Getting on the Taylor Train: reflecting on Midnights – by Lea Zaharoni
What if I told you none of it was accidental…
I was in my friend’s dorm every night for weeks leading up to the Midnights release — searching feverishly for clues in her social media, theorizing on possible video concepts, rather girlishly wondering which songs were about which exes — and I know that hundreds of thousands of others were doing the same. There was something romantic about it; on the fateful release night of October 21st, right at midnight, Spotify crashed, because so many Swifties were zoned in and ready. It felt nice to be a part of something so large, so much bigger than my own personal excitement. Around 12:55 a.m., when I was walking home from my friend’s place after finishing the album’s 44-minute runtime, I ran into not one, not two, but three other groups who were walking home from their respective listening parties.
The resounding opinion we came up with as we discussed the record outside in the cold was one of disappointment. Hype around Midnights, released by Republic Records, was certifiably insane. This is the routine we’ve established — every record is a substantial expansion upon the previous. We wanted to have our minds blown! Instead, our minds were, like, pretty much the same? We’d heard this kind of synth-heavy, widely-accessible pop from Taylor before, on works like 1989.
The thing is (and this is what I didn’t realize at the time), that’s the point. And this is where it gets sticky in trying to have discourse with non-Swifties (or New York Times authors). Midnights is a retrospective on Taylor’s career. You have to know the context, the source material, to understand her nostalgic, at times weary recollections of her own life. You’re expected to have done the listening, to know your facts as an active participant in Swift’s imagined, feverish land of never ending girlhood. You’ll need to have boarded the Taylor train.
Each song on Midnights represents a sleepless night Taylor experienced from ages fifteen to thirty-two, her current age. “You’re on Your Own, Kid”, for example, is clearly narrated by a teen, or maybe even a tween.
Summer went away, still, the yearning stays
I play it cool with the best of them
I wait patiently, he’s gonna notice me
It’s okay, we’re the best of friends
“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”, meanwhile, directly references a relationship Swift had when she was nineteen, during the Fearless era — more on that later.
If I’d only played it safe
I would’ve stayed on my knees
And I damn sure never would’ve danced with the devil
“Lavender Haze” reckons with the media’s expectation that Swift will marry her current partner, Joe Alwyn. Taylor observes the “they” in question as an old frenemy, one she knows well and has tussled with before — thoughts only a seasoned public figure would have.
All they keep asking me
Is if I’m gonna be your bride
The only kind of girl they see
Is a one-night or a wife
“Anti-Hero” is written from a mature, quarter-life-crisis-esque headspace.
I’m the problem, it’s me
I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror
It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero
She even goes so far as to fit her singing voice to the supposed age of each narrator. “Anti-Hero” and “Lavender Haze” are laden with intentional voice cracks, demonstrating aged vocal cords. “You’re on Your Own, Kid” is sung in higher, breathier tones. Swifites, importantly, were around when these recollections of the past were our collective present.
As I try to provide this context, I feel myself coming up against a familiar fatigue. The Taylor Swift Extended Universe (TSEU) is far too vast — I can’t effectively inform a nonbeliever on a sixteen-year-long career, especially when Swift is so commonly looked down upon as just another Top 40 artist writing melodramatic breakup songs. Obvious sexism aside, this is so infuriatingly reductive. The breadth of Taylor’s career is astonishing, as she’s complied with the industry’s demand of constant reinvention for female artists. One thing to understand about the Taylor-verse is the concept of the “era”. Various stages of Taylor’s artistic canon are affectionately referred to by her fans as eras (also the title of her 2023 United States stadium tour). Each album represents a new era — Debut era, 1989 era, Midnights era, etc. — in which Taylor writes a completely new chapter of work, always fit with a designated look, color palette, and general vibe. For example, the 1989 era was all about early twenties, living in New York City, and treating friends like family. For Swifties, eras are shorthand for referencing a particular period in Taylor’s life.
In my experience, having thoughtful discussions about Taylor’s canon often stops at the mention of this concept — it’s too cheesy, over-serious, etc. This is actually completely true. Swifties sometimes resemble asylum patients, unconditionally praising their idol and scheming to make all her moves fit into a perceived jigsaw puzzle of intentionality.
But, I used to naively wonder, what’s so bad about that? Why can’t we obsess, study, and have discourse on one of the most complicated and layered careers in pop history, especially when Taylor encourages it? (I mean, there’s even a New York University course taught on her career — clearly there’s some heft to these discussions.)
Then, I watched my male friends file into theaters showing Marvel films. I also watched countless 30/30 docs with my dad, in which the term “era” is often used to describe stages in the histories of sports teams. Male fandom is encouraged, normal, societally integrated. Sports fans fill stadiums multiple times a week to see their teams play, they paint their faces, they get tattoos, they physically fight each other. Marvel dudes do the same for fake superheroes.
Women can obsess, as long as they’re okay with being considered crazy. Just last week, Nikki Sixx announced in a tweet that Taylor is always “whining about something new”. It’s not that sports are bad and Taylor is good — they’re just the same genre of fun. It’s fun to engage with pop culture, and Taylor plays a two-way game. She gives us gifts, and we don’t have to apologize for accepting them.
Unfortunately for the Debby downers, Midnights is not an album, it’s an era. A piecemeal era, sure, but still an era. Midnights cannot be judged on the music alone. As evidenced in her promo trailer for release week, the setting is a dark and dirty apartment haunted by a girl’s spiraling thoughts. It’s not so much melancholic as regretful — Taylor is ruminating on past failures and traumas from a semi-healed place.
