Character Assassination

Snakes, Narratives, and Taylor Swift

When “Look What You Made Me Do” dropped, I became convinced that there’s a distinct part of Taylor Swift that enjoys trolling her fans. For the third time in a row, she’s dropped a lead single that’s weird and obnoxious and annoying but also undeniably catchy, and half of me absolutely hates it, and the other half of me wants to leave it on repeat for hours. The song was immediately polarizing, which is hardly rare for a Taylor Swift lead single, but for the first time it wasn’t so much the song that people took notice of as the narratives surrounding the song.

As a song, “Look What You Made Me Do” masks vindictive rage under a cool veneer, and it primarily operates as a diss track that’s directed towards both everyone and nobody, a vague “fuck you” to the media, the haters, and/or all of the people she’s been in conflict with. And make no mistake, Taylor Swift has entered a sizable number of celebrity feuds over the past years, most of which are irrelevant and exaggerated tabloid bullshit. But one feud cut deeper than the rest: her feud with Kanye West, whom she publicly attacked onstage at the Grammy Awards in 2016 after supposedly taking offense to one of his song lyrics that implied he was responsible for her fame. Taylor, as Taylor would, framed her jab as distinctly feminist, saying to “all the young women out there” that they should not allow any man to take credit for their success.

Then a phone recording between her and Kanye leaked, a recording where it was revealed that he had not only told her about the lyrical content, but that she even approved of it. Taylor immediately went on the defensive and penned an Instagram post decrying Kanye for referring to her as “that bitch” in the song—a slur that’s absent from the leaked recording—all the while taking care not to mention her now-debunked grievance about how he had taken credit for her success. She ended her message with a strange statement: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009,” excusing herself from a narrative that she had just finished rewriting. The event was dubbed Snakegate, and after a few furtive days and dozens of headlines on gossip sites, the zeitgeist went on to a different topic and all parties went silent.

What makes “Look What You Made Me Do” such a questionable comeback is Taylor’s portrayal of this accusation on the same level as the baseless fluff that’s hounded her for years. “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” worked as direct responses to unjust criticism. In those songs Taylor genuinely felt like a victim; why exactly should anyone care about who she’s dating? But the Kanye thing felt more serious because it exposed Taylor as someone who was willing to lie and mire the reputation of someone with whom she claimed to be friends. The video’s snake imagery, the ending that directly references the “bitch” slur, and a slew of other possible references you can probably read on Buzzfeed make it hard to argue that her intention wasn’t at least partly to strike back in a feud that she had previously decided to leave behind.

I want to go to the parallel universe where Taylor Swift’s grand comeback was notable not for its petty, vindictive nature, but for her acknowledgement of her past faults. Wouldn’t that make for an exciting, buzzworthy comeback? A great introduction to a new album cycle from one of the biggest pop stars in the world?

But Taylor decided not to go down that route, perhaps for personal reasons, perhaps because she knew it wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic and exciting. Instead, she has decided to embrace the role of the bitch, and she has not only dived back into the narrative but completely redirected its course. Taylor is anything if not business savvy, and there’s no doubt in my mind that her creative choices this era will bring her success and sales. But as someone who’s been a fan of her since 2007, I’m finding it increasingly challenging to root for her.