What we're listening to: The Tortured Poets Department and Eternal Sunshine

Music streaming releases as pop culture events.

In this installment of what we're listening to, Reviews Editor Cherlynn Low dives into new releases from Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, and explores what music means to us when songs are consumed more like books and journal entries.

Cherlynn Low, Deputy Editor, Reviews

April 19 should have been declared a global holiday. It was, after all, the release day of Taylor Swift’s highly anticipated album, The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD). How could we be expected to work on this most hyped of Fridays, when there were lyrics to overanalyze and melodies to emo-walk to?

The album cover for Taylor Swift's The Tortured Poets Department The Anthology

I’ll admit: I hate myself a bit for the eagerness with which I hit play on albums like TTPD and Ariana Grande’s Eternal Sunshine (ES). Both musicians had recently left long-term relationships and got together with new beaus, amid rabid press coverage and relentless speculation on Reddit. I usually prefer to hear from the people involved instead of reading tabloid articles based on what “friends close to” said, and for Swift and Grande, songs are usually as close as we’ll get to primary sources.

I saw these albums as opportunities to get their takes on what went down. Granted, it’s always wise to take their words with generous helpings of salt, the same way therapists tend to remember that their patients’ retelling of stories can be skewed or unreliable.

Both Grande and Swift have made their lives the subject of their music for years, and they often have an air of defensiveness. Titles like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Yes, and?” make me think of people who blame others or don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Even songs like Swift’s “Anti-Hero” from her last album and Grande’s “Thank U, Next” seem at first glance to be about taking accountability, but really continue the theme of dodging real responsibility.

I’m not sure if music has always been rooted in scrutinizing the artist’s life, but it certainly seems to have become more popular in recent years. The level of interest and analysis around things as simple as word choice or order has probably never been as high, either. It’s also worth considering that these two much-hyped albums were released within two months of each other. Granted, Swift’s new music has only been out for about 40 hours, and there are 31 whole songs spanning a full 65 minutes and 8 seconds, so I will need to listen to it a few more times for it all to sink in.

Grande’s album, which dropped last month, was scrutinized by fans and critics alike. It was released shortly after her divorce from Dalton Gomez and her budding relationship (reportedly) with fellow Wicked cast member Ethan Slater.

When I first played through ES, I was mostly underwhelmed and annoyed. There was, as expected, no accountability for what her actions did to the mother of a newborn and a lot of romanticizing of her latest man. But even on just my second listening, I knew I had a few favorite tracks. Other Engadget staff members agree with me: ES is a solid album with quite a few bangers.

One of the album covers for Ariana Grande's album Eternal Sunshine

I may not endorse Grande’s behavior — and no one asked me to — but damn, I can’t help liking her music. And it’s probably because I’m hooked on the melodies and production, not the lyrical content.

Swift, on the other hand, seems more of an aspiring wordsmith. Much has been said about her lyrical abilities, and I have no desire to retread those waters. I’ll just say that as an occasional aspiring poet myself, I have to admire the laissez faire approach of rhyming “department” with “apartment.”

I’m more intrigued by what seems to me like the priority of a song’s words over its tune and sound. Like Billboard states, TTPD’s title alone “calls even more attention to her lyricism than usual.”

Swift’s music has always felt like journal entries meant for the public, chock-full of inside references, Easter eggs and thinly veiled digs at former lovers. Her earlier works were therefore highly relatable for scores of teenagers around the world. But as her success ballooned, so has she grown out of touch with the average person, and her songs have consequently become more like glimpses into a life that mere mortals can only dream about. While her pieces continue to feel like blogs or Tumblr posts, Swift controls the narrative by carefully orchestrating not just synths, guitars and lyrics, but also pap walks and delicately timed public appearances.

Unlike Grande, who has mostly avoided appearing with Slater at high-profile events and also hasn’t hidden as many Easter eggs in her songs, Swift has not been afraid to show off and show up for her new partner. She’s not publicity-averse; she seems to anticipate and almost courts it.

With the general strategy around TTPD, like announcing it at the Grammy’s and slow teases of lyrics and cover art, it certainly seems like these days, the billionaire with a private jet problem is more focused on her myth and financial value than the art of songwriting.

Swift surprised everyone at 2AM on April 19 by releasing a whole 15 more songs alongside the initial 16 people were expecting for TTPD. This meant that anyone who pre-ordered the original album would miss out on basically an entire second album worth of tracks and need to spend more. The Swift team also made several versions of the physical album available, like collectors’ editions — all blatant cash grabs designed to maximize revenue.

Grande is guilty of this too, making so many different iterations of “Yes, and?” when that single was released in what seemed like an attempt to place the song at the top of streaming charts. ES also has different versions of cover art for fans to spend their hard-earned money on.

Here’s the thing. Do I care deeply about either of these albums? Nope. Did I eagerly listen to them, hoping to glean insight on their seemingly messy and chaotic relationships? Yes. But despite Swift’s marketing and positioning herself as a poet — and TTPD offering more of a look at her fling with Matty Healy from The 1975 — I realized I just didn’t quite like her album musically. In fact, my favorite Swift songs like “Wildest Dreams” and “Delicate” are beautiful symphonies of atmospheric synths and instrumentation.

Maybe I’m just learning that I care more about music than lyrics. Or maybe I think good songs are a combination of the two and should speak for themselves without having to rely on hype, gossip and marketing tactics. To be fair, that’s true of all art, whether it’s film, photography or poetry. And while the irony of my being sucked into playing TTPD and ES due to the promise of learning about their lives isn’t lost on me, I guess I just wish I could listen to music (and read books and watch movies) without having to worry or be so concerned about the creator’s choices and actions. But in 2024 (and beyond), that seems no longer feasible.