c/o Taylor Swift

c/o Taylor Swift

In a cross talk, two writers sit down to discuss a book, movie, TV show, or piece of art they both feel strongly about. Sometimes they disagree; other times, they’re in perfect harmony. Here, News Editor Rose Chen ’26 and Editor-in-Chief Sam Hilton ’24 discuss The Tortured Poets Department, the 11th studio album of international superstar Taylor Swift.

Sam Hilton: I think we should preface by saying that we’re probably not gonna be able to talk about all 31 songs on the album. It’s a lot.

Rose Chen: It is, and this ties in with my primary critique for this album, which is that Taylor Swift really needed an editor.

SH: It’s oversaturation.

RC: Absolutely, and she needs to depart from Jack Antonoff.

SH: I’m tired of his bullshit; the songs that were written and produced by Aaron Dessner are so much better. That said, what were your favorites and least favorites? 

RC: This is probably very revealing, but I’ve been listening to “The Smallest Man who Ever Lived” on repeat. I also had a friend text me a few days after the album dropped and say, “‘I Can Do It With a Broken Heart’ reminded me of you, but not in a concerning way.” It’s both true and upsetting. Either way, I think, in general, this first part of the album is a miss for me.

SH: All of it?

RC: Not all of it, but I think “Florida!!!” in particular is a huge miss for me.

SH: Oh, I love it.

RC: I love Florence on it. I think Florence outshines Taylor here, and on a Taylor Swift album, that’s a sin.

SH: “Florida!!!” was gonna be one of my two or three faves [on this album]. I’ve been listening to it on repeat so much. It’s also partially because it sounds different. It doesn’t sound like the Midnights-ified shimmer pop that a lot of the rest of the start of the album is, and I like that. I agree that Florence outshines, but I don’t see that as a problem. I think as a song, it’s good. Perhaps within the album, it doesn’t fit that well.

RC: For sure—there are a lot of twists and turns in this album, and it makes it feel less cohesive as an album than her previous work. What I’ve come to appreciate about Taylor Swift albums is that often, she’s a very strong and precise storyteller. And in this case, it’s just not.

SH: And she’s been very careful because after Red [(2012)], she got all those critiques that it wasn’t cohesive enough. So everything from then on has been very cohesive, and this feels like sort of a return to the ups and downs, but Red has a charm to it that I just think this album doesn’t.

RC: Exactly. I think this album’s issue is the Matty Healy of it all.

SH: I’m not gonna lie, I don’t understand why she wrote so many songs about that rat bastard.

RC: Unfortunately, I do. Situationships offer a lot of artistic potential. How do you feel about “So Long, London?”

SH: I thought it was fine. I would have put “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” as the track five. I think “So Long, London” was trying really hard to be a stereotypical Taylor Swift track five, if that makes sense. We’ve gotten to a point where a lot of Taylor Swift’s music is made in reference to or in follow-up to other music that she’s already made.

RC: When I first listened to this album, I really didn’t like it—but honestly, it’s grown on me the more I listened to it. At the same time, there were and are standout songs, but the production makes so much of the album feel monotonous and messy.

SH: I really like “Clara Bow” and “The Alchemy.” I thought that one was really cute.

RC: “The Alchemy” is so silly. It’s a really cute song, but it’s Taylor Swift putting in every sports metaphor she can think of.

SH: Speaking of, how do we feel about “So High School?” Because I love “So High School.” The bridge? “You know how to ball / I know Aristotle?”

RC: Yes, “So High School” is much better than “The Alchemy.” I think it’s interesting, though, because both “So High School” and “The Alchemy” also point to another trend in her songwriting that I’ve really started to notice on this album: Taylor Swift really loves using metaphors.

SH: It’s all metaphors.

RC: It’s all metaphors, but she doesn’t seem to cull the ones that are too obvious, too already-done. She doesn’t show much restraint on this album, it’s very self-indulgent, and the tired images draw away from the good ones. If she wants to be a poet, editing is part of the work.

SH: Sure, I get that. Someone who didn’t like the album was talking to me about this and said something that I found really interesting: For a lot of Taylor Swift’s music, what has been a boon for her is that her music applies to her, but you can apply the songs to your life first and foremost. And this album feels less like that. This album feels more clearly hint-hint, nudge-nudge about things that we know happened to her—the example I’m thinking of here is how “thanK you aIMee” is so clearly about Kim Kardashian, to the point that it spells Kim in the title. And if you’re listening to it, you have to actively detach yourself from that to apply it to yourself, as opposed to before, you had to actually detach it from applying it to yourself to think about how it played into Taylor Swift’s life.

