Taylor Swift’s New Single and Campaign is Damaging and Wrong.
There’s a particularly prevalent scene at the end of Taylor Swift’s new video, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. After jaw-dropping segues of celebrity scorn, bombastic bathtubs and on-the-nose meta commentary, our blonde-haired chanteuse answers a phone call. Someone - perhaps Katy Perry, Kanye West, a distant Kardashian – asks to speak to Swifty. However, Taylor 2.0 rebuffs and chides: “She can’t come to the phone right now…she’s dead.”
Like most of LWYMMD’s referential riffing, it’s painfully obvious and consciously crafted. However, since 2014’s preposterously polished 1989 transitioned ‘Tay-Tay’ from a tousled troubadour into a globe-gobbling pop icon, what is supposed to be down-to-earth self-awareness is actually sixth-form stroppiness, wrapped in watered-down radio anonymity that has seen her already-bulging fanbase explode, but her obvious melodic gifts suffer.
There are positives in her new music video. One is the obvious hard work, determination and dazzle that have gone into it, propelling it into the pantheon of pop videos containing songs as disparate as ‘Thriller’ and ‘Lemonade’. The innumerable amount of Easter eggs and hidden messages also deserves praise, as within three minutes we get references that are commendably subtle (the dollar scene, seemingly a nod to Swift’s recent court case, the gang of men adorned in Hiddleston-esque ‘I Heart T.S.’ shirts, the Nils Sjoberg gravestone) and cringe-inducing (the Grammy stroking, the snakes). It is, though, a sad case of window dressing – take away the brazenness and the brash theatrics and you have a lumpen thump of generic urban pop, punctuated by a wafer-thin chorus that sounds distressingly similar to Right Said Fred. Easily Swift’s weakest single to date, if this is truly the singer-songwriter’s third coming, Katy Perry will be able to sleep comfortably at night, with or without the Grammies.
“There she goes, always playing the victim,” Taylor scolds to herself at one point, but throughout the video this statement feels less like self-aware badinage and more of a perverse badge of honour. Over the years, Swift’s personal life has been as potent as her music, from tabloid trysts to star-studded squabbles, and the opportunity to display them with a wry wink is instead vetoed for woe-is-me megalomania.
Whether these beefs with Kanye, Kim and Katy are even real, of course, is another matter, but Taylor’s attempt to come across as a weather-beaten jester – playing up to the press’ ill-conceived preconceptions – feel salty and self-serving, having the last laugh while ensuring no one else in the room utters a single chuckle. Maybe if the video hadn’t been so grandiose it would work, but the scene in which multiple Swifts – each one a glaringly overt reference to previous looks and sounds – are chastised and metaphorically buried, allowing the new Swift, one that is done with her oft-quoted ‘reputation’, to reign supreme.
With other pop giants such as Lady Gaga and Harry Styles releasing more organic, acoustic-flavoured records, it seemed the landscape of radio-raging music was becoming more cleansed, breaking free from auto-tuned shackles in favour of more pastoral territory. This makes LWYMMD seem all the more dated and ill-informed. Like Katy Perry’s WITNESS, it’s an anachronism, laying down drum-and-bass while Miley Cyrus is crafting summery guitar crunch. When you take into account Swift’s success was originally built on the hazy strum of an acoustic, her confusion at what’s contemporary feels all the more troubling. If she had made a return to the arms-aloft anthems of 2012’s Red, which married her earworm sheen with her country leanings wonderfully, it would have been considered a huge success.
Swift is now a brand, though, and those that have begun to find her antics exhausting will find plenty to pillory in her latest partnership. Her latest venture, with Ticketmaster, is designed to beat touts, which would be commendable if the actual outcome resulted in true fans getting tickets. In truth, it encourages fans to buy swaths of merch, stream LYMMD on an infinite loop and pre-order her new LP (which is titled, funnily enough, reputation). Oh, also, that pre-order needs to be upgraded to a $48 copy that’ll arrive on release day. On an album alone, a fan has just paid around $63. Add that to endless YouTube tomfoolery and a slew of Swift t-shirts and fans might not even get to see their idol. It’s the kind of almighty dollar dalliances that Krusty the Clown would convey, and feels akin to going to a brothel, spending a ridiculous admin fee and ending up leaving without even a back massage.
All of this adds up to a new era where Swift is aware of her detractors, but seems to revel in it all the same. “I’d like to be excluded from this narrative,” she once famously stated. If this continues, so will a lot of her fans.