Taylor Swift: The Art of Reflection and Speculation

By Liv Johnston

Taylor Swift is a special kind of musical artist––one that has created a portrait of herself through nearly two decades of narrative lyricism. With each new album, Swift’s picture becomes clearer and more detailed––listeners learn more about who she is, what she loves, and what concepts fascinate her. That is why one of the first thoughts I had after listening to Taylor Swift’s tenth studio album, Midnights, was, “but what does this add to her story.” From my initial perspective, every new Taylor Swift album creates a new, rich world. Yet Midnights was full of reflection and, seemingly, repetition. I couldn’t help but feel that Midnights added nothing new to the story Swift has been building of herself.

However, I continued listening and I realized that although Swift has previously portrayed a lot of the songs’ subject matters, the air of reflection provides a deeper and matured tone. Perhaps it does not offer entirely new ideas, but reflection offers a new perspective to old emotions. Periods of reflection are as much a major part of people as periods of movement and drastic change are, which Swift portrays brilliantly. Midnights seems to say, “here is everything in the past that has gotten me to this point in my life,” or as Swift puts it, “the things that [are important enough to] keep her up at night.”

Altogether, Midnights is an amalgamation of who Swift is. Much like how Folklore and Evermore are sister albums, Midnights seems to be (and is theorized to actually be) the sister album to Lover. When discussing the concept for the music video, “ME!,” a song on Lover, Swift says, “then there's me: it's like dancers, cats, gay pride, people in country western boots and I start riding a unicorn.” Here, she boils herself down to her key traits; the listeners understand who she is through just these few things she uses to represent herself. Now, much like she did in her Lovera era, Swift challenges herself to reflect on her life and boil herself down to exactly what makes her her throughout Midnights, and accomplishing that feat is admirable in and of itself.

With this newfound appreciation of the purpose of Midnights in Swift’s larger narrative, I went on to see various interpretations and analyses of the lyrics on the album, and I realized just how many differing opinions people had on the album and what was being conveyed. It seemed as though every other post I saw on social media was about Taylor Swift and with her standing, I wasn’t surprised. But I started to wonder how Swift could paint such a clear, boiled down portrait of herself, yet still manage to throw her audience off of the full truth. How can she balance such extremes?

Part of the fun of listening to Taylor Swift is the dissection, and Swift is aware of this activity her fans delight in. It allows for discussion and engagement in the art released. In a way, Swift seems to delight in this interaction with her work as well. But Swift, having faced so much scrutiny in her life from the media, is more than well aware of the degree to which people like to speculate. Thus, to maintain some level of privacy in a world that always wants to know more, Swift tells her stories with deep precision. She recounts just enough, blends reality and fiction to just the right degree, that her listeners can piece together an overarching narrative, yet never see the fully detailed picture. Despite how much Swift likes to tell stories of her life, she also sets concrete boundaries on just how much she allows the public to know. In 2010, Swift said, “every single song is like a road map to what that relationship stood for, with little markers that maybe everyone won't know, but there are things that were little nuances of the relationship, little hints,” alluding to the fact that she likes to give hints about her life, but never the full story. Everything about Swift seems clear at a glance, but the more and more you listen, the deeper and more convoluted her lyrics can become. This directly plays into her fans’ love of dissection––the less Swift directly says, the more analysis her fans will perform, the more they will discuss and listen to her art, the higher the ratings her art will receive.

The previously mentioned fact that Midnights is deeply reflective, and Swift’s understanding of speculation are intrinsically tied. Swift’s knowledge of the public’s love for speculation is critical to the success of such a reflective album as Midnights, and as an extension, “The Eras Tour.” People love theories, patterns, and callbacks, and Swift, aware of this, is sure to include an abundance of them in Midnights. Now, people aren’t merely talking about this one era of her life, but all of them––past, present, and (speculatively) future. Her fans dissect which songs on Midnights correlate with which songs she’s written in the past, how themes connect over time, and what exactly “keep[s Swift] up at night.” Again, this has greatly increased the amount of material there is available to discuss concerning Midnights, thus also increasing the album’s ratings. In this sense, Swift truly is the “Mastermind” she claims herself to be.