I watched MTV’s Video Music Awards with my parents. Most people would have recognized what a disastrously bad idea that was before it happened, but I didn’t realize it until the damage was done. While sitting next to my skeptical suburban parents I experienced Cardi B’s dress nearly fall off, a Thirty Seconds to Mars/Travis Scott collaboration filmed in heat vision, painful Katy Perry comedy and an awesome (but undoubtedly bizarre) interpretive dance from Lorde.
Also during this strange and rather subpar awards show, Taylor Swift debuted the video compliment to her upcoming album Reputation’s lead single “Look What You Made Me Do.” In the preceding days, my parents were the unfortunate casualties of my impassioned rants concerning the song’s underwhelming lyrics, predictable narrative and odd electro vibe. That being said, no one in the room was expecting much as the video began.
We sat through the four minutes in silence. When the screen went black my dad said, “Wow, I kinda liked that,” which also perfectly voices my initial reaction. I didn’t think it was possible for such a bad song to have such a good video.
Swift uses her meticulous attention to detail to create subtle yet stinging disses at people who wronged her with an unapologetic bravado that is missing in the audio track. Her best attack comes as the first refrain hits and she poses for the paparazzi in a gold luxury car. Her hair and attire fall in the scope of Katy Perry’s iconic style, and she clutches onto one of her ten Grammys, an apparent jab at Perry’s failure to win the award despite 13 nominations.
Another clever, although notably less biting, attack appears earlier in the video when she sits on a snakeskin throne in front of a golden backdrop that resembles the cover art of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaboration album Watch the Throne. Following a long-standing feud with Kanye, Swift wants the world to know that the throne belongs to her.
The single’s lyrics are easily interpreted as Swift pulling out pieces of her past only to shirk behind the victim image as she has done so many times before. Alternatively, the video looks to past events in a far more confrontational manner. The sheer quantity of references she makes to her former personas are enough to suggest that Swift sees the only way forward as drudging up and cleansing herself of the past.
She draws attention to her past headlines, both good and bad. She robs “Stream, Inc.,” a metaphor for her takedown of Apple Music’s unfair music streaming policy. She presides over a “Squad U” class of beautiful female clones in reference to the group of A-list celebrities she befriended and heavily featured on her social media accounts. Her dancers don “I Heart TS” shirts, comparable to the tank top former boyfriend Tom Hiddleston wore in those cringeworthy Fourth of July party photos.
The most forward reference to her entangled past comes in the form of a pack of multiple Taylor Swifts all dressed in a different iconic look from Swift’s decade-long career. They appear twice throughout the video with the most compelling feature coming in the final scene. All of the Swifts line up in front of a vandalized airplane on a tarmac, bickering. Common Swiftisms like “always playing the victim” and “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative” fill out the conversation that eventually ends with all the Swifts yelling, “Shut up!”, and the camera cuts to black.
Swift is tired of the ceaseless conversation and speculation that surrounds her past, so she has chosen to bring it out into the open and put it to rest on her own terms. While the single may have originally portrayed Taylor as the victim, the video puts her in a place of power. The old Taylor may be dead, but the new Taylor is ready to take control of the narrative and isn’t afraid to throw a few punched in the process.
Still, the disjunct relationship between the song and the video causes a slight dilemma. The question that has riddled Swift-related discussion for the past three years persists: victim or villain? There’s little we can do but wait for Swift’s subsequent singles and her new album to truly know if she will redefine her reputation or fall back into her old ways.