Opinion: This album brings ‘Taylor math’ to a whole new level

Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville University and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

Friday’s midnight release of “The Tortured Poets Department,” Taylor Swift’s 11th album, means that yet another era has begun — and a record-breaking one at that. Swifties, who are now more than familiar with football jargon (at least when it comes to Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce, Taylor’s beau) can finally put away the grill and the drinks, lock the car, and leave the parking lot for the stadium. The tailgate is over: it’s game on for Taylor Nation.

I am one of them, and the anticipation — along with the revelry — has been an extended family affair.

Amy Bass - Courtesy Rodney Bedsole
Amy Bass - Courtesy Rodney Bedsole

Having secured tickets to an epic night of the Eras tour last spring at Gillette Stadium, my daughter Hannah and I made a pilgrimage from New York to attend the show with my lifelong best friend Sarah and her daughter Maggie. We were two moms with decades of concerts — from Def Leppard to U2 to Lizzo — under our belts, and our teen daughters, with whom we have danced to the likes of Harry Styles, Olivia Rodrigo and SZA.

The thing is, after that night at Gillette, I thought we were on the other side of Swift mania for a while. I was wrong. When more dates were announced, Maggie somehow got a code and purchased four seats for us in … are you ready for it?

Vancouver. A mere 2,500 miles away.

The seats are terrible, Sarah told me. It would be ridiculous to do this, we reasoned. I was very close to getting Hannah to agree it was too much. But Maggie was not to be dissuaded — and Sarah and I realized this might be the last great thing we do before these girls of ours leave our houses and head to college, to jobs and to lives that will be even more of their own than they are now.

We are not alone in this. The broader Swiftie community serves as a connector for all kinds of relationships, from best friends to parents and kids, creating a landscape for communication, bonding and the rites of passage that can be so difficult, perhaps especially for teenage girls like our daughters.

An absurdly brief trip to Vancouver via — literally — planes, trains, and an automobile was set. All things Swiftie, then, were settled. Or so we thought, until February.

That’s when Swift, at the Grammys no less (where she won a historic fourth Album of the Year award for “Midnights”), announced “The Tortured Poets Department” would be coming on April 19. In the days leading up to the big night, Swifties speculated that the artist would reveal the long-awaited re-release of “Reputation, her sixth album, which many felt would be the next “Taylor’s Version,” a series of re-recordings that allowed her to regain rights to her material after Big Machine, her original record company, sold her masters.

Swifties dug into Taylor math, which often revolves around the number 13, the date of her December birthday. Indeed, 13 days before the Grammys, her friends, including Kelce, had changed their profile pictures on social media to black and white, the colors of “Reputation.” She showed up on the Grammys’ red carpet in a white dress with black accents. Her website went down, replaced by a black screen and seemingly meaningless words in white, including “Error 321” and “DPT:321” and “hneriergrd,” which Swifties unscrambled as “red herring.”

The speculation was overwhelming: A fax error? A countdown? A blind alley? No. It was the new album. With a smile and what looked like a peace sign, she left the stage, the album’s cover immediately going up on her Instagram site.

The pregame anticipation on this one has been intense, starting with how and when she recorded this, her fourth album in four years, while prepping and executing the highest-grossing concert tour of all time. Her work ethic makes the rest of us mere mortals feel inadequate at best. She writes, like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, as if she is running out of time.

But the bigger question was what — who — this record was about, and all paths led to the 2023 end of her six-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn.

The easiest clue, of course, is the title itself, a seemingly savage take on Alwyn’s WhatsApp chat with his friends entitled “The Tortured Man Club.” The release date, too, holds value. While fans locate Swift’s split from Alwyn to be anywhere from February to early April, 2023, it was on April 19 that she went to dinner with friends Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, who subsequently unfollowed Alwyn on social media. The date also, of course, marks the anniversary of the split of the 13 American colonies (13, don’t forget) from Great Britain in 1775 with the Battle of Lexington and Concord, starting a war against a perceived tyranny that would end in independence for the oppressed.

An album about liberation? Freedom? Separation? A break from … a British boyfriend? A date chosen because 256 days remain in the year, and if you add those numbers up you get 13?

