstable, gathered with a coven around a sorceress’ table.”) To anyone who will listen! Because unlike your boyfriend of six years, the almost-guy wasn’t obligated to stay and listen, whether as a matter of courtesy or hope or obligation! The almost-guy felt possibly none of those things! He’s probably got his own stuff to deal with! Of course Taylor is going feral! Of course all these songs sound the same! As all of us who’ve loved and lost an almost-person will know, a huge part of these relationships are spent trying to understand what the fuck just happened! And nearly all 31 songs on this double album are precisely that! Trying to understand how someone just swooped in and destroyed your life and then poofed fucking right off the stage!

In this context, the point is not the hits: The point is the gestalt, the whole; the point is that you can start enter this album like a body of water, travel through different temperatures, and exit it, having only swum through a single body of water. No wonder the album is so replete with references to poetry and writing — I know people criticize her for her prominently, and pridefully, displayed songwriter’s badge, but this is mostly misogyny, and what else was she supposed to do? Run it out? Start a career as a boxer? Throw pottery, move to the ocean? What do people do when they need to metabolize their heartbreak? Taylor is a writer, so she wrote about it: endlessly, discursively, repetitively, beautifully. I love this album. I love that you can swim in it for hours, and that it is telling us the same thing in 100 different ways: He blew her up from the inside out, and she’s still figuring out what the fuck happened.

I am also a writer, and I have written two books. I have had long and substantial relationships, but I have not written about them. My first book, which I wrote in my early 20s, was mostly about a man I dated for a little under two months, and who then slept with my boss. (I say “then,” as if these events were sequential, but I mean “while dating me.”) Why did he do this? Didn’t he ever like me? Didn’t he like me more than Fiona, at least? And if I may quote myself, from a different story, but appropriate here: “The question was not terrible only because it was terrible; it was terrible because she could not solve it, and so she kept asking. It occupied her mind like a song she could not place, played endlessly and at an incredible volume.” 

This album is that process: an investigation, a trial conducted with the accused in absentia, with no hope for justice. At least there seems to be little hope for love in the songs themselves, which is, in my opinion, Taylor’s gift to us, since we all saw what happened after Matty Healy departed the stage. Yes, there are some apparent references to Travis Kelce, including “You know how to ball, I know Aristotle” from “So High School.” But there aren’t many. Maybe TTPD was the album she had to write to get right with herself, and start a new life with a football player. I bet when the next new album comes around, we’ll look back at this one with a sense of loss, and newer, hotter takes on the TTPD-era Taylor, the one who offered us a magnifying glass to dissect her broken heart. I bet her next album with have fun beats, and cool remixes, and very little to say about Travis and their lives together. As every writer knows, you keep the good ones to yourself.

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Hi, I'm Diana. I've written about travel for The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, The Cut, Travel + Leisure, Outside, and lots of other places. This is my blog.