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The Anti-Hero We Deserve: Taylor Swift and Her Polarizing ‘Midnights’

Did her new album amuse you? Delight you? Exasperate you? Infuriate you? Well, you’re not alone.

Republic Records/Ringer illustration

It all comes down to how amused, or delighted, or exasperated, or outright infuriated you’re inclined to be by a new Taylor Swift song with a chorus of “It’s me / Hi / I’m the problem / It’s me.” A new Taylor Swift song literally called “Anti-Hero.” A new Taylor Swift song called “Anti-Hero” co-produced by Taylor and fuckin’ Jack Antonoff. A new Taylor Swift song called “Anti-Hero” that’s one of the two truly great songs on a mellow, smeary, well-executed but relatively low-stakes album of electro-pop melancholia—Midnights, her 10th, and if we’re doing Updated Taylor Album Rankings already, this one probably winds up in the bottom third, but don’t get too infuriated (or amused!) just yet—that arrived Friday after an arduous, cryptic, fan-electrifying, and mildly exasperating rollout. A song called “Anti-Hero” with a pretty great but somewhat meme-thirsty second verse that unfolds thus:

Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby
And I’m a monster on the hill
Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favorite city
Pierced through the heart, but never killed

Too big to hang out is pretty funny. I am delighted by “Anti-Hero.” The first line—“I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser”—is pretty great. The line “I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror” is even better. The line “I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money” is great too, despite the fact that in the Taylor-directed “Anti-Hero” music video, that line triggers a supremely arduous “comedy” bit that lasts two minutes but feels like nine hours.

Directing your own not-very-funny music video is all part of being an anti-hero, I guess. But it all comes down to the moment when most of the smeary electro-pop drops out and Taylor sings the chorus again:

It’s me [flustered, stammering]
I’m the problem, it’s me [this is way better acting than any of her actual acting]

It’s me [still flustered]
I’m the problem, it’s me [I’m serious; this is legitimately funny]

It’s me [voice dropped to a low purr]
Hi [hilarious]
Everybody agrees
Everybody agreeeeeees [whimsical possessed droning rumble]

I confess that I absolutely loved this part of “Anti-Hero” the first time I heard it, at roughly 12:06 a.m. Friday morning, and I absolutely loved Midnights as a whole and was all set for it to crash the top third of my personal Arduous Taylor Album Rankings, and I still love “Anti-Hero” even if I’ve cooled somewhat on most of the rest of this record. Maybe that’s the first thing to say clearly: Midnights perfectly captures, and was expertly designed to benefit from, the singular experience of millions of people hitting play on the new Taylor Swift album precisely at midnight Thursday night into Friday morning, everyone up a little too late, everyone all psyched to be once again delighted (or infuriated!) by this person, everyone cautiously hoping fuckin’ Jack Antonoff has learned a few new tricks (no). Midnights: great concept, truly. An exquisite tableau of late-night yearning, and self-loathing, and painful reminiscing, and groggy jubilance, and righteous indignation, and sharp regret. Then you wake up the next morning, overtired and grumpy, and it’s all not quite as vivid and life-changing as you thought. That’s a big part of the concept, too, I guess.

Quick overview of the last three years or so of the Taylor Swift musical experience. Lover, in late summer 2019, is sprawling and chaotic and lovey-dovey and splendid, and one of the best songs (“Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”) is an intriguing Lana Del Rey-style excursion into cryptic, smeary, electro-pop melancholia. No Grammys. Then: worldwide pandemic. Then: summer 2020’s Folklore, an intriguing “Boy, I Wish The National sold a $25 tote bag with SAD DADS printed on it” excursion into pastoral cool-indie-record melancholia that racked up huge victories both formal (it won the big Grammy) and informal (it also won the early days of lockdown). Then: winter 2020’s Evermore, a collection of Folklore B-sides (basically) that did not dilute the impact of Folklore. (No Grammys, but “’Tis the Damn Season” endures.)

Great shit. A wildly productive and riotously successful three-year span, even at Taylor Swift’s scale, even if the single most impactful song Swift released in this span was “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” from the full 2021 re-recording of her 2012 masterpiece Red, which invited us all to get pissed at Ol’ What’s-His-Name all over again, just like the best yearning and righteously indignant Taylor Swift breakup songs used to do, before she settled into a long-term, seemingly idyllic romantic partnership with Ol’ What’s-His-Name (English Version).

Taylor Swift album cycles work like this now, this push and pull between continuity—same collaborators, mostly, with The National’s Aaron Dessner stunt-recruited for much of Folklore but relegated on Midnights to a few even-sleepier bonus tracks—and a very pandemic-appropriate total lack of sonic continuity. Now we’ve swerved back to somnolent drum-machine beats, and a few disquieting bouts of pitch-shifted vocals, and a languid Lana Del Rey collab called “Snow on the Beach” which describes the title image as “weird but fuckin’ beautiful,” and bleary-eyed synth riffs that risk evoking a wintry greyscale desolation more effectively than anything on Folklore did.

