I’m not a “Swiftie.” There is an occasional Taylor Swift song that I won’t move past if it’s on the radio, but I was hardly inconvenienced by the absence of her music on Spotify. That said, I feel compelled to speak up in defense of “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Her latest release, from what I’ve read, has met with a lot of derision. Some critics are bored by the mediocre rhyme and repetition, others are angered by the persistent “privileged white woman victim” role that Taylor keeps playing. After all, “look what you made me do” speaks of passivity, subservience, and an aversion to responsibility. YOU did this to her. Poor Taylor. So put upon by Kanye and Kim and everyone else who keeps besieging pretty blonde women with lots of money.
Except what if that isn’t the meaning? What if Taylor is doing that which pretty blonde women are not supposed to do? In other words, basically saying “fuck you,” and NO ONE tells her what to do. What if, every time she delivers the title line, she means it with irony? Maybe, rather than delivering a “clapback” to Kanye and Kim, Taylor is actually saying the opposite?
Pretty blonde women are supposed to be easy and agreeable and sunny-spirited. While the track starts out with a hint of that, the beat quickly kicks in, urgent and sinister, and Taylor’s first words are “I don’t like.” Pretty blonde women are supposed to be telling us what they like and how they want it and how quickly they can get it for you. Taylor, in contrast, starts off the track by drawing a line in the sand. This is what she does not like. And she will tell us over and over all the other things she doesn’t like, including YOU. Taylor starts off the video by turning herself into a literal monster.
But maybe she isn’t whining about being the victim. Maybe she is actually issuing a statement. Maybe she is asserting herself. Maybe she is actually being “difficult,” while being aware of the fact that she isn’t supposed to be difficult and letting you know that she doesn’t care what you think about it.
There is plenty to back up the rumors that Taylor is difficult–since what powerful woman isn’t?–but maybe she is owning it here, letting you know that she knows that she is difficult and that she doesn’t care.
For much of the video, Taylor sits in a throne and/or displays an excessive amount of opulence. Maybe this is her way of letting you know that she is not the victim. Britney, frustrated with the pop star cage, shaved off her hair. Madonna wrote a poem about it. In contrast, this is what Taylor has chosen to do — she literally rises from the dead, a zombie-fied version of herself.
But without confirmation from Swift, herself, we can only acknowledge the self-awareness (not subservience) dripping from this video. For example, in one of the opening shots, we see a tombstone with the name “Nils Sjoberg” on it. This is the name that Taylor Swift used when she wrote “This Is What You Came For” for Calvin Harris. When Swift admitted she wrote the track, Harris lashed out at Swift via Twitter: “I know you’re off tour and you need someone new to try and bury like Katy ETC but I’m not that guy, sorry. I won’t allow it.”
Ah, but in Taylor’s world, she can bury whomever she wants. Significantly, she isn’t burying Calvin (or Kanye). Instead, the tombstone says the name she used when she wrote the song, as if not to steal his thunder by writing it under her real name. But now, nice little Nils (who lets everyone else have their spotlight) is dead. Taylor has buried Nils and is now sitting on a throne. And conveniently, as the camera tracks past Nils’s tombstone, Taylor says, as she shovels dirt into the grave, “I don’t like…the role you made me play.” After the next cut, we can see who is in the grave — it’s nice, smiling Taylor herself. You know, in case we didn’t get it.
There are loads more “easter eggs” in the video, loads more examples that Taylor is not only paying attention but knows how to poke fun at herself (something that I’m not sure Madonna knows how to do), and you can read about them here.
Of particular significance to me, however, is the final sequence, when a row of Taylor’s former selves line up to critique each other, to call out the country Taylor for her “surprise” face, or the Nashville Taylor for being so “nice.” Taylor, much like Madonna and Cindy Sherman, is aware of just how performative her star status is. She’s not trying to be “real.” Real is just another act, reserved for the acoustic album. And she knows you’re going to accuse her of playing the victim, yet again, so what does she do? New Taylor chastizes older Taylor for “playing the victim, again.” She beats you to the critique she knows is on the tip of your tongue.
And when 2009 VMA Taylor starts to declare that she would “like to be excluded from this narrative,” just as real life Taylor did after the Kardashian/Kanye Snapchat fiasco, all the other Taylors tell her to shut up.
Taylor knows when she’s been bad (or good), and for now, she’s quite happy being bad. If by bad, you mean difficult.
Megan Garber writes that it is “women who are most readily judged for their decisions, or belittled for their appearances, or interrupted when they try to make a point. Feminism has come to a somewhat awkward place, in a culture that claims to celebrate women but often, politically and culturally, puts them in a bind.” She goes on to reference Anne Helen Petersen’s new book, The Rise and Reign of Unruly Women, and the way that Minaj, in a culture that polices women’s sexuality, is deemed “too slutty,” or Madonna, in a culture that fetishizes women’s youth, is deemed “too old,” or even Melissa McCarthy, in a culture that prefers women’s bodies to be disciplined and contained and to take up as little space as possible, is deemed “too fat.”
And now Taylor is being “too difficult.”
But Taylor doesn’t care. She doesn’t like you.