It is, in many ways, a gift to her fans, a la her “From the Vault” collection off Red (Taylor’s Version). Adorably, a TikTok trend of categorizing the Midnights tracklist into their presumed original eras has surfaced — “Maroon” is from Reputation, “High Infidelity” is from Evermore, etc. New songs from bygone eras — this is exactly what the Swifties yearn for!
Notwithstanding the meta-identity of Midnights, the songs are straight up good. In the days following its release, the popular opinion, as I mentioned, was one of mediocrity. Words like wack, corny, and “mid” were in heavy circulation, and I, regrettably, agreed. It just wasn’t giving what Folklore gave — pure storytelling genius. But that’s at first glance. Though less wordy and somewhat hidden under heavy Antonoffian production, each song tells a succinct and dense story.
Now, a little more than a month out, Midnights is generally adored by Swifties (we’re talking a billion streams in November 2022 alone adoration). The New York Times’ Joe Caramanica gave some comparatively scathing takes, i.e. using the words “lackluster” and “bluntly imagistic” to describe “Bejeweled”. This is, for lack of word, insane. “Bejeweled” is one of the songs that, among my Gen Z circles, resonated the most.
Baby love, I think I’ve been a little too kind
Didn’t notice you walking all over my peace of mind
In the shoes I gave you as a present
I gave you my world, have you heard?
I can reclaim the land
And I miss you
But I miss sparkling
Its hypnotic, glistening production and refreshingly confident lyrics pulled us in — luster is the whole thing! “Mastermind” is Taylor at her best, addressing both her partner Joe Alwyn, her fans, and the music industry as a whole.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail
Strategy sets the scene for the tale
I’m the wind in our free-flowing sails
And the liquor in our cocktails
What if I told you none of it was accidental
And the first night that you saw me, nothing was gonna stop me?
I laid the groundwork and then, just like clockwork
The dominoes cascaded in a line
In recent years, Taylor has embraced her own craziness — first assigned to her by the media in conjunction with an overactive dating life, but eventually reclaimed to be an asset and a fundamental part of her identity.
In addition to the songwriting, Taylor has some of the best vocals of her career on Midnights. She glides through the erratic melody of “Anti-Hero” like it’s nothing, and belts her heart out on “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.” But, we were still hesitant about Midnights.
The rough critical start could be attributed to many things: the nearly psychotic hype, the expectation of a Folklore rehash, and, probably most directly, the herd mentality, which maintains that Swift is an ethereal Muse-esque Goddess who operates on a vibrational level far above any mere mortal. This, of course, isn’t true. But it would be difficult even for a God to follow her two previous releases.
In 2020, when Swift surprise-dropped sister albums Folklore and Evermore, her career changed forever. For the first time, she had moved away from certifiable hit-making — these two records were pure folk, with extensive, heartbreaking storytelling and little mind for catchiness or playability. I, personally, cannot listen to these two records casually, as they are, at many points, literal emotional terrorism. This new form of artistry (although the Swifties always knew she had it in her) brought Taylor a credibility she had never before been allotted, not to mention a plethora of new fans. So, when Midnights came, electronic synths ablaze and catchy choruses abound, the Folkloric portion of her fanbase felt confused, even excluded.
But, Taylor is still that 1989 pop queen. Not exclusively, of course — she’s also dominated the country and folk mainstreams. But she is a hitmaker at heart. She understands what a pop song is supposed to do, and she will knock it out of the park every time. Midnights is a return to pop, which necessitates a sparser lyrical style — it shouldn’t be scrutinized by those who weren’t aware there was even a return to be made. Imagine if Bob Dylan started electric, went acoustic, and then went back to electric — that’s the kind of career path that Taylor has paved with her adventurous exploration of different genres.
Over my years of experience as a Swiftie, I’ve consumed a certain dogma perpetuated less by Swift than by her cultish fanbase. This dogma is as follows: Taylor Swift knows all, sees all, and makes every single creative decision, no matter how small, on purpose. It isn’t baseless drivel (I swear). Swift has been very upfront about the employment of mini-scavenger hunts in her media: Instagram posts and comments, music video Easter eggs, even the lyric books inside her vinyls. A color choice here, a capitalized letter there — all very subtle, but all very intentional. She has confirmed this: “I’ve trained them to be that way,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2019. “I love that they like the cryptic hint-dropping. Because as long as they like it, I’ll keep doing it. It’s fun. It feels mischievous and playful.”
This well-documented commitment to intricacy in art is why my friends and I were able to spend hours upon hours speculating about this release. We know her, because she lets us know her. Taylor has been writing an extended autobiography for sixteen years, amending and editing in real time. She engages with her fans in a way that few other stars of her caliber do. She invites them to her house to listen to her music, and she chooses meet-and-greet attendees randomly. Watch the proshots of her stadium tours; her earnestness is palpable. Midnights feels like a privilege to listen to, as it’s yet another angle on her life that we’d previously not seen. For all she’s given us, we still want more.
Taylor has cultivated a giant family: maybe a legion, maybe an army, of people who will always root for her. We still criticize her, of course — Midnights is far from my favorite album — but it’s all in service of her as an icon. It took years, but every passenger on the train has ended up in the same place. Nobody is left behind, waiting at a forgotten station long after last call. I wish the skeptics understood this — that Taylor’s world is so filled with joy if you just surrender to it. Midnights, though, is for passengers who boarded long ago, or at the very least have bought a ticket. It has little mind for those merely watching the train go by, thinking it faster to walk. If you’re an anti-Swiftie, 1) I’m surprised you’ve read this far, and 2) you’re depriving yourself of the honest fun of pop culture worship. Is Taylor really that far off from other mammoth iconoclasts like Tarantino or Michael Jordan or whoever men like? Give in! We would be happy to have you.