By Niy Birden
Taylor Swift seems to be having the time of her life with her new image and sound. One wouldn’t be surprised if behind her tweets and posts, she was secretly having fits of laughter while reading the responses on the internet.
After a series of public feuds and social media scams, earlier this summer Taylor seemed to have deleted all of her online accounts, including her Instagram, and Twitter, much to the dismay of her adoring audience and music industry colleagues, which racks in a couple hundred million in total. Despite the massive success she had with her last album 1989, released only 3 years ago, the singer’s reputation seemed to be chasing closely behind her, almost running in front of her to reach us before her music. But things have definitely changed…or have they?
On August 21st, Taylor returned to the internet-osphere with a cryptic series of videos over 2 days of simply a very quick video of a snake, with no audio accompanying it whatsoever. This was clearly in retaliation to the hundreds of tweets, memes, and posts in which people were comparing her industry practices and ethics to being similar to those of a snake’s. Then, she released a few graphics, amongst them being a picture of her with a collaged amount of texts in various fonts, simply saying the words that many people seem to say next to each other about her: taylor swift, and reputation. Reputation, as it turned out, is the name of her newest album, and of course the graphic was the official album art.
At first, many people wondered if Taylor had gone full rogue and was taking a new sound with possibly influences of hardcore rock or hip hop. Many people also said it was just for fashion and attention. And then, another video popped up. But instead of a snake, we see Taylor, scantily clad against an array of male models, her hair in that cool bob we’ve come to associate her new image with, and dark, dark lipstick, along her noticeably pale face, looking hella, hella pissed. But still no sound.
However, the video would be premiering during the 2017 MTV Awards, which gave us more than enough time to not only make hilarious memes from shots of the preview video, but truly wonder “What in the world is this girl doing?” Accusations of cultural appropriation appeared, as well as being brainwashed or losing her mind, and then finally, the video for her song “Look What You Made Me Do” premiered on that legendary night.
Sonically, Look What You Made Me Do is quite the change for Taylor indeed. The normal, happy-but-dark lullaby paired with strings immediately gives you the memory of newcomer Melanie Martinez, who has been known for her spooky and quirky music paired with her even more quirkier image of half white, half-black hair and childlike image, solidifying the horror aspect to her work. Miley Cyrus attempted to play on a baby image, but due to her sexual imagery and lack of dark colors, many people assumed she was sexualizing children. While Taylor hasn’t played around with the dark and crazy child image, she introduces the song with that tone and thus it creates a very complicated soundscape for the listener. 808’s and a heavy bass accompany her Southern drawl while she sings shortened, staccato lyrics, and nothing more except for the beat of the drum, helping the very, very slight reverb create an added effect of listening to Taylor taunt you while you are possibly tied up, or being held in interrogation.
Electric drum kicks come into play with the song next, and it starts to make the listener wonder if they are listening to a techno song more than anything. The answer: not exactly. The track cleverly combines the techno beat in the beginning to set the stage, but by the time she arrives to her lead-in, the beat of course turns into a more energetic techno beat with a club-inspired pumping rhythm, in addition to having claps riding along the beat with it to introduce a new genre in the song: trap. The lead-in, with her harmonies layered and in perfect accompany timing for the beat, sounds almost exactly like Katy Perry’s Dark Horse in this sense, except it comes with a few piano riffs and synths. The chorus, however really stops you in the track and makes you forget that it is actually Taylor singing. It sounds absolutely nothing like Taylor, due to its almost empty and annoying lyrics, and slightly sexual vocal techniques of “Oh!”s and vocal raspiness. It actually sounds like something you would hear in a strip club or exotic dancing club. You know, something with semi-nude or completely naked dancers and booze.
