Like most of the internet, I first reacted to Taylor Swift's new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” with a mixture of confusion, revulsion and disappointment. Was she really dissing Kanye again? Was she really sing-rapping on top of a beat lifted from Right Said Fred's “I'm Too Sexy”? Has she really grown so isolated that there's no one left on her team to shoot down dumb ideas like the “I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone … because she's dead” spoken-word bit?
Then the video dropped, in all its high-gloss, big-budget, choreographed glory, and I got sucked into the internet outrage cycle again. Wait, was Taylor using Kim Kardashian's Paris robbery to throw shade? Was she biting both “Formation” and “Thriller”? Is she a subversive genius or the worst example of white privilege this side of our Cheeto-in-Chief? A thousand subtweets and think pieces cry out for answers.
I was finally brought to my senses by two things: First, if you give it a chance, “Look What You Made Me Do” is actually a great song (I know you don't believe me yet, but bear with me), and second, as a friend of mine recently pointed out on Facebook (thanks, Leslie!), we as a society have always and will apparently continue to hold Taylor Swift to some really bullshit standards we don't impose on any other pop star of her generation. Maybe because she got her start as a country music ingenue who mostly sang about boys, or maybe because she's pretty, blond and thin, or maybe because she herself cultivated an aw-shucks persona early in her career, but we seem determined to forever relegate Taylor Swift to the role of America's Sweetheart — and forever find her behavior unequal to the lofty standards we expect of anyone who's supposed to play that part. We can't even write about her making the boss businesswoman decision to pull her music off Spotify without casting her in the role of petulant girlfriend. (“Taylor Swift Breaks Up With Spotify,” a thousand headlines read.) Even when she's not being petulant, nothing she does is ever good enough. She's either being fake modest or fake feminist or playing the victim or playing the mean girl or being too pop or not pop enough. Oh, and she's probably racist. If Swift really has been America's Sweetheart for the past 10 years, it's been a pretty abusive relationship.
So “Look What You Made Me Do” is the sound of Swift finally, once and for all, telling everyone to fuck off — and once you look at the track in those terms, it's as smart, well-crafted and emotionally satisfying as anything in her catalog. Where “Shake It Off” was content to be a “don't let the haters get you down” pep talk, “Look What You Made Me Do” goes on the offensive. The opening verses ostensibly address Kanye West, but the line about the “tilted stage” could refer either to his floating Saint Pablo Tour stage or to the uneven playing field on which she forever finds herself, held to the impossible good-girl standard that our culture tends to impose on most female pop stars, though seldom with the zeal to which we've applied it to Swift. “I don't like … the role you made me play,” she sings, before dropping that Right Said Fred beat (or is it borrowed from the Peaches song used in Mean Girls?) and strutting through the chorus with her newfound sense of stiletto-heeled, disco-diva independence.
But — and this is where “Look What You Made Me Do” gets really interesting — that titular chorus isn't the chant of a newly independent woman. Swift doesn't do anything that obvious. Instead, she casts herself, as she so often does, in opposition to some unnamed foe. It's not “Look what I'm doing” — it's “Look what you made me do.” She's denying her own agency in this new role — and it's a rather clichéd one, as the video makes abundantly clear. By literally bathing in bling and gyrating in front of a phalanx of backup dancers, Swift is both embodying and calling attention to the stereotypical female pop star as exemplified by her many rivals: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyoncé. She's both challenging them at their own game and slyly commenting on how that game is played — asking whether the tropes of female empowerment we're used to seeing in pop music are actually all that empowering (in the video's most heavy-handed visual metaphor, Swift appears perched inside a giant birdcage). And she's also commenting on herself, and her own tendency to play the victim — in the past, the spurned or betrayed lover but now, the hapless pop diva who has dutifully progressed through all the roles expected of her, roles that bicker among themselves in the video's hilarious final sequence. (“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,” sweet, old-school Taylor meekly protests, clutching her VMA trophy. “Shut up!” all her other incarnations spit back at her.)
Many have already found the video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” layered with contradictions as it is, to be problematic — but I think it's brilliant, and brilliant in precisely how problematic it is. Once upon a time, we expected our pop stars to challenge and surprise us, and Swift clearly understands this — not for nothing does she start her video with an obvious nod to Michael Jackson's “Thriller,” itself a boundary-pushing video in its day. She's not interested in resolving her own contradictions, or fulfilling our expectations of what a new Taylor Swift single is supposed to sound and look like. Even the obvious “Formation” style-jacking is clearly an intentional provocation, however much her video director may deny any connection. In doing so, she's opening herself up to accusations of cultural appropriation, but my guess is she thought of that, too, and decided to do it anyway, knowing it would just add fuel to the fire of internet outrage that accompanies any move Swift makes outside her lane.
If you still think “Look What You Made Me Do” and its accompanying video are terrible, that's fine — pop music, especially when it's built around this much artifice, isn't everyone's cup of tea. (But wait, didn't I promise earlier that I would convince you of the song's merits? I did, but I lied. I'm worse than Taylor!) But you can't deny its effectiveness, because a week later, here we are still talking about it. We've already totally forgotten about the VMAs, at which Swift premiered her new video, but the “Look What You Made Me Do” think pieces continue to roll out at a steady clip, often reaching for ever more ridiculous ways to describe her alleged malfeasance. (My favorite, from Huffington Post, refers to her as “weaponizing her white womanhood.”) Old friends who I am fairly certain haven't heard a note of Swift's music since her sparkly guitar days feel compelled to take to Facebook to express their opinions on her — not just her music but her as a human being, as though she has personally wronged them in some way. No other recording artist, not even Kanye or Beyoncé, is this good at provoking responses and pushing our buttons.
It's possible, I suppose, that I'm giving Swift too much credit, and that what I'm reading as layers of meaning in “Look What You Made Me Do” and its meme goldmine of a music video are really just unintentional ambiguities in an otherwise fairly vapid pop song. It's possible that Swift didn't think through the consequences of writing yet another song from a victim's perspective, or cribbing some of her most powerful images from black pop stars (though it's worth noting that the video also contains apparent references to videos by Madonna, Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue, as well — the whole thing is a pop-culture pastiche, as many of Swift's videos are). But the far likelier explanation is that Swift knows exactly what she's doing, because she usually does. My guess is that when her full album Reputation drops later this year, we're going to be talking about it — and listening to it — for a very, very long time.