At the end of Taylor Swift’s new video for Look What You Made Me Do, a version of herself states that she would ‘very much like to be excluded from this narrative.’ It’s referencing the caption of a post she made last year about her ongoing feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, which began with West dubbing Swift ‘that bitch’ in his song Famous. With so many different narrative threads explored within this elaborate video, it begs the question of which narrative does Swift want to be a part?
LWYMMD and the accompanying video (a mash-up of almost-too-many references, styles, and images to decipher) have not gone down particularly well on the internet or Planet Earth. Much of it appears to be a response to what was generally perceived to be Swift’s take-down at the hands of one Kim Kardashian last year. The video has left fans, haters, and normal civilians alike somewhat baffled. But we’ve decided to take a literary look at the many narratives strung through this video to see what new meanings can be found, what imagery and metaphors Swift employs, and if there is more than meets the eye.
Look what you’ve made us do, Taylor!
The video opens with a ‘crows cawing over graveyard’ scene, which would in theory be worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, but in practice is actually kind of strangley animated. It really wouldn’t look out of place in a discount store’s Halloween commercial. ‘Come on down to Swift Town and get yer pumpkins fifty percent off!’ A zombified Swift claws her way out of a grave marked with her own name (part of a larger arrangement of tombstones spelling out TS). She looks eerily like beloved-corpse Billy Butcherson from Disney’s Hocus Pocus. She does not, however, offer us bargain seasonal fruits and instead crawls towards the camera, announcing that she does not like our little games nor our tilted stage. Rude. We worked very hard on our tilted stage. We think it gives us gravitas.
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Apart from the Hocus Pocus vibes, however, there is plenty more to unpack in this scene. First off, Zombie Swift is wearing the blue dress from her Out of the Woods video: a fairy tale inspired affair from her album 1989. Evidently, this is the first clue that the old Taylor is dead. But with whom has she been replaced?
On a gravestone in the background is the name Nils Sjoberg, the pseudonym employed by Swift when writing ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris’s song ‘This Is What You Came For,’ the first of several references to Swift’s past relationships to appear in the video. Referencing one’s ex is not an unusual tactic for artists to employ and is especially prevalent in the world of writing, be it lyrics (as Swift is famous for), poetry, or prose. W.B. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, famously wrote about little else other than his unrequited love for Maude Gonne (well, that and Irish revolution… and sometimes fairies, but you get the picture.) F. Scott Fitzgerald constantly wrote characters based on his wife Zelda, and, if Daisy Buchanan is anything to go by, they were not particularly flattering.
The camera then pans upward to reveal a more intact version of Swift lying in the grave and then suddenly…in a bathtub of treasure. The sparkling jewels and lavish surroundings immediately bring to mind the luxurious courts of the questionably-intentioned monarchs present in so many fairy tales.
Snow White and the Huntsman, the hit-and-miss 2012 spin on the classic tale, features Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) bathing in a sparkling tub surrounded by gargoyles, even crossing her arms across her chest in the same manner as Swift. Clearly, Swift is likening herself to beautiful, dangerous villains, as opposed to the fairty tale princesses she so often portrayed in her older videos. All hail a new, not-to-be-messed-with Taylor, who makes threatening motions and crunches diamonds betwixt her pearly whites.
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The next scene is entirely snake-themed. One can only assume this is a reference to Kim Kardashian branding Swift a ‘snake.’ Kardashian called her a snake after Swift released a recording of a phone call between Swift and Kanye West in which she appears to agree to some (but not all, it must be noted) of West’s lyrics about her in his song Famous. Afterward, Swift claimed she had never been told about the lyric in which he refers to her as ‘that bitch,’ and, in fairness, those words do not appear on the call. The snakes in this scene, however, appear to be at Swift’s beck and call. They slither at her feet, one even hovering beside her, pouring her tea.
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Swift drinks what the snake offers, and we all know the symbolism behind the consumption of goods offered by a serpent. Is Swift, in referencing Original Sin, actually touching on the misogyny that she and so many other female artists endure? And, if this is the case, she may be turning this narrative on its head by having the snakes in the scene pander to her. She even wears serpentine jewelry, perhaps allying herself with the snakes, implying that she is reclaiming her own narrative from the hands of the sexist media. Am I reading too much into this?
With a bang, prompting a flair of cobras out from behind her throne, Swift is in a crashed car, head flung back, hanging at awkward angles from the flaming wreckage as the paparazzi scream and flash their cameras. She holds in her hand a Grammy award (perhaps representing a certain award Kanye West begrudged her), while a leopard matching the decor of the vehicle, sits in the passenger seat. Does this cat represent the ferociousness and fierceness needed to deal with the demands of fame and pressures of the bloodthirsty tabloid press? Throughout this scene, Swift chants the titular refrain, ‘look what you just made me do,’ implying the paparazzi are to blame for the crash, and clearly hinting at the damaging effect that celebrity worship/condemnation can have on the individual.
