While the rest of the nation watched disaster news or long-awaited fantasy incest, a small faction of teenagers and loyal top 40 fans turned their tvs last night to the 2017 Video Music Awards. Aside from the obvious question--why is this still a thing?--I present to you a more pressing concern: Taylor Swift and her baffling, neo-goth, revenge-posturing single, “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Despite being widely panned by critics and fans alike, the music video release of “Look What You Made Me Do” was easily the most-anticipated moment of this year’s VMA’s. The video reminds me of when Lady Gaga first started making dark, weird-CGI music videos a la “Bad Romance,” and everyone followed suit. It features, among other things, a “Thriller”-esque rise from the grave, T-Swift angrily biting fancy jewelry, and a meme-worthy scene in which all the various iterations of Swift’s music career argue in front of a flaming Boeing 747. Throughout, we are treated to thinly-veiled references to Swift’s complicated celebrity beefs and a blatant overuse of the word “karma.” Subtly is clearly not her goal, which brings us to the question: how did we get here?
Here’s the thing: I’m not sure what it is that Taylor feels so threatened by, nor what exactly we’ve “made” her do. Her last album, 1989, was released to universal acclaim, spawning a number of ear-worm singles that just won’t die. The New York Times liked it. Rolling Stone liked it. Cringe-y college dance team performances were choreographed to it.
Admittedly, there has been a complicating of Taylor’s public image regardless of her dubious musical merit. Criticisms include her problematic white celebrity brand of feminism and that awkward moment when Kim Kardashian--of all people--made her look like a bald-faced liar via Snapchat messages. Still, there are those stellar musical reviews, and all those Grammy’s. The world followed her weird Tom Hiddleston relationship with bated breath. She received unanimous praise for a $250,000 donation to Kesha during her lawsuit against Dr. Luke, and, in an even bigger publicity win, provided a voice of triumph to female sexual assault advisors in her own lawsuit in which she deigned to receive only a dollar. Compared to what the media and the court of public opinion did to the likes of Britney Spears, Swift can hardly say she’s been treated unfairly.
Nevertheless, none of that stopped her from blacking out her social media last week to only weird snake GIFs, and now the interesting re-branding of “Look What You Made Me Do.” Her new single seems to scream “I don’t care” so loudly that we can only assume she really does care, and what a sad place that must be. It’s hard for me to buy that the “old Taylor is dead” when Taylor 2.0 is so clearly holding a grudge, mingling lyrics about rebirth with refusing to let things go. The whole thing is so laughable a marketing stunt that I’m tempted to deem it a over-the-top joke. Did we really “make” her plaster her face to the side of UPS vans, or release a Target-exclusive 72-page photocopy of her diary?
What have we learned here? Some of you may argue that this is not worth your time, that a pop music starlet entering her goth phase has too small an impact on your life or the music industry as a whole, and you may be right. But Swift’s heavy-handed indictment of both her own reputation and the industry which feeds into it provides a valuable lesson about the present and future state of the arts in our increasingly connected world. The adage “don’t talk about it; be about it” is swiftly (no pun intended) losing ground to carefully cultivated stage presences, Instagram feeds, and online personas. It matters less what actually happens to Taylor than what she says happens to her, and her personal life as it appears to the public eye has become inextricably woven with her musical output. It’s no secret that most writers, musicians, and painters create art about their own lives and experiences, but the direct and unallusive references to Taylor’s “bad blood” amount to little more than barely disguised name-dropping in “Look What You Made Me Do.” Despite Swift’s attempt at a cryptic release, nothing has been left up to the imagination of the listener; the stage (and its self-conscious underpinnings) has been laid bare for us.
Is it bad art? Definitely. Is this the future of popular art? Maybe.
There remains one piece of evidence which revives hope that perhaps this is one big joke after all, taken seriously least of all by Swift herself. If you look closely at the song credits, “Look What You Made Me Do” is also credited to dance-pop group Right Said Fred, responsible for the infamous 1991 single “I’m Too Sexy.”
Seriously. The chorus has the same melody as “I’m Too Sexy,” an over-the-top critique of narcissistic posturing if there ever was one. May Swift see the irony, or we are all lost.