Thursday night, I played the new Taylor Swift single “Look What You Made Me Do” a few times and snapped on Twitter that I couldn’t figure out what it was that she’d been made to do. It’s Monday now, and after a few spins through the official music video, the question of what purpose this single is meant to serve, and why, still stands. It’s not a diss track, because those require crudeness and specificity, and Taylor, for all the times she’s written a song that maybe makes someone specific look bad, prefers to keep her writing slippery enough to be relatable to any person who might happen to be listening.
The video is a colorful stream of winks and nods to old Taylor beef and old Taylor eras that offers up devilish acknowledgment that she knows what everyone has been saying about her all these years. This is a change of pace for her, perhaps, since she spent much of this and last year coyly evading opportunities to clap back at digs from Calvin Harris, Katy Perry, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian. But there’s nothing villainous about simply knowing who doesn’t like you and why. It seems wasteful to dig up all the old dirt this video alludes to, both abstractly and directly, without either flicking it back at Taylor’s naysayers or owning up to a certain level of responsibility for it. Swift plays a zombie in the video but lacks their chilling bluntness. She sips tea with cobras but won’t employ their cunning precision.
In the video’s closing moments, 15 different incarnations of the “old” Taylor quibble in front of a jet plane. One calls another fake, and after the second one wells up with tears, a third snips, “There she goes playing the victim … again.” It’s the most fascinating few seconds of this entire campaign, because we haven’t heard much from Swift since Kim Kardashian served solid proof of a time she lied about being mistreated by Kanye on the 2016 Grammys stage. As a stand-alone piece, the last 40 seconds of “Look What You Made Me Do” reckon snarkily with the fact that everyone has been sick of Taylor Swift faking being squeaky clean for years now. (I’m trying to think of a time I heard her curse before goth Taylor calls zombie Taylor a “bitch,” and I’m drawing blanks.) But plug it onto the end of a song called “Look What You Made Me Do,” the gist of which is that Swift’s apparent commitment to ruthlessness is a role she has been cornered into playing by a hater’s “perfect crime,” and it loses the gleeful agency of going rogue.
“Look What You Made Me Do” isn’t just about having and conquering enemies, it’s about getting your ass handed to you by one of them and going all scorched earth because that’s your only card left to play. It’s a Faustian “Fuck it, then, let’s be bad.” It’s Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Phaedra Parks muttering “So now I’m the doggone villain” after her web of lies got exposed in the reunion special to end all reunion specials. Like Phaedra, Taylor doesn’t fully commit to going dark, because the real supervillain thing to do would be to say, “Yeah, I did what I did. What are you gonna do about it?” Phaedra gave up stone-faced silence instead of truth. “Look What You Made Me Do” opts instead to repackage the “try and stop me” vibe of “Blank Space” in visuals that crib cues from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.”
There are those who’ll argue that it’s lofty to read this record as being autobiographical, and the writer’s license to artifice as a literary device would certainly explain the song and video’s shakiness as commentary on Taylor’s year of savage press and evasive maneuvers. But if Taylor wants us to believe she’s canny enough to know what terrible things people think about her, then she also knows they’ll read her new snake-emoji fixation as Kim K. slander, and the gravestone for the pseudonym she used to write “This Is What You Came For” as a jab at the time Calvin Harris said that she hated Katy Perry because she’s bored and looking for someone new to bury. “Look What You Made Me Do” is a flubbed attempt at turning bad press into good music, a too-soft shot back at people who damn near ruined her reputation, and a too-late acknowledgment that Taylor Swift is not the character she plays on TV. We knew that already. Where’s the real tea?