Is ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Taylor Swift’s Most Controversial Album Ever?

Three days after its release, how’s the double album landing? And was Swift’s approach to this highly personal project successful? Nora Princiotti and Nathan Hubbard discuss on ‘Every Single Album.’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At midnight on Friday, Taylor Swift released her 11th album, The Tortured Poets Department—a collection of 16 raw and vulnerable songs, partially about the end of her long-term relationship with Joe Alwyn, but mostly about the emotionally frenetic period that came next, including a high-profile and fraught tryst with the 1975’s Matty Healy, all while Swift was embarking on her massive Eras Tour. Then at 2 a.m. on Friday, Swift dropped another album: TTPD: The Anthology, with 15 more songs. The entire collection, written and produced mostly with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, runs just over two hours. On the latest Every Single Album, Nora Princiotti and Nathan Hubbard discuss the entire project—their favorite songs, the tracks that didn’t land, her collaborations, and what could be coming next. In this excerpt, Princiotti and Hubbard discuss the midnight release, the huge 2 a.m. surprise, and their reactions to the 31-song album. You can listen to the full conversation here and subscribe for upcoming episodes discussing TTPD.

Nora Princiotti: I think the thing that made me just feel a little bit, not glum, that’s too much—but where those feelings were coming from was this kernel of worry of, “Oh gosh, Taylor Swift album releases are like a holiday for me. It’s a high holy day on the calendar. Is this one not going to be fun or not going to be as fun?” And I am absolutely here to say to you that I had a really fucking good time.

Nathan Hubbard: I agree. I thought the same way. And the reason, the pro case for releasing it so late is that all of the riffraff goes to sleep. The real ones are the ones who stay up. And that’s where the social platforms and just all of the back and forth is so much fun because it’s just this—

Princiotti: The tweets were so good.

Hubbard: Yes. Yes. As somebody who started at Twitter pre-IPO, whose heart has been broken into pieces, I’m going to write 31 songs about this, about the state of the platform. It served its purpose on Thursday night, early Friday morning. It was wonderful. And you know what? It makes you feel more connected to human beings. It makes you feel less alone. It’s a wonderful experience.

Princiotti: No, people were getting their jokes off. It was so fun. It was also, it’s just silly that everyone’s up at 2 o’clock in the morning together. I am so happy to say that that experience, which really, since the sort of pandemic-era album, since Folklore, and through the rereleases to some degree but especially with Midnights, with this, the being up really late at night on the internet when everybody’s listening to Taylor Swift is incredibly fun, and it continued to be incredibly fun. So I think that’s a wonderful thing, and I’m very happy that it happened. Anything else in the way of just sort of a vibes check for you right now?

Hubbard: Exhaustion. Look, Nora, this is her most controversial album since Reputation at least, if not ever. And it comes at a moment of unicorn-level fame and adoration. It comes at a moment where she has the biggest tour in the world; she’s still in the middle of it. Regardless of what critics and fans say, she now has the most streamed album of all time in the first day. She has probably the biggest relationship, most publicly facing relationship in the world right now. And it is kind of an unprecedented test …

Princiotti: We’ll talk about Travis, don’t you worry.

Hubbard: … of fame and fan base and critical reception and the music. It’s just this wonderful experiment, but I think what is most interesting about it is it’s not really what I expected, Nora.

Princiotti: So talk to me about “most controversial,” what you mean by that. The reviews aren’t awesome.

Hubbard: The reviews aren’t awesome. And I think the controversy starts for me within the fan base because this is a fan base that, much like this podcast, spent years trying to convince other people that this was not just a woman who wrote about breakups but an all-timer in the annals of musical history as a songwriter, as an artist, as a businessperson.

And that defense gets—I mean, it’s the thing that you and I have struggled with, which is, “Hey, high fives everybody, we won. We were right. We bought Facebook stock early on, and it became the biggest company on the planet. We were in early on it. So now what is interesting about it?” And the fan base’s natural instinct, reflexive instinct is, “Taylor Swift is the best thing ever,” defense, defense, fight, fight, fight. And when she releases so much content, to me, that becomes white noise if you aren’t able to get into the nuance of talking about the actual reception to the art.

