For now, at least, Taylor Swift should be laughing hard.
As the world around Kanye West, her sworn adversary, continues to crumble, hers only blooms into new panoramas of fruition. As just about every brand and corporate entity that has ever aligned with West scrambles to put defining and definitive distance themselves and him, the Taylor Swift brand enters yet another phase of ascension.
Some stars burn out; some fade away; some combust on themselves, and some just glow ever brighter. Especially if they release new work that more than holds its own against the older standard-setters in their makers’ catalogs. For Swift, that elevation-proffering new entry is her recent 10th album, Midnights.
Ten – Taylor Swift has 10 albums to her name. As colossal a force she is, it’s still awe-inspiring and humbling to take in the fact that Taylor Swift has 10 full-lengths out in the wild. So, even if you scrub away the fact that the first nine have all dominated the charts in record-breaking ways, have pulled in numbers that undoubtedly have contributed to the health of the music industry, have enriched and expanded the lexicon of contemporary pop music, and have contributed vitally to her $570 million net worth, you’re left with the realisation that she has 10 albums of record-breaking, culture-pervading, money-spinning hits to her name. That’s a lot.
It’s legitimately magical: For the 10th time, at the height of her riches and powers, she’s found a reason for the listener to believe her, to invest in and empathise with her narrative.
I can’t, in good faith, take in Midnights without considering the pall of darkness that West has invited over his own empire. The dusk that now hangs over all things Yeezy seems a lot more irrevocable than a garden variety Yeezy spaz-out, which, until now, was all of them. Now, it seems like a lesson was playing out across two almost-omniscient pop cultural figures, West and Swift. While the former couldn’t keep his mouth shut and ended up sabotaging (it seems) himself, the later kept her mouth shut and carried on the work that she’s known and loved for. Now, there’s Midnights. Now, as the feeds clog with news of Yeezy brand’s rupture, they're also pushed along by tidings of brand Swift’s elevation.
That is my jump-off point into Midnights. West and Swift have been tried at the celebrity guillotine before – and they’ve both made it out. But in recent years, as West continues to – almost voluntarily – inch towards the blade, Swift has been taking great care to stay far away from it. That, in large part, is why Midnights is such a gratifying body of work.
On these 13 new songs, Swift doesn’t reinvent the wheel she has been riding since she entered the fray. Love – and its accompanying undulations – and what happens when you Reflect – she knows how to maximise its power as a verb – on the Vicissitudes – she knows how to maximise their power as a noun – feature prominently here as they have in all her songs. Now, though, she contextualises them in the frustratingly relatable setting that is sleeplessness – agonising, epiphany-birthing sleeplessness.
The album is at its best when she showcases how her words are empowered by her utterance of them.
It’s legitimately magical: For the 10th time, at the height of her riches and powers, she’s found a reason for the listener – a non-Swift, the contents of whose life couldn’t be more different from hers – to believe her, to invest in and empathise with her narrative. As a non-Swift sceptical of Swift and those in her vocation and tax bracket, I’m legitimately impressed that by letting us know, that, like us, she too, occasionally can’t sleep, Swift has ushered a new body of work to our consciousness. Once again, she has achieved relevance without straining and screaming for it. Once again, she sails deep into cultural consciousness, without muddying the waters.
It’s to her advantage that not much changes on Midnights. Now, more than ever, is consistency a virtue. Now more than ever, can your longtime heroes – the ones who define how you walk, talk and move – suddenly and spontaneously fall from grace. So, it’s great that Taylor Swift still sings about love and love-adjacent things, just as she did since the dawn of (her) time. There’s a line in “Bejeweled” (sic), a later-half cut , that captures the essence of Swift’s consistency and beams it into the stratosphere like hieroglyphics: “Best believe I'm still bejeweled / When I walk in the room / I can still make the whole place shimmer”.
Yes, she still can.
But as gorgeously crafted as the music is, it takes a backseat to album’s singular truth-telling device, her voice.
