Many of Taylor Swift fans hate her latest single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” But they’re all watching the song’s video. Repeatedly. As in, 43.2 million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours—a new record.
And in a week that’s seen new releases from anybody who might be within hailing distance of Ms. Swift’s cultural influence—Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus—well, Taylor’s the only one anyone’s talking about.
Indeed, she’s given them a great deal to talk about.
Plenty of songs—including many of Swift’s—have taken haters to task. This track, however, takes hating haters to a whole ‘nother level.
The only question is, which hater(s) is Taylor singing about?
The song itself —a dark, throbbing, clubby dance burner with a chorus that mimics the rhythm and tonality of Right Said Fred’s 1991 cult classic “I’m Too Sexy”—offers few clues. But clearly, Swift’s patience has run out.
“I don’t like your little games,” she begins. “Don’t like your tilted stage/The role you made me play/Of the fool, no, I don’t like you.”
But out of the ashes of bitterness, she rises: cold, angry and determined. “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time/Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time.” And as everyone should know by now, it’s best not to cross Taylor Swift: “I’ve got a list of names and yours in red, underlined/I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!”
The second verse finds Taylor slithering, snakelike, through her plans for retribution. (And, lest that seems harsh, snakes play a prominent role in the video, as we’ll see, so just hold on a minute.) “The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama/But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma.” Then this unmistakable warning: “Maybe I got mine, but you’ll get all of yours.”
And, when Taylor gets done tearing you apart, remember, it’s your fault for making her mad: “Ooh, look what you made me do.” In other words, it’s all your fault for daring to cross her. Because, well, what other choice does she have but to make you pay?
And it’s right about here that things go all … meta.
Perhaps no one in pop music has honed the craft of taking digs at enemies as effectively as Taylor Swift. Her music, her lyrics, her liner notes are all laced with so many subtle, personal messages that an entire cottage industry has sprung up to give us the interpretation of what she really means and who she’s really talking about.
Near the end of the song, Taylor hints that maybe the hater she’s hating on is none other than … herself. “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” she says in mock apology. “Why? Oh, because she’s dead.”
Is Taylor critiquing her critics? Or is she critiquing herself?
I’d argue the answer to those questions is yes. In the process of unleashing vitriol on those who’ve dared to criticize her, Taylor is also making sport with the many images and roles she’s played throughout her career.
The video toys with that very notion. Not only does Swift play various villainous roles here—including a hideous zombie crawling out of Taylor’s grave, another iteration that carries around a hissing cobra, and a cleavage-baring dictator of sorts—but one of these angry incarnations of herself ends up subjugating all the rest.
In the end, though, all the Taylors line up, complete with outfits from a dozen or so of her most famous videos, and start arguing with each other:
“You guys!” says High School Taylor, her eyes wide.
“Stop making that surprise face, it’s so annoying!” responds Zombie Taylor (wearing a blue dress from the “Out of the Woods” video).
“You can’t possibly be that surprised all the time,” says a White Dress Taylor.
“What’s with that b–ch?” says another.
And on and on it goes.
In the end, Video Music Awards Taylor (you know, the one where she got interrupted by Kanye) holds a mic up and says, “Uh, I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”
“Shut up!” the various Taylor Swifts scream, expressing their collective weariness with … Taylor Swift.
The internet has a trainload of interpretations analyzing every image, every revealing outfit, every aspect of this deliriously self-referential video. You’ll find commentary on why Taylor’s bathing (her shoulders visible) in a tub full of diamonds. Why her crashed sports car has a cheetah in it. Why her backup male dancers are wearing I Heart TS t-shirts with high heels. And that’s among many, many other things they’re noticing, connecting, speculating about.
Let me add my own interpretation to the mix. I wonder—and it’s only that, a wondering—if Taylor is saying that trying to please everyone with endless iterations of herself is impossible. In fact, it’s turned her into a melodramatic, Cruella De Vil-style villain.
I think Taylor’s trying to say something significant about what the cage of fame—and at one point, she does actually swing in a cage—does to anyone who’s incarcerated there by others’ opinions, others expectations. It’s not hard to see why she might exclaim in exasperation, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”
Or it could be that Taylor Swift has always wanted to make a racy, Michael Jackson-esque Thriller-type video of her own where the rotten corpse of Taylor’s future crawls out of the grave to wreak havoc on all those who’ve crossed her before.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.