June 13, 2024 2:54 pm

The Tortured Poets Department: How Taylor Swift captured modern dating despair

For two female journalists in their 30s – who also happen to be massive Swifties – there’s a lot about Taylor Swift’s new album that rings true.

From partners who strung us along, to comfort-eating after a breakup. We’ve all been there, and pop’s biggest superstar has too.

Swift is no stranger to writing about personal subject matter. And she’s also by no means the first musician to sing about heartbreak, pain and sorrow.

But in The Tortured Poets Department, Swift pinpoints the unique 21st Century anxieties that so many of us millennials have experienced when dating.

Perhaps more than any other song on her new album, So Long, London is the real sucker punch.

“I’m pissed off you let me give you all that all that youth for free,” she laments, in a track widely thought to be about her ex-partner, Joe Alwyn.

This feels like a pivotal moment in the album. A moment so raw, that you’re stopped in your tracks.

It doesn’t matter that Swift is a world-famous musician, with A-list friends and a massive billion-dollar fortune. Beneath all of that, she’s a 34-year-old woman, who understands all too well the anxieties about running out of time to find “The One”, settle down and start a family.

Rebecca Reid Rebecca ReidRebecca Reid
Rebecca Reid says Taylor Swift has taken her “through good times and bad times”

Rebecca Reid, a Swiftie in her early 30s, told BBC News it felt like The Tortured Poets Department could have been written for her in mind.

“With So Long, London, but honestly, almost every single song, there’s so much on there about the idea that you gave somebody your youth and that you can’t get that back,” she said.

“And that’s definitely a feeling that I really resonate with.”

In another song, Take Down Bad, Swift sings: “Now I’m down bad, crying at the gym.”

Again, these are lyrics that strike a chord for many. Who hasn’t experienced the depression of a breakup, which leaves you in tears as you try to go about your everyday routine?

Other lyrics see her too depressed to get out of bed, while in Manuscripts, Swift writes about comfort-eating children’s cereal (which cereal, we found ourselves wondering).

Saira Thwaites Saira ThwaitesSaira Thwaites
Saira Thwaites has grown up with Taylor Swift

For Saira Thwaites, who’s almost 30 and a committed Swiftie, the more she listens to the tracks, the more she can relate to them.

“Her stories are so specific, and they really sum up the numbness and emptiness of a breakup,” she says.

Even when Swift’s on stage, surrounded by adoring fans during her Eras tour – a tour so successful that it’s made her a billionaire – her grief remains in place.

“Breaking down, I hit the floor / All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, ‘More’,” she sings on the deceitfully upbeat I Can Do It With A Broken Heart.

‘Swift still experiences dating despair’

“[The song] is about telling everybody you’re fine and being creative and pushing through when you’re not really giving yourself the space to heal or to grieve, that you need this,” Reid says.

“Again, that’s something that I can really resonate with because I spent the early period of my break-up single parenting, and going on TV and radio and writing books and telling everybody how great I was and how happy I was when I was, in fact, processing one of the worst traumas of my life.”

Helen Brown, a music critic at The Independent, says “a whole generation of women” have found Swift’s songs to be the soundtrack to their lives.

“Singing of the elusive lure of rings and cradles, Swift articulates the challenges facing a generation who are marrying and having children on average five years later than in the 1990s,” she tells BBC News.

“It’s equally reassuring and alarming to think that even without the financial challenges facing most people her age, Swift still experiences the dating despair of her peers.

“Like them she sounds overwhelmed by the options and describes being ghosted as she asks herself if she expects too much, or too little of herself and her partners.”

Getty Images Taylor Swift and Joe AlwynGetty Images
Swift and Alwyn at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards

In telling the story of modern dating, Swift has never held back in writing about her exes.

Many are reading her latest album as a dig in particular at Alwyn and the 1975’s Matty Healy while also touching on her current sweetheart, NFL superstar Travis Kelce.

Her intentions are laid bare from the sleeve notes for the album, in which she says: “A smirk creeps onto this poet’s face. Because it’s the worst men that I write best.”

Swift and Alwyn, an actor, split up in April 2023. When she later announced the arrival of a new album, fans immediately began to speculate it would deal with the fall-out.

Her choice of album title echoed a WhatsApp group chat that Alwyn and Normal People star Paul Mescal had, called The Tortured Man Club, adding to the speculation.

In So Long, London, she hints at wedding plans, singing: “You swore that you loved me, but where were the clues, I died on the altar waiting for the proof.”

She also revealed she was upset at having to leave London, where she’d lived with Alwyn – adding that she’d “loved” the city.

Another track, But Daddy I Love Him, is also thought to address the discourse that surrounded Swift’s reported-but-never-confirmed romance with The 1975’s lead singer Healy, last year.

Some fans felt let down by the relationship, saying that Healy – who has faced accusations of misogyny and racism in his career (all of which he denies) – was an inappropriate choice of partner.

In her song, Swift hits back, declaring: “I’d rather burn my whole life down than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning / I’ll tell you something about my good name, it’s mine alone to disgrace.”

Getty Images Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift celebrate the Chiefs' Super Bowl winGetty Images
Swift is now in a relationship with US football star Travis Kelce

But is humiliating your exes in public the right thing to do? Brown says it is “a complicated issue”.

“Swift doesn’t name anybody in these songs and her real history has always been braided with fiction. She’s a storyteller, coming from a country music tradition which has a long history of female stars calling out bad behaviour from men,” she says.

“I’d add that while Swift may take swipes at her exes, she always holds herself to account. As both the exes she appears to be addressing on this record are also songwriters, they’ve got a right to reply in their own work and I suspect they both think all’s fair in love and lyrics.”

The BBC has reached out to both Alywn – who did not respond – and Healy, who wasn’t available for comment.

So where does all of that leave Swift’s current very public relationship with Kelce?

‘Love makes Taylor behave like a kid’

Nona Uppal, another dedicated Swiftie, tells the BBC that while a lot of The Tortured Poets Department is about despair and heartbreak, it also nods to the happiness Swift feels in a new relationship, which is also something that many people can identify with.

Nona Uppal Nona UppalNona Uppal
Nona Uppal is an author and self-declared Swiftie

She points to the song So High School, which she interprets as being about Kelce as it is “all about butterflies and doing the things that kids would do in watching movies with your friends”.

“I think it just captures a whole spectrum of human emotion where love makes Taylor behave like a kid. And that to her is what love is all about,” she says.

“And I just love the level of vulnerability that captures, because I think that’s something I relate to pretty heavily.”

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