There's no profundity in the obvious truism that good writing sparkles on multiple levels. Midnights is bedecked with good writing because Swift is a great writer. The album is at its best when she showcases how her words are empowered by her utterance of them. Every song is a case in point, so we might as well begin with the first, “Lavender Haze”, wherein she coos: “I'm damned if I do give a damn what people say / No deal / The 1950s shit they want from me / I just wanna stay in that lavender haze”. When she says “I”, it resounds as “we”. Not only is she conflating two different experiences, hers and the listener’s, she’s also affirming the validity of her own in the context of universe-destined, ether-imprinting pop.
That’s why it’s still so thrilling when she gets angsty: "I'm damned if I do give a damn what people say”.
She’s not concerned with what people say. She’s not here for the drama. But all her songs are steeped in drama and people she doesn’t much care for. In brand Taylor Swift, that’s not a contradiction but a fact of the universe. There’s her. And there’s people, some she likes and some she doesn’t. And she makes songs about how both these camps congeal around her consciousness.
On “Anti-Hero”, she’s the most self-aware of the workings of her/the universe as she’s ever been: “It's me, hi / I’m the problem, it's me… / It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero”. That chorus is presaged by lines no less revealing: “I have this thing where / I get older, but just never wiser / Midnights become my afternoons / When my depression works the graveyard shift”. Because it’s so excellently laid out before you, on a soundscape worthy of the gravity it bears, there’s nothing to unpack. But, also, there is!
If you’re like me and disinclined to believe that Swift is ‘depressed’ and staring down the barrel of an existential crisis, or, that, as stated in “Maroon”, she indeed was dancing in New York with no shoes, or that, as “Vigilante Shit” posits, she’s been dressing for revenge, lately, or that, as she volunteers on “Karma”, she really thinks that “karma is a cat / Purring in [her] lap", and that it’s her boyfriend, you still can’t knock how magnetically believable all these things are in the world she invokes them in. It’s not ‘real’ but it’s fantastic fiction, one that transports you to a time, place, mind and heart of a savvy, uncanny author whose artfulness is informed as much by authenticity as it is by artifice.
Now, she has arrived, at herself. She is the crucible. She is the language. She is the organising principle that gives her songs form and function. She is the world.
The closer, “Mastermind”, is a more-than-knowing sign-off: “What if I told you I'm a mastermind? / And now you're mine / It was all by dеsign / ‘Cause I'm a mastermind”. Whether taken out of or read in context, its meaning is the same.
It’s startling how potent her powers are: No sound overpowers her words – nothing overpowers her. Befitting the witching hour, the palette of sounds she dips her brush into is contemplatively hushed and measured, even when they swell with orchestral (revelatory) force. But as gorgeously crafted as they are, they take a backseat to album’s singular truth-telling device, her voice.
And if you’re not a skeptic but a Swift heart-on-sleever, you’re gifted a new expanse on which Swift luxuriates in her humanity, in its soft folds, rough edges, soaring highs, crushing lows, first blushes, remembered slights, hard-worn reckonings, and truth-proffering bites. You care because you have every reason to. You fall in love with these songs and you pull them close to your chest because you don’t have a reason not to.
Either side wins.
When the skies inevitably part on Midnights, when it opens itself up to scrutiny in the light of day, it offers one further truth, that of its continuity. Throughout her arc, Swift has been refining the new language she created for living in a world that, though unmistakably yours, very often feels foreign to you. In her early days, she collapsed pop, folk and country into a crucible of hyper-marketable/palatable singer-songwriter-liness. Then, she grew bolder, more insistent. Now, she has arrived – at herself. She is the crucible. She is the language. She is the organising principle that gives her songs form and function. She is the world. Her albums’ sonics and production, Jack Antonoff, Lana Del Rey, Soundwave, all the moving parts are but accessories to her vision, purpose and story – they all serve her.
Behold the album’s last words: “And now you're mine / Yeah, all you did was smile / ‘Cause I'm a mastermind”. In the best sense, they used to apply to both her and Kanye West.
Now, they’re only relevant to her.