By Maeve McDermott
Less than two weeks into her Reputation era, Taylor Swift has never been more exhausting.
After a week-long buildup, Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do video premiered at the VMAs Sunday night — stealing the spotlight from host Katy Perry, whose history with Swift continues to be exhausting. Directed by her favorite visual collaborator, Joseph Kahn — whose previous videos for the star haven’t always nailed the right tone — the macabre clip plays out a meta revenge fantasy that casts Swift as an evil overlord, gazing down as a writhing mass of her former personas claw to her pedestal.
The video is full of Easter eggs and hidden messages that critics have feverishly unpacked in the hours since its release. Most notably, it ends with a line of former Taylors, wearing hyper-specific outfits from her past performances and music videos, lobbing increasingly on-the-nose insults at one another, as one Taylor sneers, “There she goes, playing the victim again.”
Trouble is, while those past Taylor Swifts that she symbolically kills off in the video weren’t perfect, at least they were centered around more than just a lust for revenge, which seems to be the only defining characteristic about Swift’s Reputation phase thus far. They played the guitar. They wore costumesinsilly music videos. They danced with Tom Hiddleston at the Met Gala.
Not seen in the video was a representation of the Taylor Swift that advocated for sexual assault victims in court last month, which many fans hoped would signal a new direction for the star. It’s hard not to wonder whether that version was also purged to make way for this new Taylor Swift, whose only discernible qualities are a drawer full of receipts and a penchant for Blackout-era Britney Spears. As Swift declares in the video, she’s always had a reputation for playing the victim. But now, that pettiness, that used to exist as part of a multifaceted artist, is all she has.
The Look What You Made Me Do video is Swift’s attempt at self-awareness, full of Easter eggs intended to prove to the viewer that Swift hasn’t forgotten all the nasty things people have said about her over the years. Unfortunately for Swift, simply commenting on her soured reputation does not a cultural critique make.
Yes, there’s some enjoyment for Swift fans in watching the singer skewer the many media narratives that dominated her past few years. But, watching Swift equate her “squad” of friends to plastic mannequins and spoof poor Tom Hiddleston with a line of dancers wearing a play on his infamous “I heart T-Swift” shirt, viewers have to wonder whether these figures would’ve preferred to be excluded from the video’s narrative.
While Swift may change her adversarial tone in her forthcoming singles prior to Reputation’s release on Nov. 10, she’s certainly signaling with the Look video that she’s not quite finished lashing out at her enemies. That’s a shame, considering that prior to Look’s release, there was hope that Swift’s forthcoming era would strike a different tone.
Swift took a much-needed year away from the spotlight last year after a series of wildly dumb tabloid dramas, including lashing out against Perry with her Bad Blood single and video, tussling with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian over Famous, and the humiliating saga that was Hiddleswift. Looking back, these headlines will all-but-overshadow her actual 1989album in the Swiftian history books. Too bad that 1989 is an infinitely better work of pop music than Look, a dull new single that cheapens the work of an artist who was once among her generation’s best songwriters.
After disappearing for much of 2016 and 2017, Swift returned for her successful trial against radio DJ David Mueller, where a jury concluded that he groped the singer during a meet-and-greet. Swift thanked her fans and recognized her privilege in a statement after the trial, before pledging to donate to organizations supporting sexual assault victims, signaling that a more mature and meaningful era for the singer may be on the horizon.
Fast forward to this week, when Swift is being accused of mocking Kim Kardashian’s Paris robbery with a scene in the Look video where she pantomimes shooting a gun while buried in jewels in a bathtub. Considering Kardashian was bound at gunpoint in a bathtub while being robbed of her diamonds, the video’s allusion is clueless at best, and merciless at worst, a microcosm of Swift’s Reputation era thus far.
While Swift may direct Look What You Made Me Do at an intentionally-vague “you,” blaming her villainous transformation on an unidentified target, the only person responsible for her regrettable new persona is herself.