Victim or Villain? Why Taylor Swift Is Battling Her Old Selves in the ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ Video
By Alex Ungerman
Taylor Swift is reading what you say about her.
The Reputation singer released the music video for “Look What You Made Me Do” -- her shadiest song to date -- and while there’s a lot to unpack in all of it, you have to wait all the way until the very end to see the most interesting part, when a bevy of Taylors, from old video characters, to awards show appearances and more, engage in an argument that is overflowing with references to the 27-year-old pop star’s controversies over the years -- in particular, ones where her character has been called into question.
While it’s been long assumed that Taylor is a careful crafter of her own self image, and she has in the past addressed her critics (“Mean," “Shake It Off”), as well as relationship rumors (“Blank Space,” “Style”), the directness with which she takes on the charges against her reputation here make this moment feel different, and begs the question: Is the Old Taylor really dead? And if so, does this make New Taylor a villain or a victim?
So, let’s just dive into all of it and try to find the answers.
You can watch the video below, the relevant part begins at 3:37.
Here's everything that happens:
1. "YOU GUYS!" exclaims "You Belong With Me" cute and nerdy Taylor. "Stop making that surprised face, it's so annoying," Zombie Taylor fires back. "Yeah, you can't possibly be that surprised all the time," "Shake It Off" ballerina Taylor piles on.
Taylor started earning awards at country music shows at age 17, and just a couple of years later at the GRAMMYs. That’s a lot of accolades at a very young age, which can absolutely be hard to process. But at a certain point, people just don’t believe you anymore. Feigning shock and surprise is one of the earliest claims Taylor-haters made to question her authenticity, and also drew attention to the disconnect between the relatable girl character Taylor played in her videos to the superstar she was becoming.
In 2009’s “You Belong With Me,” Taylor played a nerdy girl “on the bleachers” pining for the guy who was taken by the “cheer captain.” The problem is, that nerdy girl had by this point two albums under her belt, the most recent of which, Fearless, having already become a critical success and commercial, chart-topping multi-platinum juggernaut.
Who needs to be a cheer captain when you’ve done all that?
2. "What's with that b***h?" Fierce Dancer Taylor says about Zombie Taylor. "Don't call me that." Zombie Taylor responds.
And now let's get into the Kanye West of it all. As we all learned last year, Taylor does not take kindly to being called a b***h. Kanye's line is not only inaccurate, but it’s an offensive and unfortunate inclusion his absolute banger of a song, “Famous.” Full stop.
With that being said, what gave people pause about Taylor’s response -- from PR statements, to that clap-back-to-end-all-clap-backs of a speech at the 2016 GRAMMYs -- was Kanye’s claim that not only had he talked with her about it, but she had “loved” and approved it. And his wife, Kim Kardashian West, had receipts. (More on that in a bit.)
The feud was the re-opening of a six-year-old wound between the two musicians, dating back to the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kanye stole Taylor’s mic -- and her moment -- before he “let her finish.” We thought the whole thing was resolved in 2015, when Taylor presented Kanye with the MTV Video Vanguard award, and in turn, he sent her flowers (as one of the most-liked of her since-deleted Instagram posts)
In both incidents, Taylor seemed to take the moral high ground initially, only to lose it when she overplayed her hand. First, at the 2010 VMAs, where she kicked off her performance by playing the clip of the infamous mic-grab that was by this point a year old. And second, with her public “Famous” response that drew criticism, both for invoking feminism for a personal vendetta, but also for not telling the whole story when there was clearly more to say.
3. "Y'all!" says Fearless Tour Taylor to all the other Taylors. "Oh, stop acting like you're all nice. You are so fake." Red Tour Taylor tells her. Fearless Tour Taylor starts crying, prompting Biker Chick Taylor to say, "There she goes, playing the victim again." Snake Taylor hisses.
The “Famous” incident was not the first allegation of Taylor playing innocent. By the time Red came out, the singer, fairly or unfairly, earned the reputation that if you dated her, there would eventually be a song about you.
And in using the word, “victim,” Taylor addresses head on what bugs her critics most: the idea that not only is she fake, but that she uses her celebrity to play the underdog, despite being arguably the biggest pop star of our time. This moment is very real, because it seems like Taylor is finally acknowledging this fundamental shift in power, even embracing it, in a song and video that -- whether it succeeds or fails -- is easily the biggest risk she’s ever taken as an artist.
4.Katy-esque Taylor starts filming, 2014 Met Gala Taylor asks, "What are you doing?" "Getting receipts. Gonna edit this later." Katy-esque Taylor replies.
Important Note: There is plausible deniability here, and this Taylor, one who does not appear to be a direct homage to any particular Taylor video character or public appearance, is referred to as “Katy-esque” in that her ponytail haircut and big cat aesthetic seems to evoke elements of the Katy Perry's image. Additionally, Katy and Taylor have their own long-running shade war, which as of Sunday night's VMAs appears to be raging on, with this video, and also with Katy's "receipts" she mentions in the "Swish Swish" lyrics and cover art, which were referenced to in the awards show, which Katy hosted.
And as such, this character feels like the most confused inclusion in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video’s ending. The version of Taylor that feels the least-linked to her own identity is not-so-subtly referring to the infamous recorded phone call about the “Famous” line between Taylor and Kanye, which the rapper’s wife, Kim, released to Snapchat last year.
You can tell Taylor has not quite gotten past this moment. It seems to be the primary catalyst for this whole new, darker Taylor, and the fact that she even seemingly insinuates that the call was heavily edited -- Kim released the call in pieces, and one major part of the lyric, the word “b***h,” is seemingly not discussed -- is the strongest indicator that while Taylor is owning the snakes, she might not quite be owning her role in the narrative as a whole.
Oh, and about that...
5. "I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative," says 2009 VMAs Taylor. "Shut up!" All the Taylors yell in unison.
The biggest takeaway from this whole character study of an outro is that all the digs and insults are coming from versions of herself (the Katy-esque character notwithstanding), not the public or the people (Kim and Kanye) with whom the video seems to take issue. And the conclusion is the most introspective of all the references.
When Taylor typed, "I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009,” on a since-deleted Instagram post in July 2016, in response to Kim’s Snapchat story, it arguably did more to drive home the idea that her public persona was not totally authentic than any secretly recorded phone call ever could.
The quote became a meme, in part because it’s fun to say, but more so because it just seems so laughably… false.
Taylor should not be taken to task for being mindful of her public image. Virtually every person who faces pop culture notoriety -- Kim, Katy and even Kanye -- does it. But what feels “fake” about the situation in Taylor's case was the seeming insinuation that she didn’t have a part in it. And that’s where “Look What You Made Me Do” finds us. Taylor is finally lifting off the veil, embracing the “snakes” and acknowledging that she very much is a part of this narrative. As to whether she’s really owning it, or this is just a 12th-dimensional chess game, a new way of “playing the victim,” as Biker Chick Taylor Taylor would say, well...
We’ll just have to see where the narrative leads.
Reputation releases on Nov. 10.
Watch the video below to dive deeper into the “Look What You Made Me Do” video as a whole.