Hello, Karma
With 'Midnights,' Taylor Swift continues writing about revenge

Taylor Swift Has Entered A New Kind Of Revenge Era

With Midnights, her lyrical savagery has matured.

Written by Bec Oakes
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It’s been nearly a month since Taylor Swift blessed fans with her highly anticipated 10th studio album, Midnights, an exploration of 13 sleepless nights that span her career. Proving to be true insomniacs, Swifties streamed it around the clock, prompting Midnights to become Spotify’s most-streamed album in a single day and making Swift the first artist in history to claim every spot in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. Per Swift, the record explores five core themes: self-loathing, fantasizing about revenge, wondering what might have been, falling in love, and falling apart. But it’s the topic of revenge — one Swift knows all too well — that I, like so many Swifties, have personally gravitated toward.

Over her 16-year career, Swift has staked her claim as the Queen of Revenge Pop, dropping songs that double as an outlet to explore the healing process. Some examples? In “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled 2006 album, she writes about an ex-boyfriend that wronged her, singing, “I’m just sitting here, planning my revenge. There’s nothing stopping me from going out with all of your best friends.” With her 2015 music video for “Bad Blood,” a song widely believed to reference her rumored feud with Katy Perry, Swift assembles a formidable girl squad set to end her nemesis. And then there’s 2017’s pop banger “Look What You Made Me Do,” a track that alludes to her infamous feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

As expected, the theme of revenge comes in full force on Midnights. Take the aptly titled “Karma,” a playful synthpop track in which Swift dreams about payback. With lyrics like “Talking sh*t for the hell of it,” the song alludes to some of her most notorious, rumored public disputes. Some fans believe it’s about a fallout with Karlie Kloss, once very much a part of her inner circle. But because of second-verse lyrics about a “king of thieves” who made her “pennies” his “crown,” others speculate it’s inspired by Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta, who sold Swift’s masters to music executive Scooter Braun in 2019, a move Swift described as her “worst case scenario” — and the impetus behind her recent re-recorded albums.

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The theme of revenge on Midnights doesn’t end there. There’s “Vigilante Sh*t,” which, from a narrator’s perspective, exposes a husband’s wrongdoings amid a divorce from his wife. Swift sings, “Now she gets the house, gets the kids, gets the pride, picture me thick as thieves with your ex-wife.” The lyrics have some fans convinced it’s about Braun, whom Swift has accused of “incessant, manipulative bullying,” and who sold the masters to her first six albums to an investment fund in a deal reportedly worth more than $300 million. Coincidentally, Braun separated from his wife of seven years, Yael Cohen Braun, in July 2021.

The Midnights tracklist follows a long history of Swift’s lyrical savagery aimed at those who have mistreated her, but they also show a progression of her perspective. Instead of blaming and trash-talking the other woman as evidenced in 2010’s “Better Than Revenge,” Midnights’ lyrics prove to contain smart, subtle references and witty turns of phrase that implicate only those who are truly culpable, including herself (see: “Midnight Rain”). Natalia Juarez, a breakup coach and dating strategist, agrees Swift has grown up. “[The lyrics] feel more nuanced and encompassing of the bigger picture and the roles we all play versus some of her earlier works, which are much more focused on a single perspective,” Juarez says. “It’s still very much Taylor Swift, but evolved. And so much more powerful.”

That power is evident in the relatable way Swift’s revenge songs make fans feel, too. Yes, revenge as a concept can be dark and rooted in spite, yet it also reflects the universal desire to get even and seek justice. I, for one, blasted “Better Than Revenge” on repeat when, at 15 years old, a girl in my class turned all my friends against me. And to this day, I find myself listening to “Look What You Made Me Do” and daydreaming about retaliating after someone hurts me. “So often when someone has hurt us, we feel like they walk away pain-free while we may carry around scars for years,” says Nicole Richardson, a family and relationship therapist. “It can be deeply satisfying to imagine that they would also feel that pain.”

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But while revenge may momentarily help alleviate emotional pain, it rarely (if ever) provides true solace. In fact, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, revenge can often make people feel worse, and it can trigger a host of negative emotions, including feelings of tension, uncertainty, and dread. Which, honestly, is precisely why revenge songs are so popular: They’re loud, catchy, and make you sing with utmost passion and emotion, providing a similar type of emotional release that comes with actually enacting revenge — minus the baggage.

“[These songs] speak to a harsh, angry part of ourselves that most of us will never indulge, but it feels good to emotionally explore those parts when we are hurting,” Richardson says, noting they help give voice to difficult emotions. “It provides us with a healthy outlet for our feelings and thoughts, instead of acting out in our real lives.” Cue “Karma” or “Vigilante Sh*t.”

Richardson warns it’s important not to take this type of music too seriously, though. “When you find something like a song that speaks to a hurt part of yourself, it is totally reasonable to enjoy that artful expression,” she says. “The danger comes when we dwell in that space and fixate.” To avoid going to that unhealthy place, she suggests setting yourself a time limit: “Take 20 minutes to let yourself be angry and fantasize about what you wish you could do. Then, tell yourself it’s time to engage in self-care.”

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Not every revenge-themed Swift song has the “draw a cat eye sharp enough to kill a man” intensity of “Vigilante Sh*t” or the pointed, trash-talking attitude of “Better Than Revenge” with “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” Some, like “I Forgot That You Existed,” express that the best revenge of all is to simply live your best life, leaving the people that have hurt you in the dust.

As Swift declares in “Karma,” why fixate too much over bad friends and exes when the universe will naturally right what’s wrong?

Experts:

Natalia Juarez, breakup coach and dating strategist

Nicole Richardson, family and relationship therapist