As listeners to my late, lamented NSFWLIVE show will testify, I am an unironic, dyed-in-the-wool fan of Taylor Swift.
More specifically, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Taylor Swift’s lyrics: Once having dedicated an entire, hour long episode, to examining the contrasting (and, taken together, entirely contradictory) lyrics of “Speak Now” and “Better Than Revenge”.
I mention all of this to explain the anticipation felt when, a few days ago, it was reported that Swift had deleted her entire social media history, in rumored anticipation of a surprise new album. Anticipation which turned to delight this morning as I pored over the lyrics to the first song from that album, as an Old English scholar might pore over a freshly discovered Chaucer manuscript.
But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time
Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time
I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined
I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!
Ooh, look what you made me do
Look what you made me do
Look what you just made me do
Look what you just made me
Already the professional reviewers have handed down their verdicts on “Look What You Made Me Do”, and also their interpretations: The song – like, duh – is a response to Kanye West’s Famous, and the controversy surrounding whether Swift gave West permission to sexually harass her in song.
Shrewder critics, like those employed by the New York Times, have also drawn parallels between the song and Swift’s recent lawsuit brought against former radio host David Mueller.
The song isn’t called “Look What I Did,” it’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” a surprising flipping of agency at a moment where Ms. Swift is being heralded for her strong language in court, where she testified that a radio host assaulted her with no equivocation: “I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions. Not mine.” But making this song was her decision: not his. It sounds powerful, yet joyless.
All of these interpretations are accurate, but none goes nearly far enough. Sure, Swift clearly intended her new song to stick it to Kanye and, obviously, the title and lyrics have new significance given Swift’s inspiring performance (in the best sense of the word) in court. But whether intentional or not, there’s a third, much deeper, layer of significance to the song (and perhaps – we’ll see – to the entire album.)
Consider Swift’s message, to Kanye West and to David Mueller and to social media trolls and to the rest of the world:
I really wish it hadn’t come to this. I would have been perfectly happy continuing to post fun tweets and make cookies for my fans and produce country/pop crossover hits and stay out of gender politics and politics in general…. But no. You just couldn’t help yourself could you? You had to do something so unbelievably, unforgivably bad that you forced my hand. Forced me to delete my social media, and put away my cookie recipes, and grab my microphone and use it to beat the motherloving shit out of you, loudly and publicly. I hope you’re happy. This is what you made me do.
It’s impossible to hear that message and not recognize it as the message of all of America (at least, non Nazi sympathizing America) circa 2017.
It’d be nice to think we were a nation of activists. A nation of born freedom fighters. But, for good or ill, that’s not the case. For every political junkie and activist spoiling for a fight, America is home to maybe a hundred other people who really, really didn’t want to get into this shit. Who would have been perfectly happy using social media to post amusing memes, or snarking about President Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe choices, or obsessing over or dismissing Taylor Swift’s new album. For every anti-fascist demonstrator ready, willing and able, to protest against the alt-right, there are maybe a million Americans who had satisfied themselves that the fight against Nazism (and racial bigotry, and unequal rights) had been fought and won.
The last thing most Americans wanted, on social media or the streets, was to be dragged into a huge fucking fight, against sexual harassment, or racism, or all manner of other bigotry or… seriously? In 20fucking17?… Nazis.
But then 20-30% of Americans gave us President Trump.
Now look at what they made us do.
What’s that? The idea of Taylor Swift as figurehead of the resistance is a little hard to swallow? This, after all, is the same Taylor Swift who remained tactically silent during the last election so as not to alienate her country base.
I agree. Not least because the “ok, you asked for it” phenomenon was already widespread, without any help from Taylor Swift. It’s Teen Vogue becoming the political publication of a generation; it’s Merriam Webster dictionary sharing its most searched words and phrases; it’s the Economist and the New Yorker and Newsweek evoking Nazism and the KKK on their covers; it’s scores of business leaders (except, notably, those from Silicon Valley) boycotting Trump, it’s the heads of the armed forces publicly declaring their opposition to the bigotry espoused by their commander in chief, it’s the Anne Frank Center demanding Jack Dorsey ban Trump from Twitter; it’s Valerie Plame trying to buy Twitter after Dorsey revealed himself to be Silicon Valley’s greatest coward.
But the point is not that Taylor Swift is at the forefront of anything. Rather, as with the spectacularly cynical “Welcome To New York”, she has proved herself adept not for inspiring or even shaping a movement, but rather at expertly re-packaging and distributing it.
With Welcome To New York, though, the repackaging was done for profit. This time, Swift’s skillful framing (appropriation, if you prefer) of the current political movement coincides with her thoroughly uncommercial decision to demand only a dollar in damages from the man who sexually assaulted her. In deciding to testify personally while seeking only a token amount, Swift presented an unimpeachable, unignorable example of how women – regardless of wealth or fame – are treated in America circa 2017.
Similarly with “Look What You Made Me Do,” by accident or design, for cynical motives or noble, Taylor Swift has summed up the national mood more perfectly in one catchy lyric than the rest of the media has managed in endless hours of cable news, reams of newsprint and petabytes of push alerts.