When the track list emerged, all eyes went to track five, which is where Swift has always located her heart, producing gut-wrenching tracks such as “Dear John” on “Speak Now,” “My Tears Ricochet” on “Folklore” and the epic “All Too Well” on “Red,” which allegedly details in excruciating detail her breakup with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

This time around, we have “So Long, London,” cowritten with The National’s Aaron Dessner, whose last track five with Swift was on “Evermore,” the devastating “Tolerate It.”

So, what has my cohort of Swifties made of all this? My best friend’s daughter, the teen I thought might be done with all this for a while (as we wait for Vancouver), might actually be the Swiftie of all Swifties, a Taylor archivist of sorts (with a brother who was born on … December 13). Where does all of this fit, I asked her — what’s the long game?

In true Gen Z fashion, she responded a few hours later with an extensive, masterful, complex slide deck presentation that would undoubtedly nab her an A in Harvard’s Taylor course. She contextualized the theories — some rational, some out there, but all relevant because in Swiftie world, nothing is coincidence and everything is intentional — and concluded that this was, indeed, Swift’s first “break-up” record since “Red” (see Gyllenhaal).

Suddenly “You’re Losing Me,” a bonus track from “Midnights,” which is about the things that keep you up at night, seemed like a precursor, a song about the beginning of an end, especially when longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff referred to recording the song back in 2021. More clues came when a pale gray and pink “Pop-Up Library” exhibit sponsored by Spotify went up at The Grove in Los Angeles, seemingly a poetry library filled with Swift’s manuscripts.

It’s one thing to be a puzzle to your fans — it’s entirely another to make a puzzle for your fans. Swift has created music’s version of “I Spy” novels for this generation, encoding notes in her lyrics, creating everything from complex numerologies to word searches. The relentless hunt for Easter eggs across social media suddenly took physical form in this exhibit: from the 72 (the number of months Swift was with Alwyn) card catalogue drawers, six (the number of years Swift was with Alwyn) of which are open and filled with lace and dead flowers to a bust of the goddess Diana, the original statue crumbled on its way to London in the 6th century because of neglect. “Even statues crumble,” Swift’s TTPD billboard says in New York’s Times Square, “if they’re made to wait.”

When it was finally midnight, game time, all members of my own Swiftie family were in our own homes listening to the same thing, track by track, unpacking words and music, texting thoughts and questions (Who is Dylan Thomas? My name is in a song! My name is too!). I went to track five first, which everyone else found to be heresy. But it confirmed an awful lot of what everyone suspected: Swift’s voice at its most vulnerable with the words “And I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free.”

Was it about Alwyn? Yes. Was it about other things, including (especially?) Matty Healy? Also, yes. Is “The Alchemy” about Kelce? Oh my. Yeah. Maybe. Probably.

As we continued to listen — and yes, Friday’s a school/work day but who needs sleep??!! — alongside all of the Swifties posting emotional selfies and TikToks with their hands slapped over their mouths in awe, shouty caps pronouncing their love for this track or that, we found (we thought) answers to many questions, and had new questions that needed answers.

This record is as messy as it is emotional. It felt like the initial speculation all those months ago were somewhat vindicated. Perhaps what we thought were peace signs — from Swift’s gesture at the Grammys to a sculpture in The Grove exhibit — were actually twos.

In many ways, “Reputation” and “TTPD” felt like two sides of the same relationship, their inverted black and white color schemes creating a yin and a yang, and while the first contains her first love songs to Alwyn — from “Delicate” to “Gorgeous” — the latter creates needed closure, maturity even.

And at 2am, with the drop of the rest of what is now an old-fashioned double album, the “two” symbolism took on yet another layer of meaning. Two albums, not one. 31 tracks. And yes, 31 is 13 backwards and that, too, is no accident. Check out the erratic capitalization of track 24, “Thank you Aimee” if you doubt that Swift is masterminding it all. For my merry band of Swifties, there are no accidents. Just puzzles to gleefully solve, together, for as long as we can.

“Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it,” Swift wrote on X (formerly Twitter) just after midnight.  “And then all that’s left behind is the tortured poetry.”  For my group of four, what is left to ponder as we continue to digest this record, together, in the coming months is what might be our last concert road trip, our last stab at a mother-daughter journey. Maybe wherever they land, there is a seminar on Taylor Swift.  Then maybe we can study for the final exam together.

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