“The Tortured Poets Department” Is Cathartic as Hell — Experts Explain Why

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I was in the middle of a dramatic breakup when Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” came out, and I’ll never forget scream-singing about the patriarchy in the back of a car with my best friends. I still look back on the memory of that ride as a breakthrough moment in my healing process. It was the definition of catharsis — and I know I’m not alone in that feeling.

Those of us who identify as Swifties have witnessed the emotional release that comes with listening to a song written by Swift. Whether it’s a nostalgic tune like “Peter” from “The Tortured Poets Department,” a classic breakup ballad like “All Too Well,” or an upbeat redemptive track like “Mean.” Even Swift has said that just writing her albums is often a “process of catharsis,” per a Rolling Stone interview about “Reputation.”

When Swift puts out new music, it can feel like she’s pulling a dusty curtain off a big, gilded mirror in your mind, forcing you to look at your deepest emotions. And those who dare to stare will be rewarded with crying, screaming, throwing up — all the feels! Her latest album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” is particularly heavy on the catharsis, offering space for full-blown breakdowns.

But how does Swift do it? And what makes her music so cathartic in the first place? We asked the experts to weigh in.

What Makes Music Cathartic?

Music is obviously subjective, so it can be difficult to put a finger on just what makes a song “cathartic.” However, generally, the most cathartic songs are the ones using a combination of frequencies, tempos, instruments, and lyrics to make people feel seen, heard, and “less alone,” says Matthew Donahue, PhD, a professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The jams give you an emotional release.

The music speaks to our “collective consciousness” by giving voice to emotions we thought we were alone in feeling, he adds. So, when Taylor sings, “My boy only breaks his favorite toys / I’m queen of sand castles he destroys,” the lyrics might hook deep into the brain of someone who’s been with a self-sabotager (or hurt a lover themselves). As they think about the song, it may help them parse bitter feelings they’d buried long ago.

“At base, we long to feel understood, and to be understandable,” adds therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, the granddaughter of legendary folk artist Pete Seeger, who grew up around this world of music. “When a song validates or mimics our lived experience, it says: ‘You’re normal. It’s not that weird that you’ve had these thoughts because I’ve had them, too.'” It’s essentially providing enough validation to give us permission to feel how we feel. It’s only then that we can start to unpack those emotions, and eventually learn from them. It’s why a therapist’s first move is almost always to echo how you say you’re feeling, DeGeare says. You can’t fix it if you’re ashamed to feel it.

Why Is Taylor’s Discography So Cathartic?

First, there’s the lyrics. Swift is known for one-liners that can sum up a mountain of feels in just a few strung-together words (“So casually cruel in the name of being honest,” anyone?). As DeGeare puts it: “You know the feeling when a simple line says what you’ve been trying to say for the last six weeks? And in one sentence she just nails it?” It’s the magic of Taylor.

It’s not only validating, but satisfying, too. The words wriggle into the folds of your brain like a worm — nay, a “Reputation”-coded snake. They may make you ruminate or cry or slam a golf club into a car, but healing is on the other side (just try not to get arrested).

Swifts’s music may also open doors to the same “nostalgic healing space where we do our inner child shadow work,” DeGeare adds. We can think about our younger selves, “asking them what they need.”

Research backs her up on this nostalgia factor. A 2021 study found that when music makes us feel nostalgic, it can provide benefits like raising self-esteem, making us feel youthful, and even “strengthening meaning in life,” per the journal Psychology of Music.

There’s something especially powerful about the emotional work Swift is doing for her fans. “We historically have so many sexist ways of talking about women’s emotions, seeing them as ‘immature,'” DeGeare says. “But Taylor is saying: ‘Whatever you’re feeling, it’s not too much. I go through these intense emotions too. You’re not crazy.’ We need more of that.”

Sometimes it can feel like she’s venting on her fans’ behalf, Dr. Donahue adds. “This gives them comfort by making them feel like they’re not alone.”

What Are the Benefits of Music-Driven Catharsis?

It can help us literally tune into our emotions, DeGeare says. “When we hear lyrics or sounds in music that we associate with a specific emotion or memory, it can be very medicinal,” she explains. “If we’ve been holding back, music can allow us to release emotions we’ve needed to get out.”

If you’ve ever felt you needed to cry but couldn’t quite get there on your own (or almost reached orgasm, but not quite), you know it can be frustrating. Putting on a sad or thought-provoking song can be the push you need to reach that “release of emotion,” DeGeare says. “It’s embracing what’s going on inside of you and letting the music move you into a healthy release, which can be re-grounding and stress-relieving.”

How to Get the Most Out of a Cathartic Bop

At this point, when I devour a new Taylor album, I know I’m about to be emotionally impacted. I’m going to think about my crush, my ex, my frenemies, my accomplishments, my downfalls, and everything in between. “We’re essentially asking to be influenced by listening,” DeGeare says. We’re asking Taylor to lead us down twisty thought paths that we’ll then have to find our way out of, with no map.

This is why, to get the most out of Swift’s cathartic craft, you may want to set boundaries first. For example, don’t listen to a track that’s going to make you cry before a night on the town or before you head into the office where your ex also works. You’ll want to focus on the music deeply when you listen, so you can reap the most benefits. Research published last year in Musicae Scientiae found that those who focused more deeply on music had stronger emotional reactions that could have significant therapeutic benefits.

“To harness the cathartic power of music, it’s essential to create moments where you can engage fully with it,” DeGeare says. For busy moms, this could be during those rare 20 minutes alone in the pickup line while others might find their moment during a calm self-care Sunday or during a long run in the park. “The key is to choose times when you can deeply connect with the music — so it’s not mere background noise,” DeGeare says.

So, as you take in “The Tortured Poets Department” (both albums!) give yourself the space to feel — to take in all the catharsis you need. Whether that looks like running to the music or scream-singing it in the back of your bestie’s car, it’s all good. But maybe hide the golf clubs before you hit play.

Molly Longman is a freelance journalist who loves to tell stories at the intersection of health and politics. Molly enjoys hiking, public records, and looking at cow videos on Instagram. She’s originally from Iowa.

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