Album Review

Cultural references you might have missed on Taylor Swift’s new album The Tortured Poets Department

We decided to deep dive into some of the books, songs and public figures referenced on TTPD - I guess you could say we know Aristotle!
Anna Sykes

May 8, 2024

Taylor Swift by Beth Garrabrant

Taylor Swift is no stranger to a cultural reference in her lyrics, having mentioned novels including The Great Gatsby, Rebecca and Alice in Wonderland throughout her previous eras. Unexpectedly, given its literary title (which is not to be confused with the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society), The Tortured Poets Department is culturally richer than any of Swift’s previous albums. See below for a song-by-song guide of some of the nicher references you might have missed while digesting all 31 new tracks!

‘The Tortured Poet’s Department’ 

  • “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith, this ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’re modern idiots” - Dylan Thomas was a Welsh poet writing in the early 20th century, best known for his works Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Under Milk Wood. Patti Smith was a prolific artist in the ‘70s New York City punk movement. She’s also a celebrated author, having written over 20 books including Just Kids, a memoir chronicling her experiences as a struggling artist in New York. Both Thomas and Smith were once residents of the Chelsea Hotel, a famous New York City hotel that operated as a housing cooperative in the 20th century which took in struggling artists, musicians and entertainers. Other notable past residents include Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and honorary Tortured Poet Ethan Hawke. In this lyric, Swift is saying that she and her lover are not celebrated genius poets, and their relationship is not legendary.
  • “We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist’ - Charlie Puth is an American artist and producer, famous for 2010s hits including ‘See You Again’ with Wiz Khalifa. The lyric has been noted for its randomness which adds to the absurdity of the song’s lyrics, one that can be viewed as a pastiche of Matty Healy’s writing style for The 1975’s music. 

‘Guilty As Sin?’ 

  • “Drownin’ in The Blue Nile, he sent me ‘Downtown Lights,’ I hadn’t heard it in a while” - ‘The Downtown Lights’ is a 1989 song by Scottish band The Blue Nile which centers on the loneliness and longing of a big city. Matty Healy has described The Blue Nile as his ‘favorite band’ and this song serves as a reference for The 1975’s song ‘Love It If We Made It.’ 

While the previous 2 songs are rumored to be about Swift’s short-term relationship with The 1975’s frontman Matty Healy, the below song ‘Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?’ contributes towards a second key theme of the record - Swift’s relationship with the public. Having been in the public eye since she was a teenager, Swift has reached an insurmountable and stratospheric level of fame over the past few years. She highlights the difficulties that come along with this on songs including ‘But Daddy I Love Him’ and ‘I Can Do It With A Broken Heart.’ 

‘Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?’ 

  • “Crash the party like a record scratch as I scream, ‘Well, who’s afraid of little old me?’” - The hook of this song is inspired by the title of Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which examines the complexities of marriage. The play was adapted into a 1966 film starring none other than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Swift has long been fascinated by the tumultuous off-screen relationship between these actors, who married twice and were one of the first celebrity couples to receive excess media attention - Swift previously referenced them in ‘...Ready For It?’ on 2017’s reputation. In the play’s context ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ is used to tease a person’s fear of vulnerability and honesty, due to the raw and emotional nature of early 20th century British author Viriginia Woolf’s writing. By referencing this, Swift is putting herself in the place of Virginia Woolf and criticizing the cycle of fame - the public demand to know everything about her life and hear her raw, emotional lyrics; but also cower away if she shows herself to be too vulnerable or too human. 

Swift sure knows how to surprise her fans, and did so this time by releasing an extra 15 tracks to streaming platforms to create The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology. With a more folklorian feel, the extra songs were equally as culturally rich as the first 16 - read below for analysis on them!

‘The Black Dog’ 

  • “How you’d miss me in The Black Dog when someone plays The Starting Line” - Swift is referencing emo band The Starting Line, best known for their 2003 song ‘The Best Of Me.’ Matty Healy covered the song at The 1975’s Auckland show in 2023, saying “shout out to people in their 30s.” Swift uses this reference to poke fun at Healy’s new younger girlfriend, who she assumes is too young to know the song.


‘The Albatross’ 

  • “She’s the albatross, she is here to destroy you” - There are two key literary albatrosses that could have inspired Swift here. The first comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which a mariner kills an innocent albatross he believes to be a bad omen, bringing a curse upon himself and his crew. The sailor is forced to wear the albatross around his neck, serving as a metaphor for the burden of his guilt and recompense for his actions. Swift describes herself as the albatross here, illustrating the way men view women as the villain, and place blame on them rather than facing their own actions. The second notable literary albatross is in Charles Baudelaire’s poem The Albatross - Baudelaire also references sailors killing an albatross, but here the albatross represents the poet’s struggles in a society that continuously belittles and criticizes him, unable to comprehend his poetry. Swift could be using this reference to hint towards the media’s misunderstanding of her songwriting, and the way she has often been presented as a femme fatale who destroys her past lovers with her pen.

The ‘Anthology’ part of TTPD feels reminiscent of Swift’s pandemic albums, folklore and evermore. Not only are the songs largely produced by Aaron Dessner, but they also feel highly fictionalized and mythological - Swift creates her own characters like ‘The Bolter’ and references existing fictional characters on ‘Cassandra’ and ‘Peter.’

'I Hate It Here' 

  • “I hate it here so I will go to secret gardens in my mind…I read about it in a book when I was a precocious child” - Swift is referencing Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, in which an orphaned young girl discovers a neglected garden and decides to restore it. Swift uses this to highlight the importance of fiction as an escape from reality. 
Taylor Swift by Beth Garrabrant


  • “So they killed Cassandra first ‘cause she feared the worst” - Cassandra is a reference to the Ancient Greek Trojan priestess, whose prophecies were always correct but often not believed because they were too devastating. Swift uses Cassandra to represent the way the public turned against her in 2016 when calling out Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and how she was later found to have been in the right all along. 


  • “Forgive me Peter, my lost fearless leader, in closets like cedar” and “You said you were gonna grow up, and then you were gonna come find me” - This song is a reference to J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan. Swift is depicting her lover as the titular character who promised to find her once he grew up, but she learns to realize that he never will grow up and is forced to give up on him. There are many references to the story of Peter Pan throughout the song - including his Lost Boys, and the image of Wendy waiting by the window for him to return.

Given the amount of textual detail in Swift’s writing, it’s no wonder that Swifties joke about needing a dictionary for a new album - one may even argue you need a literature degree (which luckily, I do have!) Personally, I’ve always loved tracking Swift’s cultural references in her songwriting - not only because it increases her songs’ relatability (who doesn’t turn to different forms of media in times of deep emotion?), but also because it helps to cement her writing in the literary canon as one of the greatest writers of our generation.

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