Many of the world’s most famous popstars have practised reinvention. Some reinventions are more clever and more memorable than others. Back in 1990, George Michael burned his leather jacket, his guitar, and his jukebox in Freedom 90 video. He was torching the symbols that he created. And he did it without showing his own face, like the ultimate erasure of a previous identity.
This is what Taylor Swift has been claiming to do. A social media wipeout preceded by a months-long retreat from public life, culminating in the premiere of her new video for Look What You Made Me Do last night at the MTV VMAs, a video in which she appears to stomp on all her previous iterations, while playing her previous iterations and mocking them at the same time, as herself. It’s not subtle. It’s supposed to be Taylor Swift vs all the Taylor Swifts. Or Taylor Swift vs all the projections of Taylor Swift as created by the media, by the haters, by everyone but the people who know her best.
Just because you verbalise all the criticism that’s been directed at you, though, does it mean you actually understand it? A more insightful question would have been, “How did I participate in the narrative that I no longer want to participate in”? Look What I Made Me Do.
That, however, is not the title of the song. If that were the title of the song, one pronoun replaced by another, we might have a game here. A mystery. A debate. Something to actually study. The problem with Taylor Swift though is that she’s only ever interested in asking the questions AND providing the answers.
This is why the video is such an obvious attempt at cleverness. She’s dragged out all her artifacts – outfits from previous videos and award shows, phrases that have been associated with her, whether she likes them or not, a tombstone with her songwriting pseudonym, all over the internet today there are lists, articles about “X number of clues you missed in Taylor Swift’s new video!” Numbers ranging from 20, to 17 to just a blanket “all”.
The point is, these “clues” weren’t exactly hard to find. They’re actually readily available. Because Taylor’s art has never left room in between the questions and their answers where actual discussion can occur. She might say that, “There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation” but what she really means by that is that there is only Tay-splanation. That’s what this video is: 4 minutes of Taylor Swift Tay-splaining Taylor Swift to us.
More on Taylor on the new episode of Show Your Work that will be posted later today.