Literary and Pop Culture References in ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ by Taylor Swift (16songs/40+references)

A guide to Literary and Pop Culture References in ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ by Taylor Swift. From Mary Shelley/Frankenstein to Ken, Emily Dickinson

Literary and Pop Culture References in ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ by Taylor Swift.

A quick list of references

Do you really want to know where I was April 29th? – Well, just busy analyzing ttpd tracks and making this blog post which I need 13 million years to process. ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ by Taylor Swift is without any doubt very literary, poetic and bookish . It is definitely for the book girlies, literary nerds, poets, readers and writers. Because there are so many literary references used in both the albums which proves more how literary nerd and genius Taylor swift is. It’s also blowing my mind how perfectly she used all the references and I need to dive back to her eras just to analyze everything all over again.

From the secret garden to Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, to virginia woolf to stevie nick and the fleetwood mac to clara bow and charlie puth and Kim – Kanye drama to the eras tour  there a lot of literary and pop culture references mentioned in taylor swift’s brand new albums ….

And as someone who loves everything literature and pop culture and created a blog just for this I had a great time analyzing and finding all the references. Here are some of my favorites literature and pop culture track by track by track or on some of my favorite tracks. 

I’m also making a detailed reference guide on both topics with more stuff, check on my blog.

1. “Fortnight” (featuring Post Malone) – Midas touch, Mary Shelley/Frankenstein Mourning dress, typewriter

‘But it won’t start up ’til I touch, touch, touch you’

– There are no exact and confirmed literary or pop culture references in the lyrics like there are in the “Fortnight” (featuring Post Malone) music video but I think I found one after analyzing this lyric.. Taylor Swift loves to use the words ‘golden’ and ‘touch’ in her lyrics. Like “Love is golden” in Daylight to “Midas Touch” in Champagne problems and Gold Rush which indicates the King Midas in Greek Mythology reference. King Midas is cursed and turns everything into gold when he touches it. So this could be a reference to that.

References in Music Video –
  • Experiments Shock therapy – Taylor was seen getting Shock therapy and some experiments on “Fortnight” (featuring Post Malone) music video which is mostly
  • The Dead Poets Society cameos – I’m definitely not the only one who thought of ‘The Dead Poets’ society when the “The Tortured Poets Department” album was announced. Swifties predicted there will be reference in the songs but getting two of the main characters for the video is insane.
  • Mourning dress
  • Typewriter

2. “The Tortured Poets Department” – Dylan Thomas, Patti Smith, Chelsea Hotel, Charlie Puth, Lucy Dacus and Jack Antanoff

“You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith
This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel, we’re modern idiots”

The title track The Tortured Poets Department has so many good pop culture references. Starting with great and well known poets Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith.
Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953) was a famous Welsh poet, mostly known for “Do not go gentle into that good night”, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”.

Patti Smith is an American singer-songwriter and poet. Who was referenced twice on the whole album. She is mostly popular for her role in the punk rock movement of the 1970s. And Taylor focused on many 70s artists throughout her brand new albums.
Patti Smith also shared an Instagram post of herself reading Dylan Thomas’ memoir “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” and thanking Taylor with the caption, , “This is saying I was moved to be mentioned in the company of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Thank you Taylor.”
Coincidentally or Taylor being the mastermind added the Chelsea hotel reference because both poets loved staying in this place.

“We declared Charlie Puth should be a bigger artist”

  • And also we have Charlie Puth reference, which started a war among swifties when the lyrics popped up on billboards promotions of ‘The Tortured Poets Department’. Charlie Puth is an American singer-songwriter, who started his career on youtube at the age of 18 and later blew up for his songs “We Don’t Talk Anymore (feat. Selena Gomez)’ and “Attention” with over a billion views. And both happen to be written with and about Taylor Swift’s best friend Selena Gomez.

“But you told Lucy you’d kill yourself if I ever leave
And I had said that to Jack about you, so I felt seen”

  • Lucy Dacus and Jack Antanoff are Taylor’s very close friends. Lucy is an American singer-songwriter and a band member of “Boygenius’ who were also part of opening acts on Taylor’s 2023 The Eras Tour.
  • And Jack Antonoff is one of Taylor’s best and long term friends and album collaborators.

Who else decodes you?

  • There is no confirmed reference but i consider this for swifties as Taylor loves leaving easter eggs and riddles for swifties to decode.

3. “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys” – Ken, Emily Dickinson

“Oh, here we go again
The voices in his head
Called the rain to end our days of wild”

  • this one could be a reference to Emily Dickinson’s poem “Wild nights – Wild nights!”. Taylor has referenced the great American poet Emily Dickinson in her songs before. Like ivy and the inspiration behind evermore from Emily Dickinson’s poem One Sister have I in our house (“From out the wide night’s numbers. Sue – forevermore!”).
  • Also a fun fact they are related as TODAY exclusively reveals Taylor Swift is distant cousins with American poet Emily Dickinson.

