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Taylor Swift’s new album Midnights follows an extremely complicated and mystery-filled rollout that featured TikTok song title drops, new lyrics in transit stations and on billboards across the world, and a video trailer that aired during Thursday Night Football. Midnights broke the record for most-streamed album in a day on Spotify before 24 hours were up. Though some critics claim the album lacks radio single material, it has met with almost unmitigated praise, with Rolling Stone branding it an “instant classic.” It received five-star reviews from The Guardian and The Independent. Critics are calling the album “rich with self-loathing,” “electronic, confessional pop,” and “her darkest and most cryptic album yet.”

Midnights is a synth-laden, listenable, complex record, full of the kind of descriptions of the feminine experience that only Taylor Swift can pull off: “I search the party of better bodies just to find that my dreams aren’t rare.” She confesses the vulnerability that comes with femininity while also emphasizing feminine strength. While her last pop venture, Lover, went for attention-grabby hot-button issues, Swift shoots in this album for targets we know she can hit—defending feminism, owning her haters, and acknowledging her insecurities.

As always, though, her vulnerability has a veneer of cool-girl to it that makes it a double-edged sword: her confessions simultaneously make us feel cooler ourselves, drawing us into a pop star’s inner circle, and keep us at arm’s length. She is more confident than ever in playing to the crowd’s desire to psychologize and analyze her. By the album’s final stroke, “Mastermind,” she has us exactly where she wants us—and like the lover she claims to have won through strategy, we are glad to be there.

“Can this be a real thing, can it?”

Swift described the album as “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.” In the introduction to the album, she writes of the many reasons for sleepless midnights: “Maybe you were trying to mastermind matters of the heart again. You’ve gotten lost in the labyrinth of your head, where the fear wraps its claws around the fragile throat of true love. Will you be able to save it in time? Save it from who? Well, it’s obvious. From you.”

This double identity, something that Swift played with a lot in the Reputation era (see the “Ready for It” music video, where she battles an evil twin, or the “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, featuring the many “eras” of Taylor Swift as different personas that she must conquer on her way to the top), is a dominating theme of the album. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Anti-Hero,” with its own music video featuring three doppelgangers, one “good girl,” one “bad girl,” and one giant girl whose awkwardness is familiar to any woman who’s gone through life over 5’8”. On Instagram, Swift called the song “one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I don't think I've delved this far into my insecurities in this detail before.” Her Instagram bio is now a line from the song: “I’m the problem, it’s me.”

Even her vulnerability, though, has a certain confidence to it in Midnights. The cocky, tongue-in-cheek chorus of “Anti-Hero,” “It’s me / Hi / I’m the problem, it’s me,” suggests that she is comfortable, maybe even a little too comfortable, with her flaws. “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser,” she says, but that doesn’t seem entirely true. She is presenting her vulnerable and destructive qualities in a lovable light that both suggests a better-emotionally-adjusted songwriter than that of previous albums, somewhat undermining the actual vulnerability of her confessions.

And there’s an irony even to the confession, a sideways glance at the audience that emphasizes her exhaustive self-consciousness. “It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero,” she says, in a wink to her audience, and to her lover, that has a whisper of cynicism.

The album’s aesthetic distracts from its classic qualities once in a while; the perfectly on-trend ‘70s-meets-Y2K ambience is clearly meant to appeal to Gen Z, and sometimes the immersive experience becomes oppressive. “We were cleaning incense off your vinyl shelf” (“Maroon”) is stagey; the album makes Swift’s first cocaine reference and a reference to how “some guy said my aura's moonstone / Just ‘cause he was high.” We’re in the ‘70s, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but also in the disillusioned 2020s. It has the perfectly-branded quality that Taylor Swift productions often have: it’s a little too perfectly themed, a little too au courant.

Historically Swift swears in her albums exactly as much as swearing is broadly accepted for young women, especially young women celebrities: early in her career not at all, including with the rebel-branded Reputation; then dropping a few f-bombs in the pandemic; now in a world where swearing causes few raised eyebrows, she sprinkles it into her album in a way that mostly works but occasionally feels pasted on. (For those who wish to avoid the explicit lyrics, the extended Midnights (3am edition) is a radio edit.)

But where Swift sticks to the details of her real story, she is the most universal. At first, I had some reservations about her trotting out her old enemies: anything anti-feminist, including the traditional gender roles at which she takes aim in “Lavender Haze;” oblique references to her feud with music executive Scooter Braun in “Karma”; some obscure shots at haters and players, and of course the old Kimye feud (you might think it was over, but the album dropped on Kim Kardashian’s birthday).

There’s no one like Taylor Swift to hold a grudge. But even after they’ve been trotted out in album after album for her to take shots at, Swift’s “industry disrupters and soul deconstructers,” written about with her characteristic verve, quickly become stand-ins for our own enemies. Because she writes with honesty, her very particular experiences of conflict—even if they seem to be relatively few!—become surprisingly relatable.

