The release of Taylor Swift’s 11th studio album The Tortured Poets Department has set up a labyrinth for fans to explore, ensnarling many in its tangle of newfound gossip. During this album’s initial listen many, who weren’t Swift bootlickers, came away feeling overwhelmed and breathless, long before the surprise drop of the additional 15 seconds in “The Anthology.” 

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 04: Taylor Swift accepts the Album Of The Year award for “Midnights” onstage during the 66th GRAMMY Awards at Arena on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The Recording Academy )

While everything seemed to click for some fans—the timelines, the analogies, the metaphors, and even the blatant name-dropping in songs like “thanK you aIMee”—some were left feeling somewhat dazed. Swift dove headfirst into the persona of the ‘tortured poet,’ showcasing rapid lyricism and tongue twisters that will undoubtedly keep fans busy for weeks trying to memorize. However, within the Swiftie community, there’s a clear divide in levels of interest. 

On the one hand, you have the casual Swifties, who appreciate her songs for their craftsmanship, storytelling, and melodies alone. On the other hand, there are the more dedicated Swifties, whose levels of devotion vary from mild interest to extreme obsession, bordering on conspiracy theory territory. They listen to her music for the same reasons as casual fans, but with an added layer of excitement in deciphering every Easter egg—of which this album has plenty.

This album is so rich in content that The Cut dedicated an entire guide to it, dissecting each of its 31 songs. They meticulously unravel every potential hidden meaning, conspiracy, and lyric choice. While the content may not be easily digestible, it provides you with the facts nonetheless.

From looking at the tracklist alone, it was safe to assume that a fair amount of songs would be about Swift’s ex-boyfriend of six years, Joe Alwyn. Songs like “So Long London” and “loml” (which turned out to stand for loss of my life) fit that narrative. But fans were later shocked to find that the rest of the album, although specifics are up for debate, is about Swift’s short-term “situationship” with Matty Healy. 

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 04: (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Taylor Swift attends the 66th GRAMMY Awards at Arena on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

It in this moment that true Swift fanatics reign supreme, seizing their rightful place. They expertly dissect every subtle hint, diving into the web of who each song might be about. Such nuanced analysis belongs solely to the depths of Swiftieism, mastered only by seasoned Swiftologists.

So where do the casual Swifties fit into this? Well, it turns out the gossip is just too good. Many turned to their social media pages, citing they weren’t interested in Swift’s personal life before, but now they have no choice but to be invested. 

Eli Rallo, writer and TikTok star, posted a video stating “I was never the kind of person that could tell you the lore, but now I’m feeling insane. My level of fan has gone from normal to abnormal, and I’m almost like who am I?” Rallo has always been a casual Swiftie, but this album has converted her to what you could call the dark side. 

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 11: Taylor Swift attends the “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” Concert Movie World Premiere at AMC The Grove 14 on October 11, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for TAS)

Some fans feel there is little space for them to commemorate this new album. With its scarcity of upbeat tunes—only “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” offering a semblance of cheer—coupled with somber lyrics, the album might not evoke the same whimsical aura as Swift’s previous projects like folklore and evermore. This album demands its listeners to become a part of what many have playfully dubbed a cult. 

That begs the question, can this album stand on its own? Or does it need the crutch of its fanbase to see the light of day?

Lindsay Zoladz, pop critic for The New York Times, says the album is “unrestrained, imprecise and unnecessarily verbose.” She even goes on the suggest that Swift’s relationship with Jack Antonoff, her long-time producer, is what’s holding Swift back, stating that the production “suggests their partnership has become too comfortable and risks growing stale.” Zoladz’s final verdict? “The sharpest moments of The Tortured Poets Department would be even more piercing in the absence of excess,” matching the critiques of the masses. The album is too long with too much verbiage. God forbid a song has lyrics. 

However, The New Yorker said it best in their review, which leaned towards cultural analysis, “The tepid music reviews often miss the fact that ‘music’ is something that Swift stopped selling long ago.” In the weeks since the album’s release and people have had a chance to fully digest its 31 songs, critics are beginning to change their tune. You can’t write a real review about Swift’s music because Swift isn’t making music for you, the critic. 

With her immense following and still flourishing at 34, Swift finds herself at the pinnacle of her career. She no longer needs to cater to the masses as her devoted audience consistently propels her to the top of the charts. Currently, Swift holds the top 14 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 and has made history as the sole artist to debut 31 songs simultaneously on the chart, all despite critics lamenting her lyrical verbosity.

Inglewood, CA – August 07: Fans enjoy Taylor Swift’s performance during The Eras Tour at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood Monday, Aug. 7, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Ben Sisario, also a pop critic for the Times, comprehends Swift’s vision well: “Over the years, I’ve trained myself to view Taylor Swift’s work through the eyes of her fans — that’s crucial for understanding Swift, whose connection with her listeners is at the root of her success, and it’s also become part of the art itself.”

The success of her Eras Tour, including a concert film, and streaming contract with Disney, proves that Swift waits for no critic. She leans into what she does best, writing songs about narratives woven from personal experience, with occasional traces of bitterness, depicting heartbreak in vivid detail.

Luckily for the Swifties and critics alike who weren’t fans of The Tortured Poets Department, you have the rest of her discography, all ten albums, to enjoy. 

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