“I don’t like your little games,” Taylor Swift sings in the opening of her brand new single Look What You Made Me Do. She continues, “Don’t like your tilted stage. The role you made me play. Of the fool, no, I don’t like you.” I had speculated that this single, the first off her new album Reputation, dropping November 10th, would be like this; different, dark and directed at the people who she perceives to have wronged her in the past few years.
What I didn’t expect, though, was how vengeful the song would be (maybe I didn’t read closely enough into the snake images posted on her Instagram). The “you” in the song seems ambiguous; it could be Kanye West, who toured on a “tilted stage,” or Kim Kardashian, who leaked a phone call between Taylor and Kanye over a dispute about a lyric in one of Kanye’s songs. It could also refer to Katy Perry, who also publicly feuded with Taylor over dancers leaving her tour. But “you” could also mean a more conglomerate group; the media in general, perhaps, or even the general public. Look what all of these people say about me, look at the hate that I endure, she could be singing; I had no choice but to fire back in this song. Look what you made me do.
I have to wonder: does it matter who the song is about? To many people, the answer is yes. I suppose I’m undecided. I don’t want to enjoy the song because it’s adding fuel to the fire of Taylor’s celebrity fights. I want to enjoy it because it sends the message that if, for whatever reason, you feel knocked down by something, you can use that as motivation to come back and be stronger than ever. This is embodied in the lyrics, “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.” To me, the entire premise of the song is that her past struggles have “made” her come back and release what already looks to be a successful single.
I worry that for young Taylor Swift fans, though, that message could be misconstrued. Because, following those emboldening lines about rising from the dead are these lyrics: “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red underlined.” Those words seem to suggest that if you don’t like someone, you should publicly announce it and act in retaliation; get revenge instead of trying to come to a mutual agreement and heal your wounds. I hope that listeners, especially young ones, can look past the drama and bad blood (see what I did there?) and see that the song has an empowering message.
But maybe that is the point—that many members of the media and many people in society simply can’t look past the drama. We say we don’t care, but we can’t look away from the headlines, the gossip and the snarky social media posts. Taylor’s drama with Kanye, Kim and Katy would almost certainly not have reached the levels it did had it not played out in the news for everyone to watch. And that damage, real or perceived, to Taylor’s “good girl” image, may very well be the driving force behind this single and this new era of music for Taylor.
Even in the songs from 1989, her last album, she seemed willing to challenge that label of the innocent, golden girl. I wonder now if she’s throwing it out the window entirely. I’m inclined to believe her when she sings, “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh ‘cause she’s dead!” In each of her albums so far, Taylor has experimented with new sounds and new themes. She successfully crossed the line from country to pop, shedding her skin like the snake on her Instagram. Taylor Swift is no stranger at reinventing herself, doing so in the public eye, therefore altering her—wait for it—reputation.
Still, despite the fact that she consistently sheds her skin, so to speak, the theme of rising above negativity or hatred is nothing new for Taylor Swift. Take, for example, the first single from her last album. In Shake It Off, she sings about “what people say”—that she stays out too late, has nothing in her brain and “goes on too many dates” but “can’t make them stay.” She counters these claims by singing that the haters are, well, gonna hate; and that she’s just gonna shake it off.
An even earlier version of this comes from Taylor’s song Mean from her album Speak Now. In that song, she hits back at a music critic who said that she couldn’t sing. The chorus goes, “Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city, and all you’re ever gonna be is mean. Someday, I’ll be big enough that you can’t hit me and all you’re ever gonna be is mean. Why you gotta be so mean?”
Those songs, though, seem to fight back against people who are just plain mean, not people with whom you’ve been engaged in a two-way argument. So does the song send the message that if you are fighting with someone, you should publicly declare your dislike for them and make it clear that you’re seeking revenge? Or does it send the message that you can rise above actions that hurt you and be successful despite what you’ve endured?
It’s open to interpretation, really; but one thing is for certain. If you don’t like this song, Taylor Swift isn’t interested. After all, “you” made her do this—and I have a feeling that this single is just the first nail in the coffin. Welcome to the Reputation era. Enjoying your stay so far?