Taylor Swift Can't Be The Victim And The Villain
Are we entering Taylor Swift 's Hot Topic phase? "Look What You Made Me Do," the first single fromReputation , is a sleek and dark piece of electro-pop that swells and seethes. After celebrity feuds, media battles and even court cases, it confirms our suspicions that Swift is out for blood, but also makes us wonder who this song is for. Lyndsey McKenna, Marissa Lorusso and I all work in the same office pod (shout-out to my roséwave co-conspirators!) and spend a lot of time dishing on pop music/culture online and IRL. So we got together to make sense of Taylor's attempted heel turn. --Lars Gotrich
Lyndsey McKenna:The old pop culture is dead. So is Taylor Swift, according to her. So am I.
Marissa Lorusso: R.I.P.
Lars Gotrich: On that note! I've had a whole pot of tea and I'm ready to get a lil' salty about "Look What You Made Me Do." But first, I'd love for us all to state our current level of Taylor Swift devoutness. I'll go first: Hi, I'm Lars, Taylor Agnostic. I genuinely like the hits ("You Belong With Me," " Wheeee-hee! Are Never Getting Back Together," etc.), and will defend her place in pop culture drunkenly at parties and soberly on Twitter (maybe drunkenly, too).
Marissa Lorusso: I guess this framework makes me the Taylor Atheist, though I don't, like, not believe in her existence — she is, unfortunately, definitely real. I agree that she has some bangers ("We Are Never Ever Ever Ever Etc." helped me survive senior year of college ), but her personae bum me out. Early Stage Purity Culture Taylor was too attached to internalized misogyny for me, and Later Stage Nu-Feminist Taylor embraced a toothless, exclusionary feminism I couldn't love. And I can't keep up with her sound. No matter how many times she reinvents it, it just never ends up being something I dig.
Lyndsey McKenna: My status as resident Taylor Devout has never been without caveats (looking at you, tone-deaf "Shake It Off" video, and "Welcome to New York," a song I refuse to acknowledge exists). I've been a longtime fan, was a fierce defender of 1989, and yes, I've seen her live ( 1989 tour, Halloween night 2015, Tampa).
Marissa Lorusso:I forgot about "Welcome To New York!" Oh my gawd. Anyway. What were your initial reactions to The Snake Song, a.k.a. "Look What You Made Me Do"?
Lyndsey McKenna:It's been a long day.
Lars Gotrich: I didn't stay up until midnight like Lyndsey, so I listened on the way to work this morning, heard those strings and was half-expecting a hard electro bass drop and what I got was upscale electroclash. Like, what an obscure touchstone of early 2000s NYC! I don't know if that's what Taylor and producer Jack Antonoff intended, but the minimalist beat, bass wobble and deadpan vocal delivery all owe to this brief period of time when electronic-pop music was dirty as hell. The problem "Look" runs into is that Jack and Taylor can't help but make it a sweeping melodrama.
Marissa Lorusso: I'm not super familiar with electroclash, but I agree about the melodrama, which is why I hate-love the lyric about how everyone else is thinking about drama, and she's thinking about karma. Like, no, Taylor — clearly you are thinking about the drama, too!
OK, well I will say this: I am trying to find any aspect that I like and it is hard. All I can think of is that there are definitely some Hayley Williams vibes in her voice, which I can get behind.
Lyndsey McKenna:Upon my first listen: Is Mercury still in retrograde?
Lyndsey McKenna: Sonically, it felt nondescript. Leading up to the release, I had this hope that in the public presentation of her new persona, we'd see Taylor embrace her own calculating villainy and adopt the role of heel. Lyrically, just the phase "Look What You Made Me Do," shirks responsibility, right?
Marissa Lorusso: YES, exactly! Lyndsey, can you tell us more about your heel theory?
Lyndsey McKenna:Absolutely. In professional wrestling, a heel is the bad guy, the villain. And I think at this point, given the tangled web Taylor has woven with her personal and performative life — so much ink has been spilled about her and the way she plays victim in her incredibly public feuds — it would've made more sense to finally own up. It feels necessary to take the song in conjunction with the build-up — essentially erasing her social media history (goodbye, all those Fourth of July photoshoots) and replacing it with the snake imagery.