There are a lot of people for whom Midnights was their favorite Taylor Swift album, but now, we’ve got a record that comes at the peak of everything when she’s clearly the best—

Princiotti: There are a lot of people who didn’t feel that way about Midnights, but—

Hubbard: There are. There definitely are. But she has been almost criticism-proof from the fan base over this intense period of escape velocity into a level of orbit that candidly has not really been seen before because of the confluence of technology and the internet and everything. So it’s sort of as we haven’t seen this before, and this is the first time that she’s put out music in that context.

And I think I say “controversy” because when you read between the lines—and there were leaks of this album that came out, and there were fan base wars of the Swifties blaming the Ariana Grande fans for circulating it and MFing the record—it is clear that this is not everybody’s favorite album. And how they talk about it, how they support her and celebrate it while still receiving what I think in some corners is reasonable feedback and constructive criticism in others, is a social experiment in how to take shots at the biggest artist and biggest woman on the planet. How all of those things come together, I think, creates a lot of controversy: how you talk about it, how you criticize it, and how you celebrate it.

Princiotti: Yeah, no, I mean, look, even definitionally, the most die-hard Taylor Swift fan on the planet, everybody’s got a favorite album. Everybody’s got, even if they wouldn’t phrase it that way, a least favorite album. We all love to rank them. We all have ones that we like better than others.

I’ll get to how I feel about this one, and we will obviously talk through it. Talking to people over the weekend, I got a lot more, “OK, on second listen, on third listen, I’m getting more into it. Oh, this is interesting. I like this song.” Lot more of that than, “Holy crap, she’s done it again.” There’s a lot more talking yourself into this one.

And to some degree, that’s because I think it is an album that sort of reveals itself in layers, and it rewards a close read, but it’s not an album that, at least in my group texts and from what I saw online and from how I processed it myself, went, “Oh, holy crap, this is an all-timer.”

Hubbard: Right.

Princiotti: That’s not how it struck people, even within the fan base, immediately. The thing that’s interesting to me though—and why I asked you about how you were framing the idea of it being controversial—is that I think the fact that it is so long and just the novelty and the Taylor Swift–iness of it being a double album release, to me, it ended up blunting a little bit of that because there was a moment when I felt like things were gearing up for, “Oh God, everybody’s going to be fighting, and it’s going to be knock-down, drag-out, ‘Taylor Swift is terrible.’ ‘Taylor Swift can’t write a song.’ ‘Taylor Swift is the greatest artist who’s ever lived.’”

And then, I just think the fact that there’s so much to sort through and that the first two paragraphs of every story are, “Surprise, she had a whole second album ready,” it kind of blunts everything, which is probably for the better. But it’s an interesting dynamic where I feel like there’s so much. The context of how people talk about her on the internet and the inevitable backlash to being the biggest star on the planet, that felt so present. And I felt like a little bit of that got drowned in just the amount of content that’s here. Although maybe that’s because I had a podcast to prepare for in those two hours.

Hubbard: Yeah. We had 35 hours to prepare for 31 songs; that’s a piece of it. The other piece of the controversy, for me, is, I think you’re right that in private, a lot of people are having these feelings. But in public, the way that the fan base has criticized has either been not at all or in the way that she viscerally strikes out against in multiple places on this record and chastises the fan base for overcontrolling her personal life … and for taking shots that are painful to her.

Princiotti: Right. That’s the other big part of this: On this record, there is animosity—there’s clear animosity—from Taylor Swift to the people who adore her and who take it upon themselves to fight her battles, real or imagined.

Hubbard: Correct. And then there is also the critical community that seems to be glomming on—and here, I’m talking about The New Yorker, New York Times, Paste magazine—that are glomming on to the fact that she’s a billionaire and on top of whatever mountain there is that exists of stardom and artistry, and that they’re the cooler-than-thou critics that can’t seem to shake that context and who are dismissing this work as a bit childish. Like, “How can she, at 34, with a billion dollars, still be singing about the same themes?”

And I personally fall into a different place, and we’ll talk about it, but it is gratitude that we get such insight into the life of a unicorn. I mean, she tells us why she’s still framing the world a bit like this, like the girl in the bleachers from “You Belong With Me.” It’s right there in the pages of these lyrics. She grew up in an asylum. She was a precocious child, and sometimes that means you don’t grow up. She tells us that. But after six years of, as she referenced in “Bejeweled,” being in the basement, it’s helpful context around the profile of this antihero that we’ve been twittering about but who hasn’t actually given us that much insight behind the scenes into what’s been going on over those last six or seven years.