That overview could’ve been quicker, but you get it.

I’m sorry for calling him “fuckin’ Jack Antonoff.” That’s performative. I am, for the record, a Jack Antonoff agnostic, but I very much enjoy people who don’t enjoy this guy at all. My single favorite piece of Midnights criticism-slash-analysis thus far is brought to us by this guy.

I get it. Antonoff’s default production mode is twee, janky, and self-consciously skeletal. No feelings, just vibes. A limp handshake as a show of dominance; the mistaken belief that twinkly is a personality. Subversion via edglessness. Call him the Weekdy. That doesn’t look as funny in print as I wish it did. Oh, well. He’s fine. It’s fine. It is abundantly clear, given Antonoff’s bonkers list of recent collaborators—The 1975, The Chicks, Florence + the Machine, Clairo, Lorde, St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey etc. etc.—that pop stars love this guy, and love him not so much for his Shut-In Springsteen sonic aura as for his megawatt comity, his collaborative warmth, his devotion to helping you, the pop star, do whatever you want done. He understands whatever the assignment is, so if you’re inclined to make hilarious viral videos about how much you hate the end product, blame whoever assigned it to him.

Look: Taylor Swift wants to sound sleepy and tentative and gossamer and twinkly on Midnights, and so she does. She can wring a lot of charm, and even a little pathos, out of this groggy bedroom-pop mode. Dig the dazed bounce in her voice amid the luxe sultriness of “Maroon” as she sings, “’How’d we end up on the floor, anyway?’ you say / Your ROOMmate’s CHEAP-ass SCREW-top ROsé, that’s how.” Dig the exasperation in her voice on the painfully delicate “Sweet Nothing” as she summarizes the music business as “Industry disruptors and soul deconstructors / And smooth-talking hucksters out glad-handing each other,” landing sweetly on the line, “To you, I can admit / That I’m just too soft for all of it.” Dig the title of “Vigilante Shit,” on which she gravely intones, “I don’t dress for women / I don’t dress for men / Lately I’ve been dressing for revenge,” evoking the uneasy cornball menace of 2017’s Reputation. (I am not one of these people trying to convince you that Reputation is secretly Swift’s true masterpiece, but I am less exasperated by those people than I used to be.)

Dig “Karma,” man. Dig its relentless twinkliness, which nicely undercuts the menace, and vice versa. I am trained at this point to hear exactly one song on each new Swift album as yet another shot at Scooter Braun and all her other adversaries in this whole Couldn’t Buy Her Own Masters situation, and yeah, this time that song’s called “Karma”: “Spider boy / King of thieves / Weave your little webs of opacity / My pennies made your crown.” And there’s something truly startling about hearing Taylor Swift breathily sing the line, “Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ‘cause it loves me,” so twee, so self-aggrandizing, so ridiculous, so perfectly her. I love the bridge on “Karma” too:

Ask me what I learned from all those years
Ask me what I earned from all those tears
Ask me why so many fade
But I’m still here

Maybe you roll your eyes as she rhymes years with tears, but when her voice multiplies and breaks into ecstatic, extra-self-aggrandizing harmony on I’m still here: That’s the shit. That moment will sustain you through a great deal of Antonoffian dorkiness. The lyrical content on Midnights—which I’d summarize as My public life is chaos, but my relationship is great—is not terribly engaging, even if it’s fun to listen as Swift contemplates the very idea of marriage (summarized on “Lavender Haze” as “The 1950s shit they want from me”) or sweetly hammers at the line “Oh no / I’m falling in love again” on the relentlessly shimmering “Labyrinth.” But moments like the “Karma” bridge are a bracing reminder that Swift, in addition to being one of the most successful and polarizing pop stars of her generation, is also among the best songwriters of her generation. This is also evident on Midnights’ closing track, “Mastermind,” which is the album’s other truly great song, and climaxes with an awfully charming summary of what makes her so polarizing:

No one wanted to play with me as a little kid
So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since
To make them love me and make it seem effortless
This is the first time I’ve felt the need to confess

Time for the big finish, where we once again multiply those voices into something ridiculous and ecstatic and ever-so-slightly menacing:

And I swear
I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ’cause I care

Fantastic moment. Swift tacked seven wan bonus tracks onto Midnights three hours after its release, featuring one good song (“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”) and a handful of good lines (“You know there’s many different ways that you can kill the one you love / The slowest way is never loving them enough”), but my only real problem with them is that they dilute the impact of “Mastermind.” Great song—the tweeness escalating until it approaches something like grandeur; Swift’s self-satisfied but slightly dazed triumph escalating until it approaches something like charm. Midnights is a minor affair in the larger Taylor Swift catalog, but this is not a person who does minor anymore, and the usual searing spotlight that tracks her every move will only further expose this record’s flaws, its inherent drowsiness, its cheap-laptop-speakers stasis. Treat it like the most expensive bottle of cheap-ass screw-top rosé you’ve ever opened and you’ll be fine. Just brace yourself for the hangover, and drink plenty of water, too.