Good News for Taylor Swift (and Other Tortured Poets)

Serena Wang

“I’ve never had an album where I needed songwriting more than I needed it on Tortured Poets.”

That’s what Taylor Swift told concertgoers during a recent Eras Tour performance in Melbourne, promising a differentiated vulnerability from her other records. Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department, broke Spotify’s streaming records, reaching a record high of 300 million streams in one day. Fans flocked to listen to the songwriter’s self-proclaimed tortured poetry, which covers the details of her relationships in the past few years.

Throughout the album, she attempts to convey her emotional angst through experimental words, even playing with religious jargon with song titles such as “Guilty as Sin?” Though I disagree with her usage of these spiritual terms, I do see her honest effort to find the right words to describe her feelings. To twinkly synths dazzling among muted beats, Swift readily dishes a string of metaphors to provide shape to her amorphous experiences. But the album presents, at best, a weak vulnerability that fails to explore the true depths of pain, heartbreak, and disappointment. The lyrics are timidly strung together to accommodate the music, which makes the supposed cry of her heart instead sound like a barely audible whisper, without the strength to rise above the noise. And maybe that’s intentional. Yet there is a layer of vulnerability and a part of Taylor Swift that is left unprocessed: a deep longing for love.

All 31 songs on the anthology album wrestle with this longing in some way. The collection opens with “Fortnight,” which alludes to a short-lived love affair that doesn’t last. Swift also comes up empty-handed in “Down Bad,” where she is left stranded by her lover and wallows in heartbreak. Her songs oscillate between succumbing to the weight of heartbreak, harboring resentment, and assuming self-empowerment and confidence. This aligns with the typical steps of processing grief, but as a listener who is given a glimpse into her inner soul, I am still concerned whether or not she is fully recovered from the pain of her relationships. The Tortured Poets Department sits squarely in the conclusion that she is tortured; there isn’t any definitive hope or experience to state she feels securely loved. Therefore, she is left wandering and grasping to find someone who will love her and keep the promises of forever.

We all share this longing to be loved and known. For Christians, even as we hope to experience it in our earthly relationships, we ultimately rest in knowing that this desire can only fully be met by God. When taking a second look at the songs on The Tortured Poets Department, we get a glimpse of the type of love Taylor Swift is looking for: a love that doesn't toy with her; a love that doesn’t ask her to be someone she’s not; a love that proves itself through action; and a love that keeps its promises. Let’s explore how her hopes for love can be met by the love of God.

A love that doesn’t treat you like a toy

Taylor Swift introduces upbeat, cotton-candy pop beats in “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys,” a song that reduces her worth to that of a toy that is played with, destroyed, broken, and tossed away. But she doesn’t seem to mind; in fact, she confidently believes “once I fix me, he’s gonna miss me.” She even remains on call to “play again.” God’s love, however, never makes us feel like we need to fix ourselves in order to be loved. On the contrary, we are loved even with our sins and flaws! We are not reduced to toys that are played with, broken, and discarded once we’ve served a purpose. Instead, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” even called children of God.

A love that doesn’t ask you to be someone you aren’t

I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” exposes how Swift’s external persona does not match her inner feelings. She can “show you lies” and “smile even when you wanna die.” She concludes that she’s miserable, bitterly laughing that no one even knows the depths of her pain. But God searches our minds and knows our hearts. He isn’t easily fooled by the deception and false self that we might present. As Samuel was told, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” In Genesis 16, Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, was mistreated by Sarah and fled to the desert. The angel of the Lord met Hagar in the desert and provided her with a sense of hope and promise, to which Hagar declares, “You are the God who sees me.” God can see past the facade and get to the heart of the matter of what we are truly feeling and the ways that we are hurting, making us feel known and understood.

A love that proves itself through action

In “So Long, London,” Taylor Swift snakes through each line with icy delivery, softly muttering under her breath, “You swore that you loved me, but where were the clues? I died on the altar waitin’ for the proof.” Whereas her ex-boyfriend may have expressed love in talk but not action, God proved his love for us in a very tangible way: by sending his one and only beloved son to the cross for our sake. Jesus’ death ushered in a new era of righteousness, one that is based on faith rather than law, opening the kingdom of God to all who would accept this gift of grace.

A love that keeps its promises

loml” differentiates itself from the rest of the tracks by employing instrumental piano over synth beats. Its lowercase sound prepares us for Taylor’s quiet reflection on a past relationship. She likens her ex-boyfriend to a “con man [who] sells a fool a get-love-quick scheme.” She mourns the death of a “counterfeit” love. She’s “combing through the braids of lies” that tell her he’ll “never leave.” In contrast, God doesn’t give half-hearted promises. God promises Abraham that he’ll become a father of nations—which is unlikely, giving Abraham and Sarah’s ages. Yet Isaac is born. Before Jesus’ ascension, he promises that God will send the Holy Spirit to be with us forever; in Acts 2, the disciples receive the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. No matter how grand or unbelievable the promise, God is faithful to keep his promises, as both the psalmist and the author of Hebrews remind us.

God’s love is a love that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” This is the love that every tortured poet needs.

Topics: Music