Princiotti: In a while. I do think that there’s a distinction between some of the reflexive, “Well, she’s a billionaire. Why isn’t she grateful?” Which, I don’t even really begrudge people that response, I just don’t care. And a different version of it, which is a little bit more resonant to me, is, “For all that she has and all that she’s accomplished,”—and she did this with Apple Music as well; Spotify signs my paychecks, great service, use it every day—the fact that the logos are on every little piece of the rollout and the question of, “Why, when you have all this power, have all this ability, don’t you use some of it to not have to do this?” That, to me, is a much more fair question than, “When you have all you have, why are you still talking about your problems?”

Hubbard: Right. The corporatization of this rollout was a little eh, for me.

Princiotti: Yeah.

Hubbard: And that, I understand it. And look, to frame it this way, she has fought forever—

Princiotti: And it’s not new, by the way. I mean—

Hubbard: It’s not.

Princiotti: Taylor Swift’s face was on the side of UPS trucks for years. It’s just that it takes on a different—

Hubbard: Diet Coke, Capital One commercials. I frame it this way. She’s fought for years to get control of her business. She now owns her art outright. There is a Taylor Swift touring logo on the posters. She is a businessman, to borrow from Jay-Z. And when you have achieved that, it’s not just enough to control it. The point of controlling it is when you are one of the largest consumer-facing brands on the planet, it’s to actually then go be the businessperson that you are and make the most of that control and that ownership because you get to make choices about how you market your art.

There is something to the fact that she’s marketing her art with those partners, but it’s not lost on me: She put out the YouTube Shorts video [Friday] night, interestingly, at the same time that she released her music video. The YouTube Short is this cute video of Travis mauling her while she’s cooking. And it was sort of an interesting choice to release that at the same time that she put out a self-directed video where we’re supposed to believe she might make out with Post Malone. I was like, I might not have put out the wonderful, sort of behind-the-scenes moment of you and your boyfriend at the same time that is clearly a very real moment and then try to get me to believe that you’re going to make out with Post.

Princiotti: I thought she and Post Malone had some chemistry.

Hubbard: Well, we’ll talk about that, fine.

Princiotti: I also love the tweets where it has her with the face tats and not with the face tats and it says Pre Malone, Post Malone.

Hubbard: But she did the Spotify thing. She did the Apple playlist thing. She even put her music back on TikTok and created a TikTok experience. … She’s entitled now that she’s fought for this control and gone through everything that she has to get that control to now show us when you are the CEO, you get to make these kinds of decisions, and here’s how you actually market your art. I mean, it is—

Princiotti: Yeah, I don’t think that she’s not entitled to any of this; she’s totally entitled to it.

Hubbard: It’s just ick. Is it ick for you? Does it rise to that level?

Princiotti: It’s not really quite ick. It’s on the ick spectrum. I’m just like, … you have earned all this power; it is yours to exercise however you want. I am a little bit questioning why the choice of how to exercise that is to slap a bunch of logos on everything.

Hubbard: There are two things that it indicates. I mean, either number one, she didn’t want to step on a lot of music that’s being released by her peers this spring. And I think the campaign and the shortness of it could be a reflection of not stepping on Maggie [Rogers], who put out her record [last week]; of not stepping on Ariana; of Billie putting something up; Sabrina Carpenter putting up “Espresso,” which is now going into the stratosphere. She kind of contained the promotion.

It also might have been quietly a reflex from the criticism that we ourselves gave her about the way she introduced this album onstage at the Grammys that sucked the air out of the room. And it was a pretty commercial moment in what was ostensibly a celebration of creativity. So there’s that piece, which was, maybe this was as much optically about staying in a lane so as not to step on some peers that she cares about.

But secondly, it also might just be a reflection of our attention span and the ever-scrolling, move-on, TikTok-ization of people’s brains that she just feels like, “A week is all I can do, guys. A week is the only amount of time you’re really going to pay attention to me. So I’m going to show up with Travis at Coachella. We’re going to support Lana and Jack and everybody else and then Jungle,” Travis’s new favorite band. “And then we’re going to do a week of a few installations. I’m going to send you on a snipe hunt around the world on a crazy scavenger hunt. But that’s all we’re doing. And that’s for the crazies. The rest of it’s coming, and popular culture is going to break through and put this in front of you. And you’re either going to like it or you don’t.”

This excerpt was edited for clarity.

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