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Why Taylor Swift's "The Manuscript" Is The Most Important TTPD Song

It might be the key to understanding the why of the whole thing.

In the Taylor Swift canon, the closing track of an album is often a moment of catharis and closure. (See: Lover’s “Daylight,” or 1989’s “Clean.”) For the superstar’s eleventh studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, that role belongs to “The Manuscript,” a gentle piano ballad that appears to hash out another past relationship — but read between the lines, and it serves as a thesis of her entire career.

Swift calls the dual albums of The Tortured Poets Department an anthology, a term that in the literary world means a “collection of poems or other pieces of writing” — and the 31-song behemoth is certainly quite the assemblage. As fans and critics have breathlessly pointed out, the project is a trove of references to historical figures, fictional characters, and people like The 1975’s Matty Healy, Joe Alwyn, Kim Kardashian (and possibly Olivia Rodrigo). But from the start of TTPD’s promo cycle, Swift seemed to deem “The Manuscript” as an important part of the album; when she announced the record at the 2024 Grammys, she also announced the song, as if presenting a key that would unlock what was coming up. So: what does Swift want us to take away with “The Manuscript?”

At its surface, the dual-album closer and sole bonus track to the records appears to be another reflection at her relationship with John Mayer, whom she was briefly linked with 2009, when she was 19, and he was 32.

On its second verse, she sings that during the “age of him,” she wished “she was thirty,” and that after their break-up, she returned to dating “boys who were her own age.” Subsequent lines like, “She thought about how he said since she was so wise beyond her years/ Everything had been above board/ She wasn't sure,” appear to mirror the same regretful tune she now has of the relationship of “Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve,” her other, and much more scathing, Mayer-centric track.

But “The Manuscript” ultimately isn’t really about Mayer. On the bridge, the song shifts into a meta-analysis of how Swift has processed her life’s events and worked them into her music. “The professor said to write what you know/ Lookin' backwards might be the only way to move forward,” she sings, as if regurgitating the creative advice a mentor might’ve given her early on in her career — that she should utilize her pain to fuel her art.

The next few lines complete this moment of omniscient looking-back: Swift watches actors “hitting their marks” — a metaphor for her tours — as “tears fell in synchronicity with the score” — a likely allusion to her fans’ emotional response to her songs. “And at last,” she sings, “She knew what the agony had been for.”

With the seemingly unceasing gossip mill the record has started up, critics have called The Tortured Poets Department one of Swift’s messiest and confrontational albums of her career — and it is. But what’s been lost in the sauce is Swift’s reason for why she’s doing all of this in the first place — and “The Manuscript” is a gentle reminder.

And underneath that, the song may also contain an important lesson in recognizing Swift’s distinct, and distanced, authorship behind it all — that her music, though filled with familiar markers, are still cleverly spun for others’ consumption. As she states herself in the closing lyrics: “Now and then I reread the manuscript, but the story isn't mine anymore.”

Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ is out now.