The Tortured Poets Department Is The Dark Souls Of Taylor Swift Albums


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In the days after the April 19 release of The Tortured Poets Department, the latest album from Taylor Swift, I came across a presentation explaining the artist’s relationship with 1975 frontman Matty Healy. It is over one hundred pages long, and it’s not the only presentation, video, or article of its kind. Fans are clamoring for some explanation as to what is going on in TTPD, an album that is more abrasive to Swift’s fanbase than anything she’s ever released. For many it’s a confusing, off-putting experience, one that requires a deep dive to understand. Like Dark Souls, it’s about the lore.

For longtime fans of Swift, that might not sound like anything new. She’s long had a flair for the dramatic. Since 2008’s Fearless, Swift has pulled tricks like hiding messages in her CD lyric books. As her career has skyrocketed, now at its highest point ever, Swift has evolved her love of deception and mystery. Hidden tracks, hints at new albums, and more are all par for the course for Swift. It’s something that her fanbase, Swifties, love. It turns music fandom into a game that keeps you involved not just when new albums and singles drop but every time Swift does anything, because if you aren’t paying attention you could miss the next big clue. “I’ve trained them to be that way,” Swift said of her fans in a 2019 interview with Entertainment Weekly.


It’s a lot like how Dark Souls, and other games by developer FromSoftware, approach their storytelling. Dark Souls has a story, fans will enthusiastically insist, you just have to know where to look. Typically, that means item descriptions. There are entire worlds full of stories and characters in FromSoftware’s titles, but most of it is never directly told to you. You must hunt it down. The surface level of the game is typically based on vibes alone. That is a simplification to be sure, but it’s an effective way to summarize how Dark Souls approaches its storytelling. But if Swift has been doing this for over a decade, what is so special about The Tortured Poets Department?


A knight faces down a large red dragon


One of Swift’s greatest strengths as an artist has always been her ability to tell a story through music. Be it in early albums or across the genres she’s dabbled in, from pop to country and everything in between, Swift is a storyteller. It’s part of what made tracks like “Love Story” (from Fearless) so popular, and subsequently helped her rise to fame. This skill is most evident in the 2020 sister albums Folklore and Evermore. While the albums still retain some of her more autobiographical songwriting, they more often than not show Swift breaking out of her own perspective. Folklore especially is much more of a conceptual album, with a throughline in multiple songs about a love triangle at different stages. This lets her penchant for emotional tracks dealing with falling in and out of love, as well as heartbreak, take on a new life. It’s Swift crafting a world and a narrative. Rather than put her emotions directly into song, she can funnel them through a new lens to serve a story.

The Tortured Poets Department, on the other hand, lacks that authorial intent. That isn’t to say there isn’t a point to the album, it’s just more musically and narratively messy. Rather than the tour-de-force breakup album about longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn that fans expected TTPD to be, the album is much more about her infatuation with 1975 frontman Matty Healy and her fans’ reaction to it. For those who don’t know, Healy and Swift began dating in May of 2023. When the couple first emerged together, Swifties disapproved. Healy had gotten in trouble for a series of controversies around perceived racist behavior. By June of 2023, the couple had broken up. TTPD is largely a chronicle of Swift’s strong feelings for Healy, for better and worse. The track “But Daddy I Love Him” is about Swift’s anger at fans for ridiculing her choice of partner as not being proper, despite her love for him.


Swift is often reductively viewed as a musician who just makes music about her relationships, and many of her best songs clearly do mine her experiences with past lovers. But if it’s true that TTPD is another relationship-focused record from Swift, the relationship she’s processing here is the one she has with her fanbase. This conflict between Swift and her fans is central to TTPD. It’s an album about what it means to “make it” thanks to your fanbase, only for that fanbase to become the judge, jury, and executioner of your love, life, and music career. It’s understandable why fans who have invested so much in the fandom are put off by it.

To return to the Souls metaphor, audiences often don’t know how to deal with art that demands to be met on its own terms when those terms mean being abrasive to the audience itself. While the Souls games have flourished since Demon Souls was first released in 2009, they have a reputation for chewing up players who aren’t willing to “git gud.” If you’ve only played games that are about fulfilling player gratification and meeting your every need, Dark Souls will lay your ass out. It’s a lesson in being humble. So is The Tortured Poets Department. It’s an album that asks fans to consider that their parasocial relationship with Swift may not be for her benefit. The last track on the album, “Clara Bow,” reckons with this devil’s bargain Swift has made with her fans for stardom.


This conflict also has Swift turning TTPD into a musically inconsistent album that (in its anthology form) includes 31 tracks, with few songs that feel like epic ballads or radio-ready hits. “Maybe this sucks, maybe it’s not what you think I should do, what are you going to do about it?” Swift seems to ask. Especially grating tracks like “Florida!!!” are akin to the notorious poison swamps of many FromSoftware games. It’s an incredibly risky yet confident statement from Swift that makes me see TTPD in a more positive light. As Giovanni Colantonio writes on Medium, “It may very well be the most hostile mainstream pop record we’ll ever see from an artist at this level of public attention.” But this boldness also lacks musical cohesion, and the album falls flat to the ears—leaving both Swift and her fans to fall back on lore as a crutch.

The Tortured Poets Department leaves fans craving more, and after so many years of hidden messages, the only way to satisfy that urge is to dive into the lore. It has turned TTPD into the pinnacle of the fandom culture of Swifties. An equal, if not greater, amount of time can be spent reading and watching explainers about the album than actually listening to it in hopes of uncovering more secrets, just as many FromSoft fans will spend time watching VaatiVidya explainers about the latest Souls game or reading the 107-page fan-made lore bible for Bloodborne.


But where Souls fans seek to unearth and contemplate meaning, Swifties seemingly are seeking to look for something beyond the obvious surface meaning of The Tortured Poets Department. Its prickly challenge to fans makes it a hard pill to swallow. So, instead, lore gets the focus. Because lore goes down smoother.


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