Taylor Swift released her new album, Midnights, last night and the “chaotic surprise” she promised was not a livestream as I’d predicted but seven extra songs she calls “3am tracks”. So basically there are 20 new Taylor Swift songs to listen to but it’s the first 13 on Midnights that represent what Taylor says is the “full picture” of the album’s concept – which is convenient because that’s all I’ve listened to so far. And so far there’s a lot to like. But that’s because I’ve always been predisposed to Fountain and Glitter Gel Taylor Swift, which is the version of Taylor Swift she’s showing us on Midnights.
The idea of the different versions of Taylor is a running theme on the album. It’s a theme she’s played with before, specifically on the lead single off reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do”, with one of her most famous lyrics, “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now”. The idea back then was that the old Taylor was killed off, by the gossip, by the public, and then buried by Taylor herself. She retreated, ran away to find the answers somewhere else…
Only to return now, in Midnights, resurrecting old Taylor while keeping alive the other Taylors who have emerged from the darkness, the time after midnight, if we want to get literal, and we should, because that’s where Taylor often lives. This, literally, is the album’s thesis, as the saying goes: I contain multitudes, we contain multitudes.
So those multitudes show up on the lead single, “Anti-Hero”. In the video, several Taylors are pushing and pulling at each other along the way. The Taylor Swift of the 1989 era is back in her glitter booty shorts, the Taylor Swift of Red and Fearless is present too. And the Taylor, in plaid and wool, in the woods and by the fire, from the folklore and evermore era, are here as well.
You see that glitter oozing from several places in the video? This is what Taylor was referring to a few weeks ago when she accepted her award from the Nashville Songwriters Association and talked about her writing process. She explained that she writes, metaphorically, from three pens: Quill Lyrics, Fountain Pen Lyrics, and Glitter Gel Lyrics.
While folklore and evermore were mostly written from Quill and Fountain, on Midnights Taylor kept the Fountain running but also leaned exuberantly into the Glitter Gel. And the music is better for it.
As I have said many times, including in my last post about Taylor yesterday, her lead singles are almost always not my favourites, often what I consider to be the weakest on her albums. “Anti-Hero” continues that tradition – it is not the strongest track on Midnights. That said, it’s also not nearly as annoying as its predecessors like “ME!”, “Shake It Off”, and the aforementioned “Look What You Made Me Do”. I actually find “Anti-Hero” to be kind of funny. And I can see why she was compelled to release it first, because of the catchiness of the chorus…
I’m the problem
…these are lyrics designed for TikTok, for a social media challenge. As it always is with her lead singles, “Anti-Hero” is the most obvious of all the songs on the album, the version of Taylor we are most familiar with. Which is what she’s leaning into here in the chorus – a familiar greeting, “Hi it’s me”, and then an instant confession, “I’m the problem”. She’s telling herself, she’s telling the listener, and she’s done this before, but now that there’s some distance between Taylor and those past dramas, the self-reflection doesn’t feel spiteful the way it did on reputation. There’s a cheerful resignation to Taylor on “Anti-Hero”, which might be why it’s funnier…because you can laugh with her if you believe she’s genuinely willing to laugh at herself.
And yes, “Anti-Hero” is also the lead single because it’s gossipy. Of course it is. This is the version of Taylor Swift who loves the gossip, who stokes the feuds and spills the tea. She’s extremely on the nose with the tea in her lyrics:
I’m the problem
At tea time, everybody agrees”
Near the end of the song, when she repeats the line “everybody agrees”, she draws out the “sssssssssssssss” – and it’s unmistakable what she’s doing there. That’s the version of Taylor that slithers, slithering right back into that old mess…
She continues with that version of herself in “Karma”, one of the most anticipated songs on the album when the tracklist came out because, well, we know the Taylor who keeps grudges. Once again, Taylor is subtle on this one. She sings about “Spiderboy, king of thieves”, and the “S” and the “B” here could apply to both Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, against whom she publicly battled over her masters. Taylor puts a spin on karma here because her flex is that she’s on the receiving end of the “good” karma, going meta on the theme of versions that she’s layering over herself and her messages on the album. Karma, after all, can come in two forms. Karma isn’t always bad. Karma has landed softly on Taylor both personally and professionally. She is in love. She is happy. She is as successful as she’s ever been. And still petty AF, unapologetically.
That’s what’s new about the old Taylor. She’s always been petty, now she’s admitting it without defensiveness.
There’s a lot more to say about Taylor’s album, as usual, but I’ll leave it for today with my favourite song (right now) on Midnights – it’s the last track, “Mastermind”. On the surface it’s a love song, Taylor singing to her lover that they didn’t fall in love by accident, that she masterminded their romance, set the strategy and executed the game plan.
“What if I told you I’m a mastermind
And now you’re mine
It was all my design
‘Cause I’m a mastermind”
But there’s another read to “Mastermind” that has nothing to do with romance. This is the anti Cool Girl anthem. This is a pushback against the idealisation of the woman who doesn’t have to try, the girl whose nonchalance is her brand. Taylor has never been nonchalant. Rather she’s always been the girl who cares too much, tries too hard, and wants too badly. She wants all the trophies, both in boy form and in award form, and she’ll stop at nothing to get them. It’s just that now she’s funnier about it:
“No one wanted to play with me as a little kid
So I've been scheming like a criminal ever since
To make them love me and make it seem effortless
This is the first time I've felt the need to confess
And I swear
I'm only cryptic and Machiavellian
'Cause I care”
I love those last two lines – they’re well-written but they’re also deliberately disingenuous, and here we go again with those alternate version of Taylor all co-existing together. She does care and she is thirsty, the antithesis of the cool girl who never tells you want she wants, if anything, and remains indifferent to everything. Masterminds are never indifferent. But Taylor would argue that masterminds put in more effort.