After a year of radio silence following the events of "Swiftmas in July" Taylor Swift is back, and she's learned absolutely nothing from the scandal that put a dent in her squeaky clean image. Her new single Look What You Made Me Do from her upcoming album Reputation is a petty, wannabe anthem that demonstrates the depths of Taylor's self-delusion.
Taylor's gimmick has always been to play the victim. Throughout her career, she has used her music and her public image to craft the narrative that she is a sweet young girl, put upon by men who would do her ill. The infamous VMA incident of 2009 cemented this narrative and catapulted her to super-stardom in the wake of a deserved swell of sympathy. She's been riding that wave ever since.
When Kanye seemingly reignited the feud with the lyrics of his track Famous from his 2016 album The Life of Pablo (after they'd publicly made up in 2015, again on the VMA stage) Taylor took the opportunity to disparage him during her Grammy acceptance speech in February 2016, even releasing a statement that she'd never have approved such "misogynistic" lyrics. It was a massive story that reflected poorly on Kanye, reinforced the existing narrative about his bad behaviour, and further cemented Taylor's status as perfect public victim.
So imagine everyone's surprise when Kim Kardashian revealed in a June 2016 GQ interview that Taylor had in fact lied about giving her approval for the song, and that she had proof. The interview was only the first part of Kim's coordinated media attack to discredit Taylor and vindicate her husband. That week's episode of her E! reality show Keeping Up With The Kardashians dealt with Kim's growing frustration over the media's vilification of her husband, and immediately following the broadcast, Kim dropped the receipts on Snapchat. Not only had Taylor approved of the lyrics, she'd actively colluded with Kanye about what the narrative arc of its release would be. In an infamous tweet, Kim likened Taylor to a snake in the grass, a slight that's stuck.
Wait it's legit National Snake Day?!?!?They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days! 🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍🐍— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) July 17, 2016
It was the first thing to definitively pop the bubble of adoration Taylor had constructed for herself out of other people's bad reputations, and it was especially noxious because of the rotten racial dynamics at play. Black men have lost their lives because of white women's lies. Taylor's victim act had replicated the very ways in which powerful white women like herself often used their whiteness against men of colour specifically in order to serve their own needs.
Now, after nearly a year of self-imposed seclusion, the imagery of Taylor's new album Reputation is a clear attempt to embrace the scandal and reframe it to her own ends. But Look What You Made Me Do fails at this specifically because she's clearly unrepentant about the damage she caused and the havoc she wreaked. She hasn't learned a thing.
In addition to not being particularly good, the song's lyrics are full of not-at-all subtle references to Kim and Kanye, and repudiations of any responsibility for the way public perception turned against her as her lies came into focus. To hear Taylor tell it, even as she reinvents herself, she is still the victim of this story. The throbbing, repetitive refrain pummels into your head and insists that Taylor is not at fault for what she's about to do. It's both a threat and a warning, but it rings hollow: Taylor is not the victim here. No one wronged her. How much longer does she plan to bang that drum? Her inability to recognize why the public turned so swiftly against her is demonstrative of the initial critiques. She seemingly still believes she's being unfairly targeted.
Her attempt to reclaim the snake imagery she's been saddled with is valiant and demonstrates her good instincts, but it would only have worked if she leaned into it wholesale and fully stepped into her role as the music industry's resident Regina George. Instead, she's positioning herself as full of righteous anger, but the audience already knows she's full of shit. The track insists that karma never forgets, but Taylor is nursing self-inflicted wounds. The song reads as the opening shot of the reignition of a petty feud everyone has moved on from but her. Her declaration that "the old Taylor can't come to the phone because she's dead" reads as though she's quietly been driven mad by delusion, a presumption reinforced by the Hitchcockian imagery of the lyric video. Her insistence that she's coming to avenge herself feels defensive and silly, like a puppy trying to fight its own reflection. Even the song's title is a common refrain of domestic abusers, insisting that their victims are at fault for the suffering they inflict. Knowing what we know now, the song reveals just how small-minded Taylor Swift really is. Is it any wonder she's become emblematic of the 53%?
By trying to have it both ways, Taylor's shooting herself in the foot. What happened to wanting to be excluded from this narrative? She doesn't get to blame the media for her bad reputation when she colluded with them to invent the tightly constructed image she has leaned on for so much of her career. It will be interesting to see how the rest of this album release rolls out and if Taylor will make any course-corrections in the wake of the song's lukewarm reception, but if the rest of the tracks are more declarations of revenge or initiations of unearned wars, she may finally lose her crown as the reigning queen of pop. We all saw through her shallow attempt to embrace feminism as a marketing tactic, so her pivot to anti-heroine villainess makes sense in the age of Trump. But it's a pity that the only thing of substance she has left to give us is a shallow recreation of her old Reputation.