Taylor Swift is a storytelling mastermind in ‘Midnights’
By Larraine V. Castillo
Earlier this year, Taylor Swift, one of the most popular artists of this generation, received her honorary doctorate degree from New York University. In her speech to the institution’s Class of 2022, she talked about how life was just one big whirlwind of complex emotions. According to the singer-songwriter, what matters is how we become resilient despite these curveballs while making sure to “breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, and breathe out.” Unknowingly to the audience and the whole world, the graduates were sent off not only with Swift’s advice on life and love but also with lyrics from what was about to be her 10th original studio album. Even prestigious universities were not spared from Swift’s undying habit to drop Easter eggs for her upcoming projects.
For the first time since evermore in 2020, this new addition to Swift’s discography wasn’t about one-upping Scooter Braun with the re-released version of a past album, but about documenting the things her mind wanders to in the wee hours of the night. Never mind that this may not be the best habit for her sleep schedule, as long as it caters to her ever-hungry fans — who are always on the edge of their seats for her next release — almost immediately followed by broken Spotify records and instant rises to the top of the charts.
Swift shows her enthusiasm once again to create an album in an unfamiliar genre. Adamantly refusing to stay stagnant in one musical area for long, she experiments with synth sounds, moving closer to pop this time around. Synth-pop has now become her next prey. With her head held high and her heart on her sleeve, Swift takes on the market once again with Midnights, a visual album that delves into love affairs, self-loathing, and retaliation.
Infatuation with a hint of forever
Everybody knows to expect a love song from Swift one way or another. She starts off the album with Lavender Haze, a passionate one about paying no mind to those who have a bone to pick with her relationship. It’s reminiscent of the Lover track I Think He Knows as it carries the same falsetto chorus and emulates the same high that one feels when they’re in love. The track sets the listener behind a veil that hides away the rest of the world and only lets in the warmth and tenderness that come with being someone you’re enamored of (“Talk your talk and go viral, I just need this love spiral”).
One of the slower and more mellow songs, Labyrinth wades in the fear of falling in love, but doing so anyway because life is too short, isn’t it? Just like love, one may have to navigate a maze, start trial and error, and fail every now and then in order to end up with the partner they deserve (“I thought the plane was goin’ down, how’d you turn it right around?”). The listeners are given time in between verses to soak it all in, just like how love is supposed to be given time to process. The repeated usage of the word “break” was a clever move, carrying different meanings until it arrives at the conclusion that Swift has met someone who will not break her heart, but “break their back” to see her smile. The post-chorus, with its harmonies and accompanying production, exudes both fear and bliss, the two central emotions of the track, and ties it up in a neat, heavenly bow. This may have been one of the best metaphors Swift has ever come up with.
As if she hasn’t told the world enough, another song comes in about the way Swift feels about her beau of 6 years, with whom she co-wrote the track. Sweet Nothing brings everything wholesome as Swift details the euphoric moments of her relationship. It is as personal as ever, mentioning specific places and interactions to set the scene (“Does it ever miss Wicklow sometimes?”). She never directly states it, but she conveys the safety she feels with her boyfriend through lyrics like “Outside they’re push and shoving, you’re in the kitchen humming.” She once again expresses vulnerability, another core component of love that she presents beautifully in the bridge. Her vocals carry strength until she admits, only to her lover, that she’s “too soft” for what the world has put her through. It is as romantic as romantic can get, which is no surprise coming from Swift.
The closing track, Mastermind, talks about destiny, or rather Swift’s orchestration of it. In classic Swiftian fashion, she bares her inner child as she confesses the loneliness that made up her youth and how she goes the extra mile for love as a result. She wraps up both the song and the album by recounting that her lover had always known about the tricks up her sleeve, but went along with it anyway. Swift compacted scheming, vulnerability, and purity in three minutes, ending Midnights gratifyingly with the record being an amalgamation of these three concepts.
Emotional cinematic pictures
If you thought Swift was finished with the color red, she brings one of its shades to the second track, Maroon. Through the interactions she describes, “Laughing with my feet in your lap like you were my closest friend,” Swift lets you visualize a couple being intimate in their home — marveling at how powerful the relationship was. The picturesque chorus (“The burgundy on my t-shirt when you splashed your wine into me,” “The rust that grew between telephones”) places the listener in the middle of the room as the scenes take place between the lovers, viewed in slow motion until the point that the romance falls apart. Maroon is just another piece of evidence that Swift has the power to make you feel exactly what the characters in her narratives feel.
