Kanye, your tilted stage was gorgeous. Taylor, you were famous well before the 2009 VMAs.
Now if you two incredibly talented, incredibly successful, incredibly irritating famous people don’t quit squabbling this instant I’m going to turn the internet around and send you both to your rooms without any Grammys.
Swift’s new song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” isn’t not about Kanye, just as “Dear John” wasn’t not about a cradle-robbing skeez named Mayer and “Out of the Woods” wasn’t not about the inability of an extra-nippled British heartthrob named Harry to safely pilot a snowmobile. Which means, as ever, Swift is playing peek-a-boo with confrontation, coyly dropping incontrovertible references to famous foes within the thicket of verses that could otherwise apply to anyone. Among the many wonderful things Swift’s career has been to date, it’s been round after expert round of “Does this bother you? I’m not touching you.”
What “Look What You Made Me Do” is exclusively about, though, is a celebrity named Taylor Swift, in a way that previous diary-of-a-superstar hits like “Shake It Off” and “22” weren’t. For years, Swift folded gossipy bits, which allowed fans to feel like canny sleuths privy to secret insider info, into songs so well-crafted and expansive that non-celebrities (even non-fans) could recognize elements of our own heartbreak and desire within them as well. But there are two inevitable points along every pop star’s career arc. First she reaches a stage where she can only sing about herself. Then, soon, the only part of herself she can sing about is her fame.
Commercially, narratively, artistically, Swift was destined to arrive at both points simultaneously after 1989. Swift’s pure pop breakthrough was also a formal triumph, an exercise in rampant one-upwomanship. The shamelessness with which she appropriated so many 21st century pop styles was matched only by the ease with which she improved on them. Her CHVRCHES song, her Haim song, her Lana Del Rey song, her (tsk tsk) Katy Perry song—each incorporates a sound and a structure and a sensibility then leapfrogs past pastiche to make the original artists subsequently sound like Swift impersonators. And once Swift had swallowed up huge swathes of modern pop like this, she kept accumulating, gathering every stray supermodel and pop star into her orbit. Now all that’s left of pop culture for Taylor Swift to consume is Taylor Swift.
Which brings us to a single called “Look What You Made Me Do” and an album that will be called Reputation.
The song, as often happens with pop songs, sounds (a little) better than it did when it first dropped, and the video, as happens less often with videos, helped. From the zombie Swift clawing up from the grave to the madcap whirl through celebrity foibles to the conclusion, with multiple Taylor Swifts from the past—the curly-haired Nashville princess, the "You Belong with Me" geek, the Red ringmaster— bickering amongst each other, the video parodies pop star martyrdom while flaunting Swift's stigmata. In this context, the track's hastily sketched rendering of Lorde's protean electronic intricacies is an ideal brooding ground for Swift's high-strung camp, and there's something offhandedly audacious about buying a Right Said Fred sample when you could just order up a dinky beat on your own.
The density of visual references—to other videos, to celebrity feuds, to arcane Swiftiana—make the video a rich text, as academics say, a Finnegans Wake for the TMZ era, custom-designed for bloggers trained as TV recappers to cull for clues and churn up infinite content. And with each frame, Swift hammers home her message: You cannot possibly know more about Taylor Swift than I do. Just as she once assimilated styles and supermodels, now she catalogs and neutralizes every possible perspective you might have on “Taylor Swift.” While you’re tweeting checkers, Swift’s checkmating you in hot-take chess.
The clip is funny, but a counterpoint of pinched defensiveness pulses underneath. There’s something gloriously neurotic, after all, about a celebrity making an extravagant, expensive video about how obsessed she is with her self-image in order to paradoxically prove how well she takes public ridicule. (The fact that investing so much of her character and cash in such a video is the most astute career move Swift could make right now just goes to show that the pop industry has its own neuroses.) The Swift of “Look What You Made Me Do” reminds me not so much of Michael Jackson, the classic example of a star whose justifiable paranoia led him to hyperfocus on his own celebrity, but Eminem. Like Marshall Mathers, Swift is willing to make herself look ridiculous by wading into her ephemeral pop surroundings, but only on her own terms.
So of course “Famous” rankled. Rankles me too, for different reasons. The track Kanye produced is an essay on the grand unity of international black music, weaving a heartbreaking Rihanna take on Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” into Sister Nancy’s indomitable dancehall chant “Bam Bam” before Simone herself emerges on the outro. So when Ye blurts the glib Swift-baiting “I made that bitch famous” it’s a shit smear across a masterpiece.
That’s maybe Kanye’s point, that defaced masterworks are the truest art for our age, because they recognize the scummy compromises a lover of beauty makes to achieve the freedom to create. The kid who made The College Dropout and Late Registration more than a decade ago could be kind of a dick, but he believed he could reassemble the shards of the culture he loved into something coherent and inspirational. The man he grew into decided that to survive as an artist, you have to become a celebrity, to plunge into the muck of banality, and he’s not about to let us forget that.
Unlike West, Swift has never been an idealist. But she's no less self-conscious about the intersection between art and celebrity. When her single dropped last Friday, there was some Twitter chatter that “Look What You Made Me Do” might be her own heel turn, the moment where she matured into the villainous role that thin, wealthy blondes are supposed to accept once they’re too old to be ingenues. The video suggests instead that Swift hopes to have it both ways, that she’s banking on a hunch that she can remain the girl next door as long as she acknowledges that you think she’s a bitch. She may be right—she always has been before. She may even make me like it. But as her music gets bigger than ever, there may be less room inside it for anyone but herself.