I posted about this on Sunday – most experts were already predicting that Taylor Swift’s Midnights would win the Grammy for Album of the Year, making her the only artist in history to win the Recording Academy’s highest honour four times. One more than Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder. And four more than Beyoncé who has never won AOTY – and we’ll get to that in a minute.
But first, let’s break down Taylor’s night because, as usual, she was the big conversation for reasons that she intended and for reasons that may not have been intended and that’s kind of what the debate is all about, and it’s also become the story.
The only story about Taylor should have been her wins and her announcement. And it started before the Grammys, when her website went down and Swifties started freaking out, knowing that some kind of shakeup was on its way.
The assumption was that it would be reputation (Taylor’s Version); that’s what Swifties have been clowning themselves over for months, expecting that that would be the next rerecorded album release. Turns out she hasn’t been rerecording her old work, she produced a whole ass new album, The Tortured Poets Department, due out in April. Which will be the fourth new album she will have released in four years, and eighth album in four years if you’re counting the Taylor’s Versions. She is prolific, and it’s a massive flex, even by her standards. Remember, Midnights came out in the fall of 2022. Then she went on tour for most of last year, and released a film, and starred in a weekly rom-com, travelling across the country every weekend for love. And on top of all that, there’s another 16 track album, probably with bonuses, and I’m sure some of the visuals have already been filmed for it, considering she’s back on tour this week so her output, once again, is extraordinary. Like as annoying as I find the title of this album, The Tortured Poets Department, a mouthful and an eyeroll, I have to respect it. I have to respect that the work always continues, that even as we all lost our f-cking heads in the clouds over her rom-com, she was like… yeah, no, I’m a songwriter first. A FLEX.
But also, speaking of the title of the album, there’s gossip to that too – and social media was popping off when they made the connection. This is why Joe Alwyn started trending right after she dropped the bomb:
Taylor Swiftâ€™s ex Joe Alwyn and Paul Mescal have a group text called "The Tortured Man Club."— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) February 5, 2024
Taylor Swiftâ€™s new album is called â€œThe Tortured Poets Departmentâ€
What does it mean?
The assumption, then, is that The Tortured Poets Department is the Joe Alwyn breakup album. Especially since she’s making statements like this:
All of this is what Taylor wanted. It was a premeditated Grammys takeover – and I’m not mad at it. She’s been a fixation for weeks: the football people are obsessed with her, the politics people are obsessed, the conspiracy theorists are obsessed, the hopeless romantics are obsessed… and using all that attention to direct it back to your work is a good thing. Topping it all off by being the last person to win the biggest award on Music’s Biggest Night was the mastermind ending, at least it was supposed to be.
Until she went from flex to fumble up on that stage with Celine Dion. Everyone in that room and everyone watching knew what it meant for Celine to be there. Celine’s illness hasn’t been a secret. It’s a mainstream culture story – the woman, a f-cking legend, left her house and got all dressed up to present an award, because as she said on stage, she’s aware, maybe more than anyone else, that we “must never take for granted the tremendous love and joy that music brings to our lives, and to people all around the world”. Celine was there for the music and for the people who make it, upholding the true meaning of the Grammys.
And Taylor… well… I’m sure you saw what Taylor did – or rather didn’t – do, but just in case, here’s what happened.
The people who are trying to rationalise Taylor not acknowledging Celine are pointing to the fact that Taylor was on her feet when Celine came out.
Celine Dion presented the final award of the Grammys, album of the year, to Taylor Swift. Dionâ€™s surprise appearance follows her announcement of a forthcoming documentary chronicling her diagnosis with stiff person syndrome. #Grammys #CÃ©lineDion #Icon pic.twitter.com/NREZ1WZwjk— Meidas_Charise Lee (@charise_lee) February 5, 2024
Others are insisting that Taylor was actually respecting Celine’s personal boundaries, considering that she might be too fragile for all that energy and physical touch. I’m not sure that covers for the fact that Taylor didn’t mention Celine during her speech, like not even a “thank you for this Celine”, when she was on the mic.
