At the end of August, Taylor Swift announced her 10th studio album in an Instagram post and invited her fans to “meet her at midnight” on Oct. 21. “This is a collection of music written in the middle of the night,” she wrote in the post, calling the album a series of “terrors and sweet dreams.” The album was set to have 13 tracks, detailing 13 sleepless nights “scattered throughout (Swift’s) life.”
In anticipation of the album’s release, Swift rolled out new merchandise for the album earlier this month, including four different editions of the album on vinyl, the covers of which form a clock when put together. She also released individual videos revealing the names of each track on the album in a TikTok series she called “Midnights Mayhem with Me,” pulling out balls from a bingo machine to determine the track number. It’s never been a secret that Swift is adept at marketing, but often in the past it has been easy to acknowledge that her strategies serve to bolster the success of the music itself.
But the tactics she employed to generate hype for “Midnights” seem as shameless as they are clever, seeping into the songwriting itself — most notably on the album’s standout and lead single, “Anti-Hero.” The song is supposed to be an intimate exploration of Swift’s insecurities and flaws, but the hook sounds like it has been crafted for TikTok: “It’s Me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me,” she sings over and over again.
It didn’t help that the day the album was released, she invited fans to join her #TSAntiHeroChallenge in an official collaboration with YouTube Shorts. “Share your anti-heroic traits,” the caption of the video says, with a YouTube blog post noting that “an anti-heroic trait could be as simple as always grabbing the last slice of pizza, clapping at the end of movies, always putting your feet on the car dashboard.” What could have been a truly sincere rumination on the insecurities that haunt Swift is instead a gimmicky social media trend.
This marketing is all the more tragic because it was wholly unnecessary. “Anti-Hero” had the potential to be one of the album’s highest points in itself, and its verses are clever and poignant. “I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror,” she sings, one of the hardest-hitting lines Swift has written.
From the pure honesty of “I wake up screaming from dreaming/One day I’ll watch as you’re leaving/Cause you got tired of my scheming” to the perfectly-delivered wit of “Did you hear my covert narcissism/I disguise as altruism like some kind of congressman,” the songwriting is quintessential Swift.
At the end of the song, she details a comically-vivid dream, once again in a voice typical of Swift: “I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money/She thinks I left them in the will.” It is a powerful nod to the country narratives she has always excelled at building, but it is dampened in the song’s music video by the unnecessary insertion of a tedious dialogue scene, a failed attempt to replicate her brilliantly executed “All Too Well” short film.
Ultimately, Swift becomes her own “anti-hero,” diluting a resonant work of art by trying too hard — not just in this one song, but in the entire album. Her commercial strategies are directly at odds with the promised concept of the album: a stripped-down exploration of what keeps her up at night.
This is particularly shocking to witness because Swift has always been the master of reinventing herself, staying relevant through the years and crossing genres seamlessly from country to pop to indie-folk. But in "Midnights" she draws the focus so blatantly to the experimentation that it ends up sounding out of place.
In the past, Swift's melodies and structures have remained relatively basic and uninventive even as she evolved. Instead, she leaned into what is undoubtedly her greatest strength as an artist: her lyrics. Swift is known for using repetitive tracks and one-note melodies, but they work well when they create space for her much more nuanced storytelling.
She goes in a different direction on “Midnights,” focusing on sonic experimentation that is not as innovative as it claims to be. A lot of the sounds are interesting, sleek and catchy — but they seem to have been inserted forcefully. They also obscure the original concept of the album, which makes the work as a whole seem much less sincere. From the early ballads an entire generation has grown up scream-singing to the intricate storytelling on the earthy “folklore” and “evermore,” Swift’s music has always been full of raw emotion — but in “Midnights,” it is drowned out by the noise.
Still, there are moments of clarity when her sheer genius shines through. The album’s final song (excluding bonus tracks), “Mastermind,” cleverly and radically turns the idea of a fated love on its head, as Swift reveals that she has been orchestrating destiny all along.
But the most profound track on the album is arguably one of the seven bonus tracks Swift released at 3 a.m.: “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.” She reflects on a relationship she had at 19, wishing it had never happened: “I wish you had left me wondering,” she sings. Her voice gets increasingly anguished as she approaches the bridge, which single-handedly delivers the unmarketed, unobscured sincerity wanting on many of the original tracks.
“Midnights” is not a bad album — listeners that are patient enough to dig through the noise until they can see the substance will find enough what they’re looking for. But it is also hard to escape the disappointment that this album did not live up to the expectations created by its predecessors — and the feeling of unfulfilled potential from the scarce moments of unbridled talent on “Midnights.”
Swift’s lyrical prowess shimmers through at these moments, but they would have been far more powerful if she had restrained from casting a blinding light on an album originally written for the subdued dimness of the midnight hour.