In such volatile, uncertain times, it is actually comforting to know that one thing remains the same: Taylor Swift just doesn’t get it.
“There she goes, playing the victim again.” That’s how Swift ended the deranged kaleidoscope of brand self-explosion that was the premiere of her new music video “Look What You Made Me Do” at the MTV Video Music Awards Sunday night. “Pshffffsssshhfftt.” That was me spitting out my white wine when she said it.
As promised when the polarizing new single debuted late Thursday night, the “old” Taylor Swift is dead. In her place isn’t so much a “new” Taylor Swift, but one shameless in her cribbing of tropes that her pop star predecessors did better plus reductive commentary dressed up as provocation. It was crazy! And not the good kind!
Up until the clever lineup of Taylor Swifts of yesteryear mocking the media’s attacks against her shows up at the end—clever, though tone-deaf and infuriating—the video didn’t have a throughline, a pointed message, or any sort of cohesive vision. Kind of like the ill-conceived song itself.
It begins in some sort of dystopian Hocus Pocus hellscape, in which Swift emerges from a graveyard—remember: she’s dead, y’all!—and does her best The Ring by way of Beetlejuice as she climbs out of a grave in zombie drag, and whoever the hell it was that said her name three times instantly regrets their actions.
Then she wakes up in a tub of diamonds, Melania style. (Twitter might be dragging Katy Perry’s VMAs hosting performance, but at least dearest Cathy did her damnedest—maybe too much—to try to prevent this dumpster fire, while other pop stars remained silent up until the point she recreated a Melania Trump photo shoot in her new music video.)
The video continues in relentless montage, as if someone concluded the concept meeting for the clip by saying, “What the hell!? Let’s do them all!”
There’s TayTay on an iron throne surrounded by snake servants, an obvious cheeky reference to one of the most pervasive slurs hissed at her over the last three years of unflattering coverage.
There’s Swift getting into a cartoonishly violent car crash while she chants “Look What You Made Me Do,” emerging seemingly unharmed and showing off one of her Grammy Awards to paparazzi. Maybe it’s meant to make some sort of point about how she’s outlasted a series of controversies that are “like watching a car wreck” unscathed, but seems kind of Princess Diana icky and insensitive to, I don’t know, anyone who’s been in an actual car wreck?
She swings in a birdcage, as if Miley didn’t already do that. Then she robs a bank vault, as if Britney didn’t already do that. Then she’s a leader of some dominatrix army, as if Madonna didn’t already do that. Finally, she dances in a antique ballroom flanked by fabulous black dancers, as if Beyoncé didn’t already do that—and the internet didn’t warn her to stay the hell away from such appropriation.
(Credit where it’s due: It was a fun nod at Tom Hiddleston’s “I <3 TS” t-shirt that the male dancers all wore shirts bedazzled with the phrase, and refreshingly LGBT-positive for Swift’s background dancers to be genderqueer and femininely styled.)
The so-called “idea” behind the song, video, and Swift’s entire comeback is that she’s fed up with the constant criticism of all the different versions of herself that she puts out in the world, and that the negativity hurled at her in response is unfair.
To rise above all that, she’s burning those past versions—her “reputation”—to the ground, and rising from their ashes as some sort of infallible girl-power badass, a singer who just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. Maybe it’s that latter attitude that allows her to put something out like this that she thinks might do damage control and change the conversation, when it really just makes matters worst.
The video’s finale is the only truly inspired element, even though it will only serve to fan the flames of annoyance with her.
It starts with Swift standing on a mountain of past Taylors all fighting with each other. There’s “You Belong With Me” nerdy Taylor. “Shake It Off” ballerina Taylor is there. So is the circus ringleader Taylor from the RED tour. They all fall away as the video cuts between the other nonsense skits from earlier in the video, ending with each of the past Taylors bowing in front of a plane with “Reputation” emblazoned on it.
“Stop making that surprised face. It’s so annoying,” says “Look What You Made Me Do” zombie Taylor. “You can’t possibly be that surprised all the time,” echoes “Shake It Off” ballerina Taylor.
“You are so fake,” says RED circus ringleader Taylor. “Mean” guitar-playing Taylor starts crying, eliciting leather cop outfit Taylor (my Swiftopedic knowledge can’t figure out what video that look is from) to say, “There she goes, playing the victim again.”
The loud choking sound you heard was the nation gagging at once at Taylor Swift mocking the idea that she plays the victim while literally playing the victim in a new music video!
It’s a ridiculous notion that anyone is to blame for Swift’s various missteps—each tiny cracks that eventually combined and led to an entire collapsing of her reputation—besides herself. To orchestrate some entire PR cycle with this song, video, and message centered around her seeking revenge, some sort of “No More Mrs. Nice Taylor” rebranding, is, in the end, the same old shit. Taylor Swift’s just playing the victim again.
As my Daily Beast colleague Amy Zimmerman wrote, “Since Taylor’s machinations have been so widely criticized in the past, it’s strange that she would want to double down on her victimhood narrative, further portraying herself as maligned and misunderstood.”
“The problem with ‘Look What You Made Me Do,’ leaving aside its questionable musical merits, is that it continues to shift the blame,” she continues. “The very title implies that Swift’s reinvention was forced on her by a cruel, conniving world.”
In the last seconds of the video, a Taylor in a leopard print jacket appears to be Snapchatting on her iPhone. Asked what she’s doing, she gleefully says, “Getting receipts. I’m gonna edit this later”—a dig at Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, the reason she’s been called a snake for the last year—leading Grammy-winner Swift to end things with, “I’d very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”
Then, in unison, all the Swifts shout, “Oh, shut up!”
It’s an amusing conclusion. All the Taylor Swifts that the media has rolled its eyes out at and torn apart, after complaining about that treatment, collectively realize their insufferability. Perhaps there’s a nod to some sort of epiphany, that one can’t be excluded from a narrative it is loudly resurfacing, and that’s the disconnection here.
Throughout her career, Swift has pretty blatantly responded to attacks on her reputation and rumors about her love life in real time through her music and videos, from “Mean” and the insults about her singing voice to “Blank Space” and rumors about her boy craziness. And pop stars wouldn’t be pop stars if they didn’t at some point launch a meta project that throws up the middle fingers at the media. Britney Spears has done it. Madonna had done it. Beyoncé has done it. Miley Cyrus has done it. Katy Perry has done it. Even one-time pop star Lindsay Lohan has done it.
Taylor Swift isn’t reinventing the wheel here. She’s just changing her tires and mistakenly replacing them with a set of flats. She's trying to speed off into the sunset, but she's really just spinning her tires.
Make a revenge song, but make it good, dammit. Take on the media, but at least be smart about it. Proclaim to be self-aware, but maybe actually be self-aware while doing it.
The last few seconds of “Look What Made You Do” hint at someone maybe actually capable of doing that. It’s one thing to acknowledge you are aware of what people are saying about you. It’s another to actually do something with that information other than just repeat it back.