“I felt more when we played pretend
Than with all the Kens”

  • is a reference to the famous Ken from Barbie. In context of the song, the song emphasizes that the specific identities of these men are inconsequential, aligning with the overarching theme of the toy motif.
  • Taylor has previously referenced ken in the vault track “Hits Different” off midnights. 

“I used to switch out these Kens, I’d just ghost”

4. “Down Bad” – Beam me up, Cosmic Love

“Did you really beam me up”

  • This is a reference to the phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty,” which is a catchphrase and misquotation that made its way into pop culture from the science fiction television series Star Trek: The Original Series. It means “the desire to be elsewhere”, or the desire to be out of an unwanted situation.

For a moment I knew cosmic love

  • It’s a song by English indie rock band Florence and the Machine from their debut studio album ‘Lungs’ (2009) who also happens to be the collaborator of track 8 Florida!!! (feat. Florence + The Machine). It also means a profound and eternal romantic bond between two individuals, marked by destiny and an intense, enduring love.

5. “So Long, London” – The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, The Chronicles of Narnia, Heath, I Kept Calm and Carried

“I saw, in my mind, fairy lights through the mist.
I kept calm and carried the weight of the rift
Pulled him in tighter each time he was driftin’ away”

  • This references The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. It’s a classic novel set in the 1920s which follows the story of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire, and his obsession with Daisy Buchanan, a woman from his past. The first line refers to the novel’s character Nick sees while Jay Gatsby is showing him the bright green light across the water that belongs to his ex-Daisy.

“So how much sad did you think I had
Did you think I had in me?
How much tragedy?”

This is a Shakespeare reference as the tragedy aspect refers to Macbeth. Which is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, believed to have been written between 1603 and 1607. It follows a brave Scottish nobleman who is driven by ambition and the prophecy of witches to commit regicide and seize the throne. As Macbeth becomes more like a tyrant and loses his mind, he and his wife, Lady Macbeth, struggle with feeling guilty, paranoid, and dealing with what happens because of what they did. And “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” could be the main reference based on the lyric.

“You Left Me At The House By The Heath”

is a reference to a beautiful area where Taylor used to live with Joe Alywn near Hampstead Heath in London. This has also been referenced on Taylor’s 2019 song “London Boy.” And this could also indicate a literary reference to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis to write in the late 30s and early 40s.

6. “But Daddy I Love Him” – How the West Was Won, Love Story/Romeo Julliete, Hamlet Act 3 Scene 2, The Little Mermaid (1989), Jack and Margaret’s Wedding

“I forget how the West was won”

  • is a reference to how Travis Kelce helped lead the Kansas City Chiefs to their eighth straight AFC West division title in the 2023-24 NFL season. En route to the Chiefs’ 2024 Super Bowl Championship, Kelce broke the NFL’s all-time record for career postseason receptions. Which Taylor attended.
  • She also referred to the title of a classic 1963 film epic about American westward expansion.

Now I’m runnin’ with my dress unbuttoned
Screamin’, “But, Daddy, I love him”

  • A reference to her 2009 classic “Love Story” Which was inspired by Romeo and Julliet. 
  • “But, Daddy, I love him” is a reference to Disney’s The Little Mermaid as Ariel says that exact line to her dad King Triton in the animated film, when talking about Prince Eric. The Little Mermaid also came out in 1989.

7. “Fresh Out the Slammer” – Bleachers

“Another summer takin’ cover, rolling thunder”

  • Is a reference to “Dream of Mickey Mantle” by Bleachers (Gone Now, 2017) which Jack Antonoff wrote and produced for his band “Bleachers”. And as Taylors long time song producers and long time collaborators it’s not surprising to see a bleacher reference on this song and multiple jack references in both albums.

“I know who my first call will be to”

this is not confirmed but this lyric could be referencing Dylan O’Brien, who was seen leaving Taylor Swift’s NYC apartment on April 12, 2023. Right before the breakup news was out.

8. “Florida!!!” (featuring Florence and the Machine) – Aaron Dessner, Emma Stone, Valley of the Dolls

‘And my friends all smell like weed or little babies’

  • Lorde, Lana, jack, ryan blake, aaron dessner

‘The hurricane with my name when it came
I got drunk and I dared it to wash me away’

  • is a reference to Florence’s own song “Landscape” and a hurricane named the same as her “Hurricane Florence’. Some of the other lyric of this song also has references from Florence’s own songs like “Landscape”, “Hurricane Drunk”, “Mother”, “Remain Nameless”.

‘At least the dolls are beautiful, fu-k me up, Florida’

  • This could be a reference to Jacqueline Susann’s 1996 novel, Valley of the Dolls, where the characters refer to pills as “dolls.” Since this whole song is about Florida being a “hell of a drug,” is it really too much of a stretch to think “dolls” means “pills” here too?
  • There is no exact reference of Emma Stone in the song other than her latest movie ‘Poor Things’ and as Taylors friends but she is in the writing credit.

9. “Guilty as Sin?” – Carolina, Rebecca, The Blue Nile, The Downtown Lights, Stephen King, The Awakening

“How can I be guilty as sin?”