RC: This is very clearly a by-Taylor for-Taylor album, and I don’t begrudge her that development in her songwriting. But I’ve seen her potential in songwriting albums like folklore [(2020)] and evermore [(2020)], and she does her own work a disservice by allowing this album to conform to a more conventional pop sound. I love when she takes risks, and her talent suffers so much from the production and the excessiveness of having 31 tracks.

SH: It’s a lot. I think she’s trying out new ways [to release a lot] of these songs and I don’t think this was effective.

RC: The whole double album theorizing has been so continuous over the last few years—mostly in reference to her re-records, but also with Midnights—and this secret double album seems to be a response to those demands.

SH: This is gonna make Swiftie theorists feel so justified for the next 20 years.

RC: But it would have been a much stronger album if she took the best of these songs and decided these were the only ones going on the album, and that’s it.

SH: What do you think of “Fortnight” being the lead single? It was a choice.

RC: It was definitely a choice. I have no very real familiarity with Post Malone besides his appearance on Good Mythical Morning, so maybe I’m not as hyped for it as some people are. “But Daddy, I Love Him” really would have been a better single.

SH: Or “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.”

RC: “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” I think, is the obvious one, and I think that’s probably the one that will stream the best out of any of these songs.

SH: What’s your least favorite of the songs that you’re familiar with?

RC: I’ve heard a lot of discourse about “I Hate It Here.” It’s the one with the 1830s lyric. It’s a fine song—it’s not as bad as people are making it out to be—but I do think it’s a really weird lyric. 

SH: Because the bit is that she’s trying to make her friends uncomfortable in the song, right? And the lyrics are like, “What decades should we live in?” And she says, “I’d say 1830s, but without the racism,” and they’d all look at the ground or whatever. But the joke did not land, Taylor, and you should have known that joke would not land.

RC: She’s a billionaire white woman. It doesn’t work. And more importantly, the lyric feels worse because so much of the album is very Americana and the 1830s was a very specifically bad time in the United States. You can’t separate the racism from that time period, so it’s uncomfortable for her to be referencing as if that’s possible.

SH: I didn’t love “Fresh Out the Slammer,” and I really hate to say this: I think my least favorite might be “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me.” It would be so much better if it didn’t have the “You should be.” That’s the one that I’m like, when I listen to it, I roll my eyes to the back of my head.

RC: Also, titling your album The Tortured Poets Department gives it a certain aesthetic that she’s clearly capitalized on. And to have the title track say, “This is not the Tortured Poets Department” was an interesting choice.

SH: She didn’t have to have a title track. You could have made the title of this track “Nobody,” Taylor.  

RC: Speaking of, her track names—so Lana Del Rey.

SH: She’s getting more Lana Del Rey in some ways and not enough in other ways. My biggest takeaway from this album, I think, is that she had this six-year relationship that everybody and their mother thought was going to be the end of Taylor Swift dating—

RC: I didn’t. She was dating a Pisces man.

SH: Okay. Everyone and their mother, except for Rose, thought this relationship was going to be the one where she was going to ride off into the sunset. And then it ended, and it feels like all that pain fell flat. I feel like I get more emotion in relation to Joe from “You’re Losing Me” than I do in a lot of songs on this album. I think “You’re Losing Me” is one of her best and most tragic and heartbreaking songs, and I don’t find any of the same heartbreak in this album. I think she used it up.

RC: Right. It could also be that the pain is so raw for her that she can’t write about it yet.

SH: I was gonna say the opposite, that it feels like it just dribbled out and died. What are your final takeaways from this album?

RC: Some hits, missing the tortured poetry.

SH: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think my final takeaway is Taylor Swift needs to revitalize her sound. It’s also crazy to me, just in terms of genre, that Taylor released an album so much like Midnights sonically in the same month as Beyonce released Cowboy Carter [(2024)], which is such a reinvention of genre, such a groundbreaking, into-the-mainstream change of what country music is as a concept. And this feels like more of the same of what we’ve been getting from Taylor, which is fine, it’s just a little disappointing to see that she’s staying at this level.

RC: Absolutely. At this point in her career, it almost feels like she’s afraid to take risks. It is imperative to mature and develop as an artist, especially with Taylor Swift being a businesswoman who expects fans to buy her merch and several variants of her album. It’s hard to justify a $40 vinyl if it sounds exactly like her previous music.

SH: Where would you put this in your ranking of Taylor Swift albums after just a week of listening?

RC: Okay, I want to preface this by saying Midnights was immediately my favorite album of hers, but I think this is my least favorite ever. While there are definitely songs that break my top 10 of Taylor Swift songs ever, the album is as a whole, a miss for me.

SH: The Tortured Poets Department is definitely in my bottom half, but it’s not my bottom. I would rather listen to songs off this than off most of evermore and Fearless.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sam Hilton can be reached at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

Rose Chen can be reached at rchen@wesleyan.edu.