It is interesting though, because people have already accused Taylor of mimicking Perry in the official video for the song, but another noteworthy detail of the song as far as imitation are the dark lyrics. In her song, some notable lyrics include: “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/I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined/I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!” and countless others. Now, while this song does not discuss how a love interest should be careful of her secret powers like in Katy’s, thematically, it does discuss intimidation or revenge being sent out by a very confident woman who has felt she has been scorned. And it actually makes a bit of sense if Taylor were copying Perry. Scandals and feuds aside, both Taylor and Perry have both had their fair share of re-inventing their looks to appeal to bigger audiences and keep up with changing music. This is simply a common trope that goes along with being a female in the music industry, especially if you are entering in a young age. It is a way to shed the public’s perception of a “good girl next door”. Unfortunately though, like with Miley Cyrus, it doesn’t really work as well when it is accentuated, and creates an even more sense of false artistry. Especially if that artistry in the first place isn’t considered of the more mature quality (despite Taylor’s record run with having the Entertainer of the Year Award at the Academy of Country Music). So does this mean twerking and insensitive racial imagery? Apparently, yes.
For the video, which was the same video directed by Jonas Akerlund, who is the same guy who directed her Bad Blood video, we see Taylor very dramatically rising from the dead and confronting the viewer in a grave, with other scenes of her amongst being covered in diamonds in a bathtub, crashing in a golden flashy car, and of course, dancing with a bunch of men in a quite suggestive way, and not just with the heavy grinding. The suggestive way was such a controversy that it made people wonder if she were copying Beyonce’s Formation video, or just white-washing the dancers since they are all noticeably lined up by skin color, with the darker-skinned dancers on her right, her in the middle, and the lighter-skinned dancers on her left. These are only 4 of the jaw-dropping scenes for her. Another one even includes her imitating Madonna with a BDSM-themed scene.
While Taylor has always been the type to play multiple roles in her videos, the most indicative scene of the video that suggests her abandonment of her prior image is of Taylor standing, amongst dozens of other Taylors, while they fight over her, trying to tear her down. You see all of her past characters or iconic looks from moments in her historic career: the nerd from the You Belong To Me video, her Fearless-era dresses, and more. This hints that possibly, Taylor is referring to ‘you’ as ‘her’, since she is standing over them. But then again, with the car crash scene, she is holding a Grammy while a crowd of paparazzi take her photos and her obvious poses in the Katy Perry hair. So did we make her work harder as an artist, or did we just make her harden as a person and start imitating other musicians? Regardless, in the end we see Taylor, amongst the other Taylors, having a heated discussion against each other, in a sort of “See, I can joke about myself” kind of way. But with the obvious mimic of the internet criticisms and the normal revenge-themed lyrics, aside from visually, has Taylor really changed much at all? It actually seems like now, more than ever, she is truly capitalizing on her “victim” narrative…
Her newly-released song is already giving us another hint of her new album. It is pretty safe to say that Taylor does not plan on slowing down with the new image soon. Much more aggressive and catchy than Look What You Made Me Do, this song, if anything reminds us a bit more of the Taylor we knew, with just an extra blend of her new sound. It could easily be compared as similar to her 1989 hit Blank Space, because of the hip hop beats and rap-like lyricism. It actually sounds like something you would hear from a group like Fifth Harmony or even Demi Lovato. The lead-in like chorus, however changes up completely, and has electro synths going along her whimsical voice, accentuating lyrics such as “In the middle of the night, in my dreams/You should see the things we do, baby/In the middle of the night, in my dreams/I know I’m gonna be with you/So I take my time/(Are you ready for it?)”. It sounds much like one of her classic lovey-dovey songs, but remember, this is a new Taylor now, so it immediately returns to the hard beat. The bridge is equally as poppy and does an amazing way of combining both musical themes, so clearly this can be something she will perform in her catalogue for a while.
It does raise question about what the goal of the album is supposed to be accomplishing, aside from album sales. 1989, while definitely a big leap for Taylor, still involved her award-winning songwriting styles, good girl image and helped her be understood even more as a working musician and loving artist to her her fans. The new releases show her practically full-out diving into an unknown mass of dark water in an effort to re-establish herself as a credible artist. So regardless of whether or not she is destined to cut her hair into the haircut like image-shredders Miley and Katy, this album, and era for Taylor, will definitely be worth the attention. For the culture.