Yes, Taylor was overwhelmed and overjoyed. The whole thing was cringe – like dragging Lana Del Rey up there who was also nominated for Album of the Year and then speaking to Lana in her remarks, calling her a legend… when CELINE WAS RIGHT THERE, all of it was awkward AF and while, sure, it’s not the worst award show faux-pas we’ve ever seen, obviously, we should talk about it from the perspective of brand management.
Because for the last almost two years, Taylor and her team have managed her brand flawlessly. I’ve written about this so much over the last few months – Taylor’s domination, this unprecedented PR streak, it’s been so fun and so impressive to watch as a pop culture student, so when an unforced error like this happens, on such a huge stage, it stands out, not only because Taylor is such a big deal but because it’s that much more glaring when you take it in the context of how perfectly she’s run the playbook.
Now, is it fair of us to hold our popstars to a standard of perfection? Of course not. Nobody is saying here that Taylor should be cancelled, so please put down that reflex – this discussion we’re having is about the performance of image and reputation… which is part of the work, and it has definitely been part of Taylor’s work, a huge part of her work. And on this night, she wasn’t the master. On a few fronts.
First, remember, according to the plan, what we’re supposed to be talking about right now is the new album, and the surprise announcement, the fact that she went to the Grammys with something up her sleeve. The goal was to go in there, pick up some awards, maybe the biggest award, and wake up with everybody talking about how she can’t stop winning and can’t stop writing. Instead? What’s trending is not The Tortured Poets Department. What’s trending is the perceived snub. So if we’re doing a report card on the execution of the game plan, we’re definitely not giving out full marks.
Next, it’s back to the performance and Taylor’s performance of Taylor. One of the attributes that Taylor’s fans often applaud her for is her thoughtfulness. “Her mind!” is what they say, like she’s always ten steps ahead and can see the chessboard from 40 moves away. It’s also thoughtfulness in terms of care, especially care for other artists. This is why she’s always dancing and singing and doing the most at award shows – it’s her way of respecting others, being a fan of her peers. And she’s known to be thoughtful about her words. She takes her words seriously, she picks and chooses them meticulously, she has been on these stages and has used pointed words to get her message across – she and “her mind” have strategically exploited these opportunities in the past to advocate for herself, her values.
Last night she tried to communicate one of those values, which is that what matters most to her is the work:
“I would love to tell you that this is the best moment of my life, but I feel this happy when I finish a song… or getting ready to go to Tokyo… All I want to do is keep being able to do this. I love it so much. It makes me so happy!”
An hour or so earlier, though, Miley Cyrus said the same thing when she accepted her second Grammy (after honouring Mariah Carey during her first win, ahem) and was basically like, I was just as happy yesterday as I am now, because I’m not attaching too much meaning to this hardware, it doesn’t validate my art, my experience, and my person. I buy this from Miley, but do I buy it from Taylor?
Because Taylor, essentially, was trying to say the same thing. That she’s not validated by Grammys – but the words coming out of her mouth weren’t exactly matching the energy that was coming out of her body, the way she was jumping and hollering all over that stage. And it also undermines the excuse that’s coming from her supporters who are arguing that she was overwhelmed. OK, but if it’s not the best moment, if she doesn’t live for these moments, why did she lose her mind and forget herself? And besides, it’s not like we don’t know. Because, like, having watched her ascent over the years (Taylor Swift, after all, IS monoculture), we all f-cking know that Taylor Swift loves a Grammy, LOL! She loves to win! So when she’s up there saying one thing but the body language is saying something else entirely, it’s giving ….incongruent at best, inauthentic at worst.
Taylor is many things, but she’s not stupid. She realised right away. Tree Paine, her publicist, also would have realised right away. So the damage control kicked in immediately.
Celine is gracious, she’s not going to hold onto it so whatever, now that we’ve done the analysis, we can move on and study how Taylor moves on. And she will – this is Taylor Swift, by the end of the day, probably, the culture will be distracted by something else. But I do hope that this will be the last of it, not just from the culture but from Taylor herself. We don’t need a song or some kind of goddamn easter egg in a few weeks about the time everyone wrongly got mad at her for snubbing Celine, and she ends up portraying herself as the victim. You fumble, you lose a few yards, you make sure you get your footing right for the next play, and you get another first down – without crying about the officiating.