When, within the space of a single week, a hundred million lemmings go streaming over the edge of sanity and fling themselves headlong into the roiling sea of the latest mega-hit video, who is the Music Patriot to remain aloof atop the quickly melting iceberg of high culture? He must take the plunge. Musicological research demands it. Morbid curiosity, too.
I’m happy to report that your fearless scholar has not been scalded or drowned in the hype hot waters. His skin tingles with irritable excitement, his ears ring with disaffected glee, his eyes drop insincere tears not on his guitar, as the video soprano in question once famously put it in a more demure but no less sexualized teenage incarnation, but rather on his laptop keyboard.
Pulling the drenched critic into the listing lifeboat of reality, his rescuers (two teenage daughters and a perplexed wife) could only shake their heads as he gazed at the horizon, the blonde Titanic of pop stars steaming on into the star-studded night.
I refer, of course, to Taylor Swift’s latest single “Look What You Made Me Do,” its maiden voyage datable back to the dim recesses of pop history—August 25th. Within the first week of its launch, the Swift Boat smashed every bogus metric invented by the music industry. The song logged some 85 millions streams in the U. S. A. alone, sinking the dreadnought “Despacito” that had occupied the top berth on the charts for nearly four months and had plagued the Musical Patriot for most of July and across much of the Iberian peninsula from a rental car radio commandeered by the just-mentioned daughters.
The sultry craft had been concocted by the Puerto Rican pair of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, and rocketed into the stratosphere thanks to the remix recorded by that Anglophone generalissimo of pop, Justin Bieber.
At the Despacito video’s start and before its beat drops the crooners aurally ogle a soon-to-be dancing babe in denim shorts and fetching halter top. Lusting surf seethes and foams on rocky shores. Behind the sea wall offering protection to nearby beachfront slum (probably now flattened by Hurrican Irma), a young boy chases down a free-range hen. His groping serves as youthful practice for the nightclub hunt that follows and at which he, once elevated to Latin manhood, will one day become adept. The bumpings and grindings staged by the video-makers in a sweaty dance club foretell various sex acts described with poetic fervor in the lyrics.
The song was banned in Malaysia in late July—clearly a last ditch PR effort to give the hit a final boost as Mommy Yankee prepared to sail swiftly southward. From its appearance in pre-historic January until the Dogg day’s of early August, Despacito had received some three billion YouTube views. But by month’s end the island rebellion would be quelled, an unstoppable Battle Group steaming towards the Caribbean with Admiral Swift at the helm of its flagship “Look What You Made Me Do”—a title that might as well be the motto for America’s interventionist foreign policy.
However stunning its surge, Swift’s latest triumph has taken—and shed—tons of critical flak. The song has been dismissed as just so much repurposed electro pop consisting of stagnant melodies and cannibalized beats from the last millennium. Some of the flotsam has even rated a songwriting credit, deeded over (along with barges of cash) to the dippy dinosaurs Right Said Fred of early 1990s celebrity. The repetitive rhythmic pattern of that hoary trio’s parody of muscle men’s self-love, “I’m Too Sexy” was annexed by Swift for the chorus of “Look What You Made Me Do,” though the how and why of claiming copyright over a dotted quarter noted followