Were you confused by Taylor Swift’s new song, Look What You Made Me Do? Or maybe this first bite of her new album Reputation left a strange taste in your ears? Don’t worry, you were in good company.
Between the release of the song and its accompanying video, I had what can only be described as a deeply superficial existential crisis that lasted an entire 48 hours.
I was confused, I had an endless list of questions and I was searching for answers harder than Jessica Fletcher in Murder … She Wrote, although somewhat less adorably.
This was basically me last weekend, minus the pearls and frilly neck line …
I ultimately emerged from the shallow depths of my pop-culture-psychosis and settled on two possible conclusions:
1. Taylor has become an expert in deadpan sarcasm. I listened hard for any audible signs of a tongue-in-the-cheek here or a sly-wink and nod there but my search came up empty.
2. Taylor has seriously lost the plot and is literally going on a murderous musical rampage. OK, maybe my Jessica Fletcher phase became a little too hard core.
Subtlety has never been Taylor’s strongest suit, especially when it comes to her album’s lead singles. They tend to be publicity statements more than an accurate representation of the forthcoming album’s style and quality.
Like on RED’s We Are Never Getting Back Together, Taylor flipped the script on her reputation for infamously dating famous men. She’d written songs about those said men before but this was her first foray into playing the bratty pop villain instead of the brooding country victim. In light of recent events, we might consider it ‘training’.
Then with Shake It Off from 1989, we heard Taylor light-heartedly brushing the hating-hate-hate-haters and their silly little dirt off her shoulders, while premiering her new all-pop sound. We also saw a more self-deprecating playful version of someone not really known for her sense of humour. Another trick that has come in handy with LWYMMD.
Although neither of these songs were close to the best on their respective albums, they did exactly what they set out to do … win the Game of Life: Celebrity Edition and take over the charts. These also serve as prime-time examples of Taylor owning that narrative she so loves to hate, yet evidently thrives off like it’s creative and commercial oxygen.
It is the very same narrative she has just re-entered like a gold-plated hungry bulldozer after only asking to be removed from it one hot minute ago. Remember this?
You see, Taylor hates the narrative … but only when she’s not in control of it.
That’s the world of Taylor Swift where protection (or refurbishment) of the brand comes before all else. Nothing is by accident. Everything is part of the strategy. It’s a ‘game’ after all.
With Look What You Made Me Do she is once again taking up the role of head coach/editor-in-chief/head of brand and marketing at the Swift Corporation™. The song may be different to her country-cum-commercial evolution, or maybe it’s just the next step. Either way, the campaign strategy remains the same. Dorothy might be a long way from Kansas, but wherever she has landed there are still billboards aplenty.
Although the song has its share of critics, I’m actually not one of them. Sure, I can admit it’s not her finest work and it’s the last thing any of us were expecting. Yet there is still something quite delicious about it. Like a tasty meal you can’t Instagram because it looks like shit but you shovel it down with maximum enjoyment anyway. It’s a hot mess, but a tasty one.
It borrows loosely from the sort of electroclash that filled clubs in the early 2000s. To quote my wise friend “it sounds like a Peaches rip off … which isn’t a bad thing”. Indeed.
As I continued to grapple with my vexed feelings about the song, suddenly Taylor released the video. This was the campaign’s big reveal and just like that everything finally fell into place. PHEW. This was me after the video was released.
The song and video must have been written at the same time, hand in hand as companion pieces. This video is no afterthought, the two are far too intrinsically linked. The song, while still enjoyable, barely makes any sense without the video and yet with it is transformed from kinda weird to kinda wonderful. Her ‘client’s’ statement is now strong and complete: Taylor is both on a musical murderous rampage while also taking delight in some sarcasm and self-deprecation.
There’s a lot of context to this song – her beefs with Kim and Kanye, Calvin Harris, Katy Perry. Each of these puzzle pieces and more are represented in the video through some form of sly symbolism. I won’t go into all that because it’s already been exhaustively documented.
The clues are just subtle enough to make it curiously clever and set about making millions of super sleuths on the web. In addition to helping make her statement, it also helped ensure her the new record for highest number of YouTube views in 24 hours (tick) and a million more ‘think pieces’ for the internet to obsess over (make that a million and one, sorry). Give that marketing team a bonus, stat.
I really do enjoy the video/song as a package. It shows once again that Taylor Swift is an agile musician and creator. Whatever her motivations are, she has all ten of her fingers on pop culture’s pulse, even if a few of those fingers seem to be going rogue.
Taylor once said, ‘And if you’re horrible to me I’m going to write a song about you and you are not going to like it. That’s how I operate.’
While I accept and somewhat admire that as her M.O., there is a tiny hesitant part of me that hopes at some stage, at some age, she starts to write songs that are less literal about her life and the people in her burn book. Perhaps make them subtle punchlines rather than giant punching bags dressed up as entire songs.
I say that, then I remember that the imagery and sentimentality is a strength of her music and something helps make it a cut above the rest.
Where would All Too Well be without the line “You keep my old scarf from that very first week/ ‘Cos it reminds you of innocence and it smells likes me”, or Out of the Woods without brakes/stitches/ hospital/crying. I mean, where?! My point exactly.
It’s Sunday night and I really can’t afford another exaggerated crisis beyond going to work tomorrow, so I’ll admit I don’t have the answers. But we can rely on Taylor having a few more responses up her sleeve. And whatever she’s doing, we can’t deny that it’s working on many levels.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to indulge in Taylor’s mean time, her beefs and her Reputation. What can I say, I’m a consumer and a sucker for a savvy marketing campaign.