It’s been a real rollercoaster in the theme park of Taylor Swift public opinion lately. First, she was riding high on the strength of a classy and empowering court victory against a groping DJ. Then came last week.
It all started with the reveal of her new album, Reputation, and its cover art, which was perhaps most accurately described as looking like a “straight-to-Hulu documentary about the sensational murder trial of a mysterious babysitter.” The situation only worsened when Swift dropped that album’s lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” last Thursday night. It was lambasted on social media (and certain newsroom conversations) for much of Friday. People rolled their eyes at the bouncy anthem’s not-even-thinly-veiled Kanye disses, and the bratty drama of this spoken-word nugget: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone. Why? Because she’s dead.”
Swift also released some images teasing a new music video, which would premiere during Sunday night’s VMAs. Many pointed out online that one of these images looked suspiciously like a co-opting of Beyoncé’s “Formation” aesthetic, vaulting it to instant meme status. Between all these factors, Swift went into the weekend looking like a joke. Ultimately, however, most of the eye-rolling could have probably been avoided had she simply released the video before the single.
The video for “Look What You Made Me Do” is way more playfully self-deprecating than just the song alone might seem. Far from the “Formation” appropriation many feared, it turns out to be a send-up of previous iterations of Taylor Swift, and an acknowledgement that they are all part of the same continuum.
Directed by Joseph Kahn, who also helmed the video for “Bad Blood,” “Look” begins with a swooping view through a graveyard, stopping at a tombstone that reads, “Here lies Taylor Swift’s reputation.” Suddenly, the name of her album seems more reasonable, removed from the context of its cover art–which evokes a Trump-like blistering screed against the media. Swift herself soon emerges, Carrie-style, from her grave, a desiccated corpse. Over the rest of the video, it becomes clear that with this song, Swift is owning up to things she’s been called out for over the years–aware that they were necessary for her to become who she is now.
Midway through the video, Swift appears atop a mountain of discarded previous versions of herself, which viewers will recognize from past videos. She references the wince-inducing “I <3 TS" shirt ex-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston wore last year in a widely circulated paparazzi photo. She even pokes fun at her old tendency to pull a surprised face at award shows, despite winning armloads of awards at nearly every show.
The at-first-blush embarrassing “Because she’s dead” line now makes more sense–a complement to the “I rose from the dead, I do it all the time” refrain in the chorus–thanks to the visual aid of so many Taylors past. With this video, fans and detractors alike now have a clearer idea about the thrust of the album. On top of all that, because of the genuinely creepy corpse makeup effects, this video stands a chance of being a newfangled “Thriller” to the current generation of kids who aren’t old enough to have seen horror movies. If so, that would be something Swift would never want to publicly disown at a later date.