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Good Taylor and Bad Taylor both show up on ‘Tortured Poets Department’

Taylor swift tour

Brian Friedman | Shutterstock

Tom Hoopes - published on 04/22/24

Taylor Swift the poet has earned plenty of criticism, but at her best, she is capable of painting a picture in a few well-chosen words.

I have followed Taylor Swift’s entire career. I had to. I have four daughters. My oldest became a teenager the year Taylor’s first studio album was released and my youngest is a teenager now, as Swift releases her 10th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department. 

I’ve also appreciated her talent. I’ve been overjoyed when she was “Good Taylor,” the wholesome face of modern music, and dismayed when she was “Bad Taylor,” proving to be as casually obscene as other pop stars. And I’ve been impressed by the volume and quality of her work.

And I can tell you that for the last several years, Good and Bad Taylor have been vying to take the front place — but now one of them, increasingly, seems to be taking over. 

First, I think it’s undeniable that, tortured or not, Taylor Swift is a good poet.

Taylor Swift the poet has earned plenty of criticism, but at her best, she is capable of painting a picture in a few well-chosen words, like when she describes happy middle-class family life as “Living room dancing and kitchen-table bills,” in I Bet You Think About Me, and how breaking up feels — “You called me up again just to break me like a promise” — in All Too Well. She has even been able to describe the indescribable pain of miscarriage.

Taylor the poet is there on the new album. The song Florida!!!, contrasts single and married people in 2024 America with, “My friends all smell like weed or little babies.” On “loml” she discovers someone isn’t the “love of my life” after all by saying, “Your impressionist paintings of heaven turned out to be fakes.” She is also often wise, as when she observes that “Growing up precocious sometimes means Not growing up at all.”

Second, Swift’s vocabulary is sophisticated.

Pop music tends to lower, not raise, the vocabulary of its listeners, but not Swift. 

An online “Taylor Swift dictionary” helps her audience understand words in her songs they may not have heard before, such as “gauche,” “opacity,” “periphery,”  and “ingénue,” as well as references to Midas and Machiavelli. 

Now, Tortured Poets Department words need to be added — uncommon words like “fortnight,” “alchemy,” “tendrils,” and “saboteurs” along with references to the poet Dylan Thomas, the prophetess Cassandra, and the silent film star Clara Bow.

But, third, “Bad Taylor” sometimes chooses words that short-circuit thinking.

Taylor Swift used to be a reliably clean alternative to the frequent obscenities in pop music, but that’s no longer the case.

A wise man formed my view of profanity when I was 14 by pointing out that bad words mean bad thinking. It is sad when someone like Swift, who is capable of real rhetorical power, settles for “shocking,” the cheap substitute for “powerful.”

The “F-word,” for instance, is uttered 29 times on Tortured Poets Department. That’s almost triple the number on her last album, and more than 10 times the number on the album before that. She had never used it before in her career, apart from the unreleased version of a song.

Swift is increasingly unwilling to find more truly descriptive language and increasingly willing to coarsen our already coarse culture.

Fourth, there are some pretty good things about Taylor and Travis …

In the new song “So High School,” Swift agrees with those who say her relationship with Travis Kelce feels like our national prom queen is dating our national football star. 

There is plenty to criticize about the relationship, and the moral stances taken by both of them. But there are also some extremely positive aspects to point out. Yes, he opens and closes her car door for her, but more important than that is that the Kelce family and the Swift family have been part of their courtship from the start.

In fact, all of Swift’s relationship drama seem counterculturally normal. I watched her Eras Tour in the movie theater, and was struck by two things: 

One, Swift goes out of her way to show strong support for the kind of gender theory and irregular relationships that Church teaching sees as unhealthy. 

Two, all that is overpowered by the relationship drama in her songs and in her life, which are all about traditional marriage and family. One could even say traditional marriage haunts her (and pop music in general).

Spotifys-Taylor-Swift-pop-up-at-The-Grove-for-her-new-album-The-Tortured-Poets-Departmen-AFP

but, fifth, there are signs that “Bad Taylor” is winning.

There is a longstanding double-standard in pop music: Men only need talent and luck to be successful. Women often need that, and good looks and a willingness to dress seductively.

Taylor Swift is no different. She undeniably has talent, but she spends much of her Eras concert wearing very little, and has left the billowing dresses of her early career behind in favor of the suggestive, underwear-only cover picture on her newest album.

In a music video, Taylor once cleverly portrayed past versions of herself — Good and Bad Taylors — criticizing each other.

It seems they are arguing still — will Taylor be the Eras entertainer or the Tortured Poet? Will she be the sophisticated folk singer or the winner of the Catching Kelce reality TV show? 

Until she figures it out, count me as one Catholic dad who strongly urges caution.

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