Marissa Lorusso: I agree that a heel turn would have been fascinating. I think one of the main things that bugs me about Taylor is the way she tries to erase the fact that her persona is a fabrication. Even though we all know that celebrity is a construction, she wants us to believe that there's no separation between the character in her songs/the woman on the red carpet and the Real Taylor Swift. So any critique of her music or celeb persona becomes seen as a personal attack. I think embracing a heel character would ease that tension for me — maybeeee even make me root for Heel Taylor and leave Real Taylor alone.
Lyndsey McKenna:Right! Nary a tweet or Instagram post from any of her friends formerly known as the #squad? Can't tell me that's not deliberate.
Lars Gotrich:"Bad Blood" squad R.I.P.
Marissa Lorusso:But she squandered that chance to play the villain — she'd rather be the victim, which is a stale posture for her by now.
Lyndsey McKenna: Precisely.
Marissa Lorusso: Do you guys feel like sonically, it has anything to do with her older stuff? I am struggling to see any kind of genuine through-line aside from the posturing. What makes this genuinely a Taylor Swift song?
Lars Gotrich: So here's the thing about Taylor, which has been said numerous times, but bears repeating: Taylor does not have the range.
Marissa Lorusso: Amen!
Lars Gotrich:But! She is truly a studio chameleon. She knows her range is limited, and finds ways to play with words like few others can. The way she plays with the clipped beat on "Blank Space" is subtly ingenious, the "she wears short skirts / I wear T-shirts" line in "You Belong With Me" curls like her tendrils... or at least when she still had them.
Lyndsey McKenna: Amen to that. The pre-chorus build feels very Jack Antonoff, but not very Taylor Swift. If Red was Taylor's "I won't call it pop, but it is," record and 1989was her "I'm calling it pop," this iteration of Taylor feels genreless, at least so far! We've only got one song of this era, and in fairness, "Shake It Off" wasn't a great lead single, either.
Lars Gotrich:Like, the syncopating "just" she inserts into the back half of the chorus of "Look" — it's a nice rhythmic push, a second punctuation mark, as it were. I like it.
Marissa Lorusso: Remember how Annie Clark said the self-titled St. Vincent record had a near-future cult leader aesthetic? There's * almost * an icy distance in Tay's delivery here that makes me think of that connection.
Lyndsey McKenna: Not for nothing, Jack Antonoff co-produced St. Vincent's latest, " New York."
Marissa Lorusso: I feel like Tay's delivery here — especially with that "just" — is verging on sexy, but then it gets so petulant, it can't be, which feels like another missed opportunity to me.
Lars Gotrich:Both of these productions were kinda surprising to me. I associate Antonoff with bright and bold production colors, even if some of the Bleachers songs can sound like an aggressively thick brush stroke of brown.
Marissa Lorusso:True, but then again, I feel like Lorde's album is not really bright at all, and that's Antonoff, too, yes? (And that sounds nothing like Tay, nothing like "New York" either.)
Lyndsey McKenna: Right! I think I honed in on the Jack Antonoff credit because 1. " Out Of The Woods" was never a favorite of mine, and 2. Lorde's Melodrama is an Album Of The Year contender in my book.
Lars Gotrich: Agreed on Melodrama, but there is movement to Lorde's new album that I don't hear in most pop music. You can feel the streaks stretch across " Perfect Places," hues that uncover themselves at unexpected times. With "Look What You Made Me Do," there is a flatness to the production, and a flattening to Taylor's voice that rips away the subtle tricks that make her both fascinating and infuriating to a mid-level fan like myself.
Lyndsey McKenna:Right. There's that moment on "Perfect Places" right as the chorus kicks in, it's a punch. But "Look What You Made Me Do" really falters at that exact moment.
Lars Gotrich:HOWEVER the "I'm Too Sexy" interpolation... it was kind of a Huh moment for me.
Lyndsey McKenna:Yeah, that's utterly jarring.
Lars Gotrich:"I'm Too Sexy" was also a heel moment in pop music, so I appreciate the nod. We weren't allowed to talk about our sexy bods in pop culture, at least not so explicitly and braggadociously, in the early '90s.
Marissa Lorusso:Can we also address the spoken word faux-drop: "I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now / Why? / Because she's dead!" It makes me laugh every time I hear it.
Lyndsey McKenna:"Because she's dead!" is the new "This. Sick. Beat."
Lars Gotrich: She looooves spoken word. Get on a poetry slam circuit, girl.
Lyndsey McKenna: And how could we forget, "Like, ever!"