Swift and the feminine experience

Taylor Swift’s best work is always when she is writing an ode to the feminine genius, to the strength of women, to their ability to reinvent themselves, to rise to the top while transcending pain. She does some of her best work of that kind on this album. Her shots at men are less insecure and more brutally honest in this album than in any of her previous ones, catchy bops and dark synth that steer clear of Lover’s sometimes overconscious lightness or Reputation’s melodrama. “Don’t get sad, get even,” she sings in the delightfully campy “Vigilante Shit,” and as usual she turns the cliche into a piece of her own work. The ethereal bridge is one of Swift’s best descriptions of cool, collected female rage:

Ladies always rise above
Ladies know what people want
Someone sweet and kind and fun
The lady simply had enough

This kind of revenge, playing up the feminine when it suits her and engaging with men with a clearheadedness won from experience, is what informs some of the best tracks on the album. Swift introduces us to a woman who is fulfilling the promise of “I Forgot that you Existed” with the most seemingly-unconscious feminine consciousness: “Baby love, I think I’ve been a little too kind,” she sings in “Bejeweled”: “Didn’t notice you walking all over my peace of mind / In the shoes I gave you as a present.”

Though she doesn’t hesitate to throw shade where it’s deserved—especially emphasizing women’s need for room to grow and respect in relationships—in this album, for what feels like the first time, she seems to have realized that the best revenge is living a happy life. “Karma” is an anthem to this philosophy, a masterfully-executed bop that overflows with a certain kind of gratitude for life that is surprising in a revenge song: “Karma’s a relaxing thought / Aren’t you envious that for you it’s not? / Sweet like honey / Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ‘cause it loves me.”

Swift writes about the feminine experience with the clarity of vision that catapulted her to the top: “The only kinda girl they see / Is a one night or a wife” emphasizes her frustration at the engagement rumors about her and six-year boyfriend Joe Alwyn that constantly resurface, the intrusion of others’ opinions on her private life. “Midnight Rain” works through the tension between a good boy and an ambitious woman: “I broke his heart ‘cause he was nice,” Swift sings, and describes perfectly the feeling of a woman who is committed to ongoing transformation but has a brush with a man who does not change: “He wanted a bride / I was making my own name . . . He stayed the same / All of me changed.”

She also doesn’t hesitate to give men credit where credit is due, especially her current boyfriend, with whom she wrote slightly-too-sweet “Sweet Nothings.” “Lavender Haze” suggests that he’s a well-adjusted and stable partner, different from the manipulators she takes shots at throughout this album and others: “Oh, you don’t ever say too much / And you don’t really read into my melancholia / I been under scrutiny / You handle it so beautifully.” Though to longtime listeners of Reputation and Lover these aspects of her romance are a little well-worn (“Lavender Haze” doesn’t hold a candle to “Call It What You Want”), the album’s self-indulgence is also what makes it so self-assured.

“Sweet Nothings” and “Snow on the Beach” emphasize the unexpected nature of love, love as a gift: “Can this be a real thing, can it?” (Though “Snow on the Beach” features Lana Del Rey, she doesn’t have a solo part—understandably but still disappointingly, Swift’s featured artists consistently play second fiddle. The sonic cohesion of the album may justify the decision, but given Lana’s artistic chops in her own right, she could have had more of a chance to shine.)

Playing her cards right

The album’s final official track, “Mastermind,” is a finely-tuned piece of self-presentation, both undermining the love story by claiming writer’s credit for her successful relationship (“What if I told you / Nothing was accidental / And the first night that you saw me / Nothing was gonna stop me”) and throwing a bone to her clue-crazy fans and her would-be psychologizers by presenting herself as a “mastermind.”

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,” she sings, a juicy little piece of “soul deconstructer” bait just like “Anti-Hero”’s reference to “covert narcissism.” “I swear / I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ‘cause I care,” she sings, playing the vulnerability card once again in a nod to her fans’ constant deciphering of real and imagined clues about her music and her love life.

It’s tempting to claim here that she overplays her hand. She wants to be the mastermind and the victim, the damsel in distress and the Machiavellian villain. “Checkmate, I couldn’t lose,” she sings in “Mastermind,” right after singing in “Sweet Nothing” that “To you I can admit / That I’m just too soft for all of it.” She wants us to believe in her all-encompassing power, while also believing in her vulnerability. But maybe, after this emotional ride, we do.

In Midnights, Taylor Swift walks the line between girl-next-door and CEO-of-superpop better than she has ever walked it before. Is this really “confessional” work? It seems impossible, but in the lavender haze of Midnights’ synth beats, we just might begin to fall under the spell. It’s starting to look like the mastermind cannot fail.

Midnights is streaming now.