by Guy Walker
It was with strange and grotesque flamboyance that Taylor Swift rebranded herself. As admitted in the music video to her newest, much-anticipated hit single, Look What You Made Me Do, this is the seventh, maybe eighth time she’s changed outfits—a methodological norm for the world’s most popular artists. In order to stay relevant, our gluttonous feathered heroes change the color of their glitter, manufacture scandal, even change sexes. We demand to be entertained, herding into bulging damp fortresses with the expectancy to be coddled in awe.
In a sense, it’s completely understandable: the all-Trump, all-the-time circus devours any sense of normalcy. Watching any news on the tube is like gazing stupidly at a ghoulish doughboy as he violently shakes his loose buttered neck back-and-forth like some menacing predatory tactic. Every day, for two years now, CNN hosts Brady Bunch-sized panels trying to psychoanalyze the snarling clown. Neo-Nazis and Klansmen have come out of their fetid dark closets, chanting with overtly flamboyant lisps, “We’re racist, and we’re proud…Heeey!” We need a reprieve, a place and opportunity to just idolize the wonderful, to twirl vicariously in a pop star haven.
Pop music fills that void. As a child, my mother used to regularly toss me in the backyard, where I would reliably attack ants with my favorite action figures, and she would lock all the doors and close all the curtains, and blast the same Tina Turner classics on the record player. I peaked through the slip of a curtain once, and there she was, pirouetting her arms every which way, seizuring determinedly as if her mom-twerks could generate electricity. There’s something strangely normal about this: how many house moms are trapped in a Sahara of cul-de-sacs, dancing tirelessly in private because of the ameliorative catharsis?We’re all just trying to dance away the encroaching madness. It’s not escapism; it’s a necessary and imminent remedy in a world lost of meaning. Pig-tailed teeny boppers singing along to Taylor Swift’s Love Story exhibit the same phenomenological tendencies to articulate the profound: You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess; It’s a love story, baby, just say “Yes.” We march en masse to her concerts, or her Youtube page with songs well over 2 billion views, because we need to join the sing-along about what it’s like to have a crush on someone.
But somehow, her latest hit Look What You Made Me Do, went violently astray. It reads more like a shunned tyrant’s eulogy, like Stalin’s perverse affectation on why he starved millions. It’s necessary plunder, you’ll all thank me later. After all these years of the public’s obsession with her, she’s saddled us upright on an intimate tour of her life in duress. We encounter new Taylors and old Taylors, dead Taylors, idol-feuding Taylors, like one amorphous orgy of Taylor consummating the world.
The song’s primary intent was to communicate a degree of self-awareness, a croaking anthem that can be summarized as I’m woke cuz I know how basic I am! At the end of the music video, the new Taylor stands alongside her several former Taylors, in front of a private jet that’s been awkwardly spray painted “Reputation” on the side like a defiled advert of her own narcissism, essentially disavowing these other versions of herself, as if they were just bitchy girls from Fashion Week forced to stand in a police lineup. She’s letting her fans and critics know that she knows what they think of her. Self-awareness about one’s own more deprecating characteristics is meant to heighten the quality of its commentary. We insult ourselves so others won’t insult us first.
It was in this last scene that we’re forced to grapple with our own Swiftonian emotions—it’s a costume change convention with every Taylor Swift there ever was. Are we nostalgic for innocent country music star Taylor Swift? Fantasize much for classy dominatrix Swift? It’s a kaleidoscope of teenage malevolence. Are we seeing things? Perhaps not. Taylor Swift’s confession about coming into a new Taylor phase seems peculiarly out of place. It’d be like if when Madonna got over her coned bra phase, and instead of just quietly changing styles, she belched to her adoring masses, Coned bras just ain’t hip no more; now it’s frizzy hair and pink lipstick galore! A bit strange perhaps, but I get it—as a kid, I made people call me Batman one week, then demand to be identified as Penguin the next. We’re watching the high definition swirling psyche of a woman amidst a terrifying identity crisis. Which one is the real Taylor Swift?
Prior to this scene, Swift picks up a telephone and says “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why?…’Cause she’s dead.” For an adult with at least the peripheral attention of every person on the planet, it’s tempting to mock this for its glamorized edginess, like a goth teenager staring at the solar eclipse with no eclipse glasses, and simply muttering “Fuck ‘em,” as his eyeballs sizzle and foam. But Taylor is doing something entirely different. She’s not trying to be edgy, not making a New Age remark that she’s rebranding herself—no, she’s making a marvelously candid admission that there is no real Taylor Swift. She’s a caricature of herself, a symbol of schizophrenia nuanced by sex appeal. She’s been corralled into a puppeteer’s fetid stall, like an over-played-with doll tearing at its seams, cotton bulging from the ends. It’s the story of Pinocchio in reverse: born a real girl who gradually mutates into a wooden relic, everything controlled and organized from the gurning money-grubbing producers above.
Every major media outlet online has published some sort of analysis of the video—the hidden references to ex-boyfriends, fights with Kim Kardashian’s ass, conspiracy theories about her closeted support for Donald Trump, the passive-aggressive between-the-lines disses to all the naysayers and haters. They dissect the minor undulations of an adult woman’s voyeuristic temper tantrum, and they do so with more perseverance and patience than a veteran tour guide in the Louvre’s collection of antiquities. What will she do next? Who will she be next? It’s episodic drama, something all successful television drama series entangle their viewers in—the constant titillation and anticipation of what will happen next episode.
The rest of us are left with the collective penitence of what we made Taylor Swift do. Her previous hits—Love Story, Bad Blood, Blank Space, Shake It Off—were harmless interludes in the machinery of one girl’s life—her highly dramatized feuds with other hot girls were like a normal catfight in the girl’s locker room that’s been magnified across the vastness of the cosmos. We’re all hapless bystanders in the Roman Colosseum of teenage pettiness. Still, those were good clean pop songs, peppered with the smutty gossipry of boys and make up, relatable enough for the rest of us to sing along to. Look What You Made Me Do is different—it’s the last croak before madness. Its brash narcissism doesn’t care anymore about things outside itself—the pulsating forces of love, the vague empathies and their yearning enterprise of heartbreak. Look at what we made her do—the swelling vastness of all-Taylor, all-the-time is our fault. We appropriated her indistinct sex appeal, we orchestrated her failed relationships, we fed the monster-inhabited tabloids with the allure of celebrity catfights. Her wretchedness is on us now; her porcelain effigy stomping through the wasteland for her next big hit.
But it’s not her fault. Taylor Swift is a generational outcry, a representative of our cosmic ubiquitary pettiness. There is no real Taylor because every young white middle-upper-class woman and man is Taylor Swift, proselytizing why their non-problems matter. Taylor Swift is simply a cretinous skin-grafted Bambi, an android-like creature with prosthetic private parts. For years, the more conspiratorial corners of the Internet alleged she had no belly-button, like a reprogrammable sex bot in Ex Machina. She just may be. When she stands there, waving her arms haphazardly to some sick beat, lamenting about what other girls have said about her, she’s simply channeling every girl before her, believing the world is here for them and them alone. It will never end. This is the world now. Look what we made us do.