Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ and the art of melodrama

April 24, 2024 - 3:58 PM
1006
Album cover of Taylor Swift's "The Tortured Poets Department." (Taylor Swift/Facebook)

Taylor Swift album drops have become cultural moments – whether or not you are a fan of her music. Each album in the Swift catalogue seeks to open up new themes, discussion, sounds and ideas, while retaining a sense of familiarity that doesn’t alienate fans.

Lyrically, The Tortured Poets Department is a euphoric rejection of societal expectations. It embraces all the Taylor-isms her fans have come to know and love, from her one-note melodies to her recitative delivery (sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech). And it features her signature frank and open autopsies of relationships, delivered with maturity not only in the choices of language and obscenities (“fuck you if I can’t have us”) but in Swift’s outlook on her life and relationships. This is accompanied by the rich electro-pop production of longtime collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner.

The first striking thing about the album (including its title), is the many references to poetry. The title track declares: “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith”, pointing to other famously troubled (or “tortured”) lyrical poets.

This track sets the tone for an album where lyrics are the central feature, with Swift choosing developed imagery over catchy pop hooks. The title track is also a clear rejection of any notion that Swift is presenting herself as a bohemian, and asserts that she does not struggle for her art. In fact, she appears to mock those who do, sneering: “Who uses typewriters anyway?”

Tortured melodrama

One of the unapologetic lyrical themes of the album is Swift’s intense commitment to love, relationships and their aftermath. To help convey this, Swift uses melodrama as a narrative device. Melodrama is a genre of performance that uses heightened and often over-the-top expressions of emotion.

In Down Bad she evokes fantastic celestial imagery of “cosmic love” and being “heavenstruck”, but balances this with discovering the harsh realities of a relationship. She asks: “Did you really beam me up / In a cloud of sparkling dust
/ Just to do experiments on?”, perhaps suggesting that her passionate love is being taken advantage of.

Swift tempers this with the extreme assertion that: “If I can’t have him, I might just die”. This melodrama pervades the rest of the album to celebrate emotional vulnerability as she shares her innermost thoughts.

On I Can Do it With a Broken Heart Swift declares: “I’m so depressed, I act like it’s my birthday every day”, before proudly owning her emotion, declaring: “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art”. Here, she claims that she can use heartbreak as a stimulus for creativity, rather than allow it to dictate her everyday life.

In his book Melodrama (1973) author, James L Smith draws on philosophical critiques and analyses of music, poetry and theatre to help define the core characteristics of the genre. “In melodrama,” he explains, “man remains undivided, free from the agony of choosing between conflicting imperatives and desires”.

Swift often exhibits this in her lyrical retellings of past relationships, either positioning listeners at the beginning (Enchanted) or end of a relationship (We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together).

Smith also asserts that “melodrama presses its own extreme conflicts to extreme conclusions”. This speaks to the extremes of emotion explored in The Tortured Poets Department, including frequent references to death. “I might just die, it would make no difference”, Swift opines on Down Bad. “Lights, camera, bitch, smile / Even when you wanna die” is how she describes her emotional state during the recent Eras Tour in I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.

Art forms like songs and poetry can be extremely valuable for artists to process and channel their emotions. Not only does this seem to hold true for The Tortured Poets Department, but the album functions as something of an invitation for listeners to process their own grief and heartbreak alongside Swift. An “alchemy” that turns for her own “tortured” nights into communal therapy.The Conversation


Samuel Murray, Lecturer in Music, University of Liverpool

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.