If Swift’s previous recordings were full-fledged productions with a radically distinct aesthetic, this one would be best staged in a black box theater, where the stories change but the physical space always remains austere. The effect is most curious on “Maroon”, which opens in the media following a night fueled by a roommate’s “cheap screwed rosé,” a syllabic feat. This doomed romance unfolds atop a dejected roar, with drums ringing out as if coming out of a black hole; by the final chorus, Swift’s vocals are treated to within an inch of their life. In stark contrast to the passionate tinge of his words, the overall effect is oddly impersonal, bordering on numbing. Of all the songs on Midnights“Maroon” may be the one who keeps me woke up at night.
On the 2020s Folklore and Still, Swift moved away from writing autobiographical songs and found new depths of feeling in fictional narratives. For perhaps the first time in a career founded on organized lyrical bloodshed, she has given herself the gift of emotional distance. With Midnights, she returns to a diaristic style, addressing Taylor Swift’s central conflict, the individual and personality: she is self-aware but rarely self-aware. “I’ll look directly at the sun but never in the mirror,” she sings on lead single “Anti-Hero,” weary as a wink. She plays with her self-loathing, comparing herself to a performatively selfless politician and a Godzilla trampling a town of sexy babes; “It’s me, hey/I’m the problem,” she says on deck, sketching a grimacing smile and imagining the memes to come. Owning the “problem” isn’t quite the same as changing, and she bets you can understand.
Swift revisits this tension in the final minutes of Midnightson “Mastermind”: “I swear/I’m only enigmatic and Machiavellian because I care.” Movingly, she writes a twisted ending herself: the lover whose attention she spent all the attention of the song sees through her creations. Swift has often portrayed love as something that happens at his; from “You Belong With Me” to “Don’t Blame Me”, she is always at the whim of romance. But the “Mastermind” not only achieves what she wants and deserves through her own efforts, but she finds someone who recognizes how important it is for her to assert her creative agency. The sentiment is echoed again in “Sweet Nothing,” a hiccuping nursery rhyme penned alongside her partner, actor Joe Alwyn (credited as William Bowery): “On the way home/I wrote a poem/You say , ‘What a spirit’/ It happens all the time.”