The first time I heard a Taylor Swift song, I was in elementary school. “Tim McGraw” —the single that catapulted a teenage Swift into the Billboard Hot 100—came on country radio as I was sitting in the backseat of my mom’s car. There was something magical about it: the twinkly guitar, Swift’s innate storytelling ability, the wistful framing of an already gone romance. Then, of course, the pleading chorus (“when you think happiness/I hope you think that little black dress/think of my head on your chest/and my old faded blue jeans”). Even as a little kid, it inspired something romantic in me. It made me long for the days when I, too, would have an ex who thought of me whenever a certain song came on the radio. And that was that. I was a fan.
My first concert was the Dallas stop on her Fearless tour. The first CD I purchased with my own money on a release day must’ve been Red—whose heartbreaking, Gyllenhaal-inspired ballad “All Too Well” still ranks among my favorites of Swift’s discography. I have spent hours pouring over her famous liner notes, looking for hints as to the inspiration of each song, and taking out a notebook to decode the capitalized letters. Swift’s unabashed embrace of all things feminine—the sparkly, sentimental and romantic—was inspiring to me as a kid who so deeply wanted to shrug off any accusations of sensitivity or softness. She felt like a big sister to me, a warm guide through the trials of adolescence and first love. So, why, then, did I roll my eyes when I heard she had announced her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, at the 2024 Grammys?
Taylor Swift must be the most famous person on Earth right now. Her relationship with Travis Kelce is reported on almost daily by not only tabloids but the likes of CNN and The New York Times, and is only exaggerated by Kelce’s recent Super Bowl win (for which Swift was in attendance.) When she goes out with friends, photos are immediately released to the Internet and endlessly reposted by fans on Twitter and TikTok. This month, she won her fourth Grammy for Album of the Year for 2023’s Midnights. Since the release of Evermore—the album that marks the last time I felt unadulterated interest in Swift’s music—she has released five albums (four of them re-recordings). Yet, in the midst of all of this, what might be described as the peak of her career, Swift is shockingly uninteresting to me and many others.
Some have linked this Swift fatigue to sheer overexposure, but that doesn’t ring quite true to me. While having too much of a presence in the media is certainly something that causes the public to turn on celebrities, especially women, I feel hesitant to ascribe Swift’s impending fall from grace to something so simple. After all, I never tire of hearing a new Phoebe Bridgers project—despite some fans beginning to turn on her for the sin of overexposure—and even Tik-Tok mega-star Noah Kahan’s clever re-releases of his own songs as new features has yet to grate on me. While there are valid critiques to be made of Swift’s politics (or lack thereof) and her silence on certain issues, that alone does not explain my disappointment with her not only as a person but as an artist. No—more than the intolerable feeling of having my Twitter feed clogged with opinions (good and bad) about Swift, or my discontent with her inability to follow up on the promises she made in Miss Americana—the thing that most explains my dying love for an artist who once felt like a personal friend of mine, is how incredibly boring she’s gotten.
Many fans might feel the urge to violently disagree with such a statement. How can an artist who has just garnered the approval of the Recording Academy be boring? How could a boring artist literally improve the economy of each city she visits? How could somebody boring have this many fans (and this much money) ? On the two wholly original (meaning not re-released) albums that preceded Midnights, Swift did, in fact, feel innovative. Folklore and Evermore marked not only a departure from strictly autobiographical lyricism but also an entry into a different sonic sphere. Swift brought in dad-rock The National’s Aaron Dessner (notably absent from Midnights) to help produce the albums which shifted her sound from vibrant pop into moodier folk and rock inspired sounds. This change resulted in some of Swift’s best work to date, including the deeply nostalgic “seven” and the mournful “happiness.” A bright spot in the 2020 pandemic, it felt like Swift’s music was maturing alongside her fans.
But Swift’s latest work feels like a regression, a retreat into what she knows will work for her (and make her the most money). Midnights certainly has some bangers. I won’t say I don’t occasionally angst out to “You’re On Your Own, Kid” or that the Target exclusive “Hits Different” isn’t a perfectly engineered dance hit, but most of the tracks on the album feel strikingly similar—both lyrically and sonically—to Swift’s work on previous pop albums like 1989 and Reputation. All three heavily feature Jack Antonoff’s production and the same narratives of love, fame and heartbreak. Except, Midnights was released almost a decade after both of those records—with Swift in an entirely new time in her life. Compared to the other Album of the Year competitors, the album feels particularly milquetoast. SZA’s SOS pushes R&B to its limits and features interesting collaborators, like Phoebe Bridgers and Travis Scott. Janelle Monae has always been an innovator—not only sonically and conceptually, but personally and politically. Even Olivia Rodrigo, green as she may be, experiments both lyrically and musically with her sophomore offering, Guts. So why does Swift keep winning?
In the four long years since Swift’s pandemic releases, her sound and themes have stagnated, but her marketing strategy and capitalist prowess has only improved. In response to Scooter Braun’s covert purchasing of her masters, Swift announced she would be re-recording all of her albums through 2017’s Reputation. This move is not only a #girlboss reclamation of her hard work, but is also making her millions of dollars off of music she’s already released—sometimes produced with less effort than it was originally. Her wildly successful Eras tour, too, profits off of the nostalgia of her previous work. Resale tickets for the tour have reached up to $7,000. Capitalizing off her own fan’s inability to afford such tickets, Swift also released The Era’s Tour movie, which grossed over 260 million worldwide, and will be released on Disney+ in March of this year. Swift has also released several different vinyls of each recent album— without unique features—encouraging fans to spend even more money collecting each edition. Recently, she has been in the news for sending a cease-and-desist letter to a Twitter user who has been tracking her excessive private jet usage, citing “willful and repeated harassment” — a David and Goliath conflict that only makes Swift look worse.
As a fan, it is hard to watch a star I once loved so much focus her attention more on making money than progressing as an artist. It is hard to root for someone who seems to only have her self-interest at the forefront, especially when she built a career on a more intimate relationship with her fans. And, it is hard to get excited about Swift’s new releases when every song feels like a phoned-in imitation of her own previous work. Will I listen to The Tortured Poets Department? Of course. There has yet to be a Taylor album that I have not dived into on release day (even the re-recordings), and Swift has surprised me before—whether in her first pop album (Red) or her reinvention of her own Reputation. Still, my hope is waning. I suppose I’ll have to wait till April to decide if Swift will push her art forward or continue to rest on her (very expensive) laurels.