Anti-Hero is the first in the album accompanied by a music video. Swift shifts the focus to herself as she details her fears, mental health issues, and ghosts. Swift brings us inside her mind when she presents her self-deprecation as a song. “I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror” is a piercing way to present her self-destructive nature, as vulnerable as it is painful. With her overthinking tendencies and anxieties bared and open for viewing, Swift has broken down even more of the walls between her and her listeners with one of her most honest works to date.
The highlights start pouring in with You’re On Your Own, Kid. With lyrics like “I search the party of better bodies just to learn that you never cared” to “‘Cause there were pages turned with the bridges burned,” Swift encapsulates the harshness of getting slapped in the face by reality, while also portraying growth as a difficult, yet fulfilling process. The bridge (“Make the friendship bracelets, take the moment and taste it, you’ve got no reason to be afraid”) satisfyingly captures these sentiments and transforms the title from a lonely realization to an empowering philosophy, much like what someone’s line of thinking can lead to in a late night of self-reflection. Swift has simply outdone herself with this track.
Midnight Rain starts off with a reverb, a welcome surprise that sets the alluring tone of the whole song. She sings about her extravagant life and ambitions, and how it was incompatible with those of her romantic interest. It’s just the kind of recollection a sentimental girl’s mind will go to once she’s alone with her thoughts, and it’s the kind that’s pleasing to the ears.
Bejeweled comes as a breath of fresh air with its illuminating chorus that brightens up the album. As independent as ever, she sings about being her own person even without the presence of her significant other. Something about the way she says “shimmer” needs to be investigated in the way that it scratches the brain in just the right areas as Swift’s sassiness and confidence shine through.
Curses, gen Z lyrics, and other naiveties
In Snow on the Beach, Swift sings about falling in love whilst feeling like she’s in a dream. It’s a shame that Lana Del Rey, a seasoned singer-songwriter, faded into the background and never got so much as a verse to herself. The track missed an opportunity to become a stand-out as a result. Aside from delegating the role of background vocalist to her supposed collaborator, Swift takes the wrong step by plopping an explicit word precisely in the middle of her choruses. This bizarre placement makes them feel like fishes out of water (or beach) in a song with the intention to showcase the beauty of a budding relationship. Swift has proven many times that she has the power to make people dust off their dictionaries, so it is difficult to believe that she couldn’t find a more suitable descriptor for how beautiful she thinks the snow on the beach was. The verses, however, could not sound more angelic if she tried (“I saw flecks of what could’ve been lights, but it might just have been you passing by unbeknownst to me”).
Swift sings to a former lover in Question…?, asking more than just a few questions in hopes of getting closure. This interrogatory track, however, blends into the background in terms of production and fails to bring the pondering lyrics to life. Vigilante ****, on the other hand, carries a menacingly booming production, but you won’t see any longtime fan of Swift mentioning it in conversations about her most brilliant lyrics ever concocted. “Draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a man” jumps out neither as an effective opening line nor an actual threat.
Swift’s vengeful side returns with Karma, which does a good job of reminding us that the singer doesn’t like to let go of her grudges without writing about it as a musical middle finger. She identifies karma as the different joyful aspects of her life, including her boyfriend, a nice breeze, and her cat. While the attempt to dip her toes back into her reputation era was apparent, it didn’t work quite as well this time around as the lyrics can come across as too abrupt, with Swift sounding like a Gen Z teenager more often than necessary (“Flexing like a goddamn acrobat, me and karma vibe like that”).
A songwriter’s gotta shine
Swift stays unfailing in her ability to convey complex emotions in a way that few artists have been able to parallel. The variety of themes, from realizations to romance to revenge, is the sweet component that makes Midnights such a delight to listen to. This is just one of the ways Swift demonstrates how multifaceted her mind is, and it always translates well to a song.
Despite her storytelling skills, there’s something left to be desired as Midnights is not the best example of her songwriting flair, although the difficulty of stepping it up from bodies of work like folklore and evermore is inevitable. Still, it’s a little dismaying to see her turn to teenagers’ sayings and curse words to enhance her songs when her past works are sufficient proof that her vocabulary and lines of thought are as wide as oceans.
Swift is a force of nature who has once again created an elevating album with her never-withering talent to spell out gorgeous visuals captured in a song. She falters in the few moments where the lyrics regress in quality and certain tracks fade into the background, but for an artist 16 years into her career, Swift remains unwavering in her ability to make the whole place, the whole world rather, shimmer.
Meet Taylor Swift at midnight by streaming the album now.