Lars Gotrich: Okay! But! That particular spoken word drop is followed by this incredibly earwormy bombshell of a hook WHEEE-HEEEE! It is basic as hell and I loved her for it.
Marissa Lorusso:Yes! Sonically, this doesn't go anywhere — worth pointing out that thematically, it doesn't go anywhere, either! She keeps saying, "Look what you made me do" but — What? What did you do? What did (we? who is this song addressing?) make you do?
Lars Gotrich: Is "Look" about... everybody? Taylor may be done playing, but her role as the victim (which, take her various victim roles as you will — playful, flirtatious, victorious, hurt) is careening into a vicious dark hole that maybe we shouldn't be so surprised by. Her defense has become offense, backed into a corner, but couched in a language pointed out every which way: "The world moves on, but one thing's for sure / Maybe I got mine, but you'll all get yours."
Marissa Lorusso: I saw something floating around the Internet that the album cover could be referencing "fake news" — Do y'all see this as her intention? Like, is this supposed to be an indictment of the Taylor Take Cycle?
Lyndsey McKenna:It doesn't feel subtle with specific accusations, but there's also just enough to be about seemingly everyone she's feuded with, AND everyone beyond that.
Lars Gotrich:Not to mention she's planning to premiere the video at the VMAs, which...
Marissa Lorusso:Again I say: She does indeed live for the drama. (Don't we all?)
Lars Gotrich:Lyndsey, as the Taylor devotee, you've been saying all week (all year!), "This is not your year, Taylor! Don't do this now!" Can you talk about why you wanted her to wait?
Lyndsey McKenna: The Taylor Swift album release cycle is always a relentless one. At least historically, in a year that we get a new Taylor record, you can bank that she'll be everywhere, from morning shows to talk shows, in kids-centric programming and of course, in the music press.
I mentioned earlier that she really outlined what kind of album she was releasing with 1989, and with Reputation, there's been the very visual lead up with the snakes, and now the single, and this: An Instagram caption that reads, "There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation." So is this the payback the public gets for all their attention?
The oversaturation makes her particularly irksome. I get it, I really do. And last year, Taylor sat out musically, but she also sat out politically while still advocating a certain type of feminism with her #squad, which has drawn criticism. The only real reemergence we've seen recently was her suit against a former radio host.
Marissa Lrusso: I think this current political climate has put a lot of pressure on feminist-identified artists (fairly or unfairly). And Taylor's activism — or refusal to engage — has had its critics (me among them). So I think it'll be interesting to watch what she does with this album cycle.
Lars Gotrich: When I was listening this morning, it made we wonder, "Who is this for?" Taylor's fans have grown with her like some with Harry Potter books, and I don't know who makes that journey with her.
Marissa Lorusso:There's definitely a chance this could be a much darker album — like, the difference between existential dread and lovesickness. I mean, "Shake It Off" was also addressed to vaguely-identified haters, but it didn't feel as spiteful or vicious as this one — it felt kind of inclusive/blandly empowering in a way that "Look" doesn't. I'm not sure I think it'll alienate people — maybe it'll resonate with angsty youth in a new way — but there's a chance.
Lyndsey McKenna: She's a pop behemoth, but at the same time, young women have gravitated toward her music, and I think identity is at play. At the 1989 show two years ago, I saw groups of girlfriends, but I also saw so many mothers and daughters there together. If this is a darker, more distant Taylor, and vengeful one at that, it definitely feels uncharted. Can Reputation resonate with a younger audience? Maybe the ones who've grown with her who are older now, but even that's to be determined.
Lars Gotrich: I mean, we all had our Hot Topic phase.
Marissa Lorusso: Lars, I couldn't agree more. And her font choice on the cover of the album really speaks to that.
Lars Gotrich: (I secretly hoped for a Cro-Mags-style pivot.)
It's easy to dogpile on Taylor, and much of it is probably deserved. She's a contradictory pop star like the best (worst?) of them! Bieber, Drake, Madonna — they've all had winding narratives and somehow come out the other side, sometimes with different fans attached, sometimes redeemed. Taylor's weathered far worse storms, and turned them into opportunities.
Lyndsey McKenna:I guess Hot Topic Taylor just isn't the direction I thought we were headed in.
Marissa Lorusso: I can't wait for the deluge of Taylor Swift Is A Poseur memes.
Lyndsey McKenna: As long as I'm excluded from this narrative.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.