  • The title of this song could be a reference to ‘Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens’ as the title was found in the song taylor wrote for the movie’s soundtrack in 2023. Also a lot of the emotional themes of the book and movie are similar to this song. So it could be an inspiration or extended version of ‘Carolina by Taylor Swift’ too.

“Drownin’ in the Blue Nile
He sent me “Downtown Lights”

  • “The Downtown Lights” is a song by Scottish band The Blue Nile, from their album “Hats” in 1988. Which also happens to be a year before Taylor’s birthday in 1989. This is also Matty Healy’s favorite band, who’s the muse of this song and some of the song on this album.

“This cage was once just fine

  • In both, the main character goes against what society expects and feels free from their marriage by having affairs. When the character’s affair ends in the book, she doesn’t want to go back to her old life, just like Taylor Swift sings about in the line “This cage was once just fine.” The character in the book swims into the sea and drowns, which is similar to Swift’s lyrics about throwing her life away. But in the song, Swift talks about being rescued by the affair instead.

What if he’s written “Mine” on my upper thigh only in my mind?
I’m slippin’, fallin’ back into the hedge maze
Oh, what a way to die

  • The song might be like Stephen King’s “The Shining,” where the main character, Jack Torrance, faces a maze that leads to his downfall. Or, it could be like the Greek myth of the minotaur, which King might have also used for inspiration. In the myth, a maze traps the minotaur so the hero can defeat it.

10. “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” – Virginia Woolf, Haunted Gallows, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

‘So I leap from the gallows and I levitate down your street’

  • This might be a reference to the film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which is named after the poet Virginia Woolf, follows an older couple (played by Burton and Taylor) who avoid facing the truth about their relationship. They’re forced to confront it when a younger couple visits them for dinner. In the movie, the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is used to tease someone about being scared of being open and honest, which is what Woolf’s poetry is famous for.
  • This movie starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. who Taylor has referenced before in Ready for It. He can be my jailor / Burton to this Taylor”.And one of Taylor’s favorite books is Furious Love by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, you’ll find more in Taylor Swift Book Recs – Taylor Swift Favorite Books (2023)

11. “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” – ‘I can fix him

‘I can fix him, no, really I can (no, really I can)’

  • The title could be pop culture reference mostly used in books, media, films and as reactions to certain things but it is mostly a common trope in storytelling where a character, often female, believes she can “fix” or change a troubled or flawed male character through love or nurturing. This trope often appears in romantic relationships where one partner sees the other as damaged or broken and takes it upon themselves to heal them.

12. “Loml” – Just Kids, Mr. Steal Your Girl, The Wizard of Oz

  • “We were just kids, babe” – Just Kids is the name of Patti Smith’s memoir. Which she shared in an instagram post recently thanking taylor. Patti Smith was mentioned in track 2 “”The Tortured Poet’s Department”.
  • Mr. Steal Your Girl, then make her cry – “Mr. Steal Your Girl” is a phrase for a guy who tries to get girls who are already with someone else. He might end up making those girls sad. It became well known after Trey Songz sang about it in his song “Mr. Steal Your Girl” in 2014.
  • “The coward claimed he was a lion” – The cowardly lion from the The Wizard of Oz

13. “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” – Eras Tour

The lights refract sequin stars off her silhouette every night………….
I was hittin’ my marks

  • Is a reference to Taylor swift’s record breaking “Eras Tour”. (March 17, 2023 – December 8, 2024). Right after her break up with Joe Alwyn.

14. “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” – Good Riddance, Pretty Little Liars

And you’ll confess why you did it and I’ll say, “Good riddance” – – could be a reference to gracie abrams debut studio album “Good riddance” (February 24, 2023) co written and produced by Aaron Dessner who has been Taylor Swift’s collaborator since folklore.

‘Were you writin’ a book? Were you a sleeper cell spy?’ -( “Pretty Little Liars spoiler) In Season 4, Episode 21 “Free Fall” Aria finds out Ezra’s secret. She found the manuscript of Ezra’s book. She ends up in the infamous confrontation with Ezra on the Ski Lift. so this could be a reference to that.

15. The Alchemy – Travis Kelce, Super Bowl and Eras Tour

So when I touch down
Call the amateurs and cut ’em from the team
Where’s the trophy? He just comes runnin’ over to me

  • This could be a reference to when Travis Kelce ran over to Taylor Swift on the field after the Chiefs won a game during the NFL Super Bowl 58 football game Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024, in Las Vegas securing the team a place in the Superbowl. Just like Taylor did after her second Eras Tour Show in Argentina.
  • But I’m making a comeback to where I belong – Eras Tour

16. Clara Bow – Clara Bow, Stevie Nicks and Taylor Swift

  • The title refers to Clara Bow who was an American actress who rose to fame during the silent film era of the 1920s. She was also known as the ultimate “It Girl”. But she had a tough time because of how stressful and demanding her career was while struggling with mental health issues. And sadly, her story serves as a warning about how the entertainment business can be really tough on young women who are both talented and attractive. And this could be how Taylor sees herself in her and referenced in this song along with Stevie Nicks and herself.

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