Like most of the world, I have some degree of investment in Taylor Swift’s career. This is one part fascination with how she has seemingly pushed beyond super-stardom into a whole new kind of being famous to one part actually liking her music. While I wouldn’t brand myself a Swiftie—I haven’t really listened to anything before 1989 and the only albums I would say I truly love are Lover and Folklore—my hesitancy with the label is less out of an interest in being contrarian and more just being frank about how I feel regarding music that isn’t ultimately for me. That being said, with the recent release of The Tortured Poets Department, I have found the two halves of my investment in Swift’s career rebalance into something like a slightly disgruntled curiosity about the quality of her recent work and the rate of its production.

This is not going to be a review of TTPD, but there’s two things I find fascinating about it in the context of Swift’s career. First, it is one of four albums released by her in roughly the last two years; while two of them were rerecordings, each of these albums includes enough bonus tracks that one could argue there’s actually closer to eight to ten albums contained across them. Second, it seems more and more essential to the enjoyment of her new work that you know the “Taylor lore”; I was prepared to write off TTPD as boring and performative (sorry) until learning some of its backstory—though I must admit I still haven’t really circled back. My point here is that Swift seems to be mass producing—indeed, rapidly churning out—music despite actively fronting the largest touring performance in history, and that this work is becoming increasingly self-expressive.

As a comparison, the week after TTPD dropped, Annie Clark (better known as St. Vincent) released her seventh studio album, All Born Screaming. Rather than relying on the production prowess of Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff (who also produces for Swift), this is the first album Clark has produced on her own, arriving three years after her Grammy-winning Daddy’s Home. Despite being known for adopting performative personas that dictate the style and tone of her work, Clark’s step into the role of producer came alongside the discarding of her various costumes and wigs. In short, the move towards authenticity was neither quick nor without the discomfort of learning new things, and as a result I would suggest (as something of a St. Vincent superfan) that All Born Screaming not only marks perhaps a career best for Clark but can also illustrate a critical distinction in art: self-expression and authentic artistry are not the same thing, and the primary difference between them is time.

Let me clarify this in something of a roundabout way. Often when discussing a film or television show, someone might dismiss criticism of the work by saying something like “well, I had a good time with it” or “it was really entertaining even if it wasn’t good.” I think something similar happens with self-expression in any art form. “Well, it’s really honest, it’s about X, Y, and Z,” or “it’s a reflection of their personal experience, even if it’s a little messy.” While I don’t want to diminish what is both genuine and appropriate about these sorts of responses, I also want to suggest that we can balance that with more rigorous standards for creativity; acknowledging a work’s self-expressiveness or entertainment value doesn’t need to come at the expense of evaluating its craft. Art doesn’t have to choose between these functions, and the best art does some combination of them. But it takes time to weave them effectively.

I think we can see this at work in the admittedly construed comparison between Swift and Clark. While one seemingly uses their work as a platform for publicly processing their increasingly public personal life, the other uses the development of her craft over time to investigate and discover new skills and senses of self. One views art as a platform by which they speak, the other sees it as a process by which a voice is explored and perhaps revealed. One is quick, reactionary, current, and the other is patient, cumulative, polishing. 

To suggest that art needs to only be entertaining or self-expressive is, in my mind, to diminish its capacities and to grant permission to artists to avoid what is difficult about making art—perhaps foremost that it takes a long, long, long time, and there is no way to avoid this or expedite it. Time with a given work—be it an album, a film, a book, or even an individual poem or song—or with the craft itself is in my mind the single most important factor in art being allowed to do its good, vital, essential work on both the artist and the art’s recipients. More is not better, better is better, and when making art better only comes with time.

My point is not to be overly hard on or presume Swift’s intentions, nor to lift Clark on some kind of almighty artistic pedestal (even if she would deserve it). But my hope is that the comparison illustrates something: that authentic self-expression is not the goal of art, it is a byproduct of art and its patient, rigorous, challenging process. A craft takes time, time that is not an obstacle but a necessary catalyst for the effects of a finished work on the artist and the art’s recipients. To sidestep the patience which this requires is to diminish art’s capacity for edification at both a personal and public level, to trade numerous beautiful possibilities for simply speaking our mind.


  1. Abbie Ham

    Love this comparison, and that you made a post about Taylor Swift into a discussion about what art is and who it’s for. In defense of TTPD, it is perhaps essential that at some point, each of us investigates how the ways we imagine ourselves close us off to certain kinds of experiences; even simple ones like screaming absolutely deranged lyrics set to an oh-so-familiar Antonoff beat.

  2. Kipp De Man

    Great point. Difficult to tell, at least for me, if that self-imagination as it occurs in TTPD is intended or not, but either way an insight worth paying attention to. Perhaps I’ll give it another go with this in mind.


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