the culture business

Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ Is the First Pure Piece of Trump-Era Pop Art

Swift in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video. Photo: Big Machine Records/YouTube

On Saturday night, after Hurricane Harvey made landfall but just before the floodwaters began to rise in Houston, a large portion of America gave its attention to a boxing match unsentimentally nicknamed the “Money Fight.” Even in different times and under better circumstances, the pay-per-view face-off between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor was never going to be the kind of event that would inspire sportswriters to wax poetic about the “sweet science” or move Joyce Carol Oates to add a new chapter to On Boxing. Mayweather is a convicted abuser of women, McGregor a preening race-baiter, and they walked away from the weekend with at least a combined $130 million. It simply wasn’t possible to celebrate their showdown except in the most nihilistic, “lol nothing matters” way. But the news from Texas — not just what was happening but the certainty that it would only get worse — lent an additional while-Rome-burns quality to the spectacle. Actually, Rome always feels like it’s burning if you install an emperor whose sole delight is fiddling with his phone. (And in fairness to Nero, some historians say that after the fire, at least he allowed his palace to be used as a shelter for the displaced, so he wins this round on points.)

When we talk about pop culture in the age of Trump, we tend to mean art of the self-styled resistance. But what about the stuff that history will record as epitomizing our time rather than raising a fist against it? The phrase “Reagan-era culture” doesn’t call to mind David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart — it’s Dynasty’s slavering fetishization of wealth, power, and conspicuous consumption, or the lubed militarism of Top Gun. Mayweather-McGregor, the sports equivalent of one of those tiger-versus-alligator YouTube nature videos, was, in its way, tailored precisely to the summer of 2017: It required a lowering of standards — a suspension of norms — to agree to participate even as a spectator, and it was steeped in a kind of “Hey, everyone’s getting paid” cynicism that is by now familiar. It didn’t drain the swamp so much as suck us into it.

Of the more than half-a-billion dollars in revenue that the fight is expected to generate, only a small portion came from the 481 American movie theaters where it was simulcast. But that take was still high enough, even with just one showing, to make the bout one of the ten top grossers in the country over the weekend if we treat it as just one more summer movie — which, given its coarseness, violence, predictability, and lack of female protagonists, perhaps we should. Mayweather-McGregor was able to crack the top ten in part because last weekend was the worst at the box office in 16 years, since just after 9/11. It was a summer in which two of the best-liked stories of heroism, Dunkirk and Wonder Woman, had little if anything to do with Americans, a slumpy season in which most people neither sought nor found much inspiration on the big screen, and one that, because big-studio movies take so long to produce, offered little in the way of resonance beyond The Big Sick.

It was easier to stay at home; nobody needs to go outdoors for a smirk-watch. ABC is currently airing Bachelor in Paradise, a spinoff of The Bachelor in which people who don’t quite have it in their hearts to do porn go off to a Mexican resort and drink and simulate “romance.” Production of the show was suspended in June over an allegation (now said to be unfounded) of nonconsensual sex, and it is not hard to imagine a time — say, two years ago — in which even the possibility that a participant in a reality show was assaulted would have been enough for the purveyors of this particular genre of entertainment to say “Let’s just call it a day and air more reruns of Celebrity Family Feud.

But since we live in a post-shame age, ABC was able to cycle with extreme alacrity through the stages of corporate grief — suspension, investigation, exoneration, contrition, resumption, and monetization. Like the fight, your sole door into Bachelor in Paradise is through the basement; it’s a brand of trash that can be successful only if you decide that nobody in it is fully human and everybody’s flying home dirtier but richer. That Access Hollywood bus Trump was on? It could have been driving to the set of a toxic series like this as easily as to Days of Our Lives. Its participants are seeking fame, not love, because, after all, when you’re a star, they let you do anything.

Just as we reached the final, dregs-and-leftovers phase of summer, the first pure, truly emblematic, undeniable piece of pop art of the Trump era landed right in our laps. Two nights before the fight, Taylor Swift unloaded her new single “Look What You Made Me Do,” and although Trump still seems wedded to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as his signature rally-closer, he really should consider an update. Swift’s tour de force of deflective petulance is amazing: It’s essentially a catalogue of every public feud she’s had that, without naming them, manages to extend, mock, and, most important, commodify them. (Side note: Do you know anyone in real life who has “feuds” who isn’t utterly insufferable?) “Look What You Made Me Do” — it’s right there in the title — is an anthem that turns the abrogation of personal responsibility into a posturing statement of empowerment. With its tense “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? … ’Cause she’s dead!” it embraces the possibility of calling “Do over!” as a form of self-realization, and imagines a world in which a clean slate means never having to say you’re sorry because every conceivable way you lash out must be someone else’s fault. Is Taylor Swift to blame for anything? How can any of us know? There was violence on many sides, many sides.

I have no idea what Swift’s politics are (she seems to have been widely excoriated for keeping her vote private, which is obviously her right), but I’ve heard enough of her songs over the years so that of course I know what her politics are: I win, but for the record I’m the victim of haters and losers. As we’ve learned, you can go a long way with that, and she has. If nothing else, “Look What You Made Me Do” finds a new way to commercialize self-exoneration. It’s perfect for a world in which our chief executive’s chief subject of fascination is his own size, his reach, and the way in which he is received. If he ever puts out a record, it will surely be called, like hers, “Reputation.” (And in an alternate, kinder universe, Trump would be in his gold tower right now tweeting about Swift and Katy Perry the way he used to tweet about Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.)

Swift is a perfect, golden avatar of our moment, a child of the new century who understands celebrity as a form of constant curation of one’s brand the way that Madonna, a child of the old century, understood it as an act of persona creation. Whether or not she is a Trump supporter, she is an embodiment of Trump culture. And with this single, which broke a YouTube record in its first 24 hours, she has slouched in at the last minute to grab the title of Song of the Summer, or at least Song of the Summer We Deserve. (I can’t help but imagine an electoral scenario in which “Despacito” gets more votes but still loses.)

But as we watch Swift’s video — and yes, I get it, it’s not a crime against art, just a clever, irritating, hyper-self-aware pop earworm calculated to prove that she can not only take a joke but she will own and copyright said joke — we should probably pause to remember that none of this fame-enthralled solipsism emerged from a vacuum. It’s the big bang from which Trump the self-selling celeb was spawned. And his presidency didn’t invent this grim and cynical strain of pop culture; it’s just given it a good home. None of this exists without our complicity. We may smirk at it, but it smirks right back, lets us know we’re in no position to judge, and leaves us with this sour revelation: This is also our fault. Look what we made us do.

*A version of this article appears in the September 4, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Taylor Swift’s ‘LWYMMD’ Is a Pure Piece of Trump-Era Pop Art