“Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.”
— Taylor Swift
It was staring at us the whole time. Sorry, stairing, as in the many stairs of a ladder, like Jacob’s Ladder, a movie not really about an actual ladder. Thursday night, Taylor Swift released her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” and people were like “Hmm,” “Guh?” [GIF of horrified face from some old movie]. Fast forward to Sunday night, when Taylor Swift dropped the video and people were like “Oof,” [GIF of a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant shaking their head]. What the hell? Why in God’s name? How did this get made?
And then it dawned on me. Earlier this week, while listening to that podcast How Did This Get Made? I realized the real truth of this seemingly insane song/music-video combo was obvious. This is a classic Jacob’s Ladder scenario. And, viewed as such, it’s actually pretty awesome.
Let me guide you up the rungs of this ladder to the heaven that is knowing what I’m talking about. (This is a reference to the Biblical Jacob’s Ladder, as, again, the movie is not about an actual or metaphysical ladder.) On said popular bad movie podcast, co-host Jason Mantzoukas is known to posit that the bonkers film they just watched was that way on purpose, because it was actually all the dream of a dying person. (Appropriately, TVTropes refers to the trope as Dying Dreams.) These are deemed Jacob’s Ladder scenarios, after the 1990 psychological horror film, in which a character — named, you guessed it, Jacob — is confronted by a series of psychologically horrific scenes after returning from the Vietnam War, only for the audience to learn at the very end that the events of the film were actually all in his imagination as he was dying on an operating table in Vietnam.
Watch the video again for reference, if you dareeeeeeeeeeee:
This is a death dream. She basically says it outright, singing “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.” And what’s the worst thing ever? Death. Wow.
The song and video are awash with dream logic. Some might call it Lynchian. Not me. But someone — Taylor Swift maybe. There is an uncanny-valley feeling about it. It doesn’t feel exactly real. As Vulture music writer Frank Guan put it, it’s “Disney-villain karaoke.” Swift might not have fully embraced her heel turn, but the video is not meant to be evil as you and I understand it. Instead, it’s her brain’s projection of the evilness expected of her. It’s a bad photocopy of a copy of a screenshot of a GIF of Cersei Lannister.
Musically and visually, the song lacks the linear narrative of a traditional story, opting instead for disjointed flashes and fragments. Los Angeles Times writer Randy Lewis noted that its “boldly inventive textures and fresh melodic, rhythmic and sonic accents,” result in a track that “is constantly shifting, a manifestation of the myriad conflicting and conflicted emotional states.” Manifestation, huh?
This also explains the use of Peaches’ “Operate.” What celebrity is most associated with peaches (the fruit, not the aforementioned musician)?Human peach emoji Kim Kardashian. Swift doesn’t reference Kardashian directly, but the thought of her is obviously in her unconscious, and is coming out in this video, which some argue is a Jacob’s Ladder scenario. What about “I’m Too Sexy”? As literally everyone knows, though the song was released in 1991, it didn’t hit No. 1 in the States until 1992. Which is three years after the year 1989. “Look What You Made Me Do” comes out three years after Swift’s last album — yup — 1989. I know this seems like just a boring coincidence, but that’s just to your conscious self — your subconscious loves dumb shit like this when left to its own devices, like when you’re sleeping … or in this case, dying.
As our music critic Craig Jenkins notes in his review of the video, the song “is not a diss track, because those require crudeness and specificity.” Instead we got allusion and obtuse imagery of a dream, specifically a death dream, like in a Jacob’s Ladder scenario. What follows is a series of innocuous images, that are probably only nightmarish to Swift herself.
At one point, Swift is surrounded by snakes, as if they are out to get her, which references the fact that she’s now followed everywhere by the snake emoji. But then, it appears that the snakes work for her, which is confusing.
At another point, she’s styled to look like Katy Perry. This seems to be projection, as Swift is incapable — even in her own unconscious — of being critical of her own role in this drama, and instead must attribute the duplicitous character trait to someone else.
She robs a vault that belongs to a generic streaming service. Considering Swift’s views on streaming services, this switch-up is, dare I say, dreamlike.
She wears a cat mask, as if she’s supposed to be one of her own cats, but maybe it’s actually Katy Perry, who has a cat (Kitty Purry). Her Tiger sweatshirt is a sort of a dream version of Perry’s lion imagery for “Roar.”
Then the dreams get sexy, as dreams do, but in a way that references her infamous squad. You ever have a dream where you’re talking to your friend but she doesn’t have a face, and then she has your face, and then the face of your high-school gym teacher Ms. Agostini, but the whole time it’s still actually just your friend?
There is also straight-up ridiculousness. Like, when she holds a lobster in the air with a fork as if she’s going to take a big chomp into the shell. She lived on Cape Cod; she knows — in real life — that’s not how you eat a lobster. (The lobster was likely a visual wink to Salvador Dalí, who described his work as “hand painted dream photographs.”) Also, Taylor Swift does a dance routine. She’s been famous for over a decade: Would Taylor Swift ever perform a choreographed dance routine to her music? Only in her dreams. Wait a minute …
But this isn’t just any dream. This is a Dying Dream. The video opens up with Swift as a zombie, which is pretty clearly her subconscious realizing what’s going on. And then the video goes through her past characters and outfits, as if her life is literally flashing before her eyes. What is “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” if not a deathbed confession? Right after that part in the song comes the phone call that some might call Leftovers-esque:
“Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.”
“WHY? OH, ’CAUSE SHE’S DEAD.”
“WHY? OH, ’CAUSE SHE’S DEAD.”
Then all of her past personas line up. These are essentially her past lives. As she sings earlier in the song, “All I think about is karma.” Damn. It really is a Jacob’s Ladder scenario. I was right this whole time.
It’s cool that Taylor Swift, a very famous former country singer, would do something so edgy and unconventional and not cringeworthy. It’s a bold step in a new direction for her because never before has she had a music video that was like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “You Belong With Me”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Blank Space”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Tim McGraw”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Ours”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Our Song”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “I Knew You Were Trouble”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Fifteen”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “22”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The clip of the song she wrote for her monologue when she hosted SNL because she didn’t realize the host doesn’t have to write their own monologue songs? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Mean”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Out of the Woods”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The lyric video for “Eyes Open”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Out of the Woods”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Blank Space”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. Oops I said that one already. The video for “Bad Blood”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Shake it Off”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Begin Again”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “The Last time featuring Gary Lightbody”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Sight & Sound featuring the Civil Wars”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “Everything Has Changed featuring Ed Sheeran”? Wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder. The video for “The Story of Us”? Actually, you know, I haven’t seen it in a while … Okay, yeah, the titular “Story” wasn’t like Jacob’s Ladder.
Are you like Taylor Swift’s friends Haim covering Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” saying, “that don’t impress me much”? What’s the difference between this video being nonsense and its being a Jacob’s Ladder scenario? Well, it’s the difference between a movie that’s not good and a movie that is bad. It’s the difference between Idle Hands and Body Parts. Where the video for “Swish Swish” is unwatchable dreck, “Look What You Made Me Do” is fascinating and disgusting, like an ingrown hair in an unexpected place. It’s unbelievably crazy that Taylor Swift, a rich, tall person, would do something like this. It’s a cause for both concern and exclaimed exasperation! We should’ve listened to her long list of ex-lovers. They were trying to tell us something.