In the next scene, Swift is swinging like a circus acrobat within a large bird cage. Of course there are themes of entrapment here. The cage is surrounded by men in suits who resemble bodyguards, while Swift herself performs high on her pedestal-like perch. While this scene may visually appear incongruous with the previous one, when broken down, the two scenes deal with many of the same issues: the pressures and restrictions of fame.
The caged bird theme is popular in literature, for example Maya Angelou’s famous poem ‘Caged Bird,’ which contains the verse:
But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.
In the final lyrics of this scene, Swift sings, ‘You asked for a place to sleep / locked me out then threw a feast.’ Perhaps she is referencing certain people whom she feels have used her to further their own fame (*cough* Kanye *cough*).
The next scene cuts between Swift and a team of ‘cat’ burglars wearing feline heads robbing a streaming service, and Swift leading a biker gang. Swift famously did not allow her music to be streamed on services like Spotify for some time, accusing them of “failing to properly value musicians’ art.” Also briefly included in this scene is the image of biker gangs, notoriously macho boys’ clubs. Again, we see the Swift subverting the narrative in her own favor and seemingly taking back power on all sides.
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Cut to Swift standing on a platform in dominatrix garb, overlooking an army of robotic dominatrix women seemingly wrapped in plastic. The word ‘SQUAD’ is emblazoned on either side of the stage, referencing Swift’s famous entourage of models and actors including Cara Delevigne, Gigi Hadid, and Haim. The army of sexualized women is reminiscent of many a dystopian text, from Margaret Atwoods The Handmaid’s Tale to Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours. Here Swift is yet again taking back the narrative of the over-sexualized pop star and parodying it.
Swift then stomps through double doors, backed up by dancers wearing shirts emblazoned with ‘I <3 TS’, the same slogan on the shirt worn by actor Tom Hiddleson while partying with Swift and her squad last year. Swift and Hiddleson were romantically linked at the time, but both received much ridicule in the press over the shirt. This reference would appear to be more a dig at the media than at Hiddleson, but who knows. Could the legion of male back up dancers under Swift’s command (all wearing the infamous shirt) be a shot worthy of Hemingway? Hemingway famously held a grudge against his ex-wife Martha, describing a character based on her as having “more ambition than Napoleon and about the talent of the average High School Valedictorian.”
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We then see Swift perched on an airplane, joyfully sawing off its wings. Again we’re reminded of the clipped wings of the bird in Maya Angelou’s poem, but could it also be a reference to self-sabotage or ‘playing the victim,’ something of which Swift has so often been accused?
After this comes perhaps the most disturbing section of this video. Swift appears at the base of a huge neon ‘T’, atop a pile of writhing versions of her past selves, calling to mind classic paintings of souls suffering during the apocalypse. The previous incarnations of Swift fight in an attempt to claw their way to the top as the ‘actress starring in your bad dreams’ stands above them. She seems to have emerged from their midst as their leader. The pile then splits apart, Swift flying hither and yon as the New Taylor takes a phone call.
She announces that the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, because she’s dead. We had, by now, gathered this but it’s always good to receive clarification, this time in the form of both verbal confirmation, and the sight of all the previous Taylors floating lifeless through the air, followed by a flash appearance from zombie Taylor.
As the song draws to a close, ‘look what you made me do’ is chanted over a montage of all the different scenes throughout the video, eventually coming back to the mutilated plane, in front of which stand 15 versions of Taylor. All of these incarnations repeat accusations often leveled at Swift, such as being ‘so fake,’ looking ‘surprised all the time,’ and ‘playing the victim.’ As the Taylors argue, one Taylor (perhaps the truest Taylor, if such a thing exists) speaks into her microphone, saying ‘I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,’ and is yelled at to ‘shut up.’
Swift wants to be excluded from all the narratives that have led her to this point, from her unsustainable innocent country singer persona (no one can stay a teenager forever), to ‘feuding with reality stars’, to the various other situations in which she has felt victimized and exploited. Clearly the narrative of which Swift does wish to be apart is her own, the one that takes back the power from those who mock her, those who seek to profit from her or with whom she has, ahem, bad blood. This video, though it may initally appear somewhat messy, is actually quite a cohesive response to an accumulation of issues with which Swift has dealt. Using recognizable imagery from literature and popular media, Swift has managed to covered a huge array of problems, from the pressures of stardom, to misogyny, to personal fallings-out, all of which she wishes to leave behind her as she enters a new phase.
However, in the end, it’s impossible to see who the new Taylor really is. Now that she has pinpointed the many worlds from which she wishes to be left out, hopefully her next video will reveal the self she really wishes to present.
Featured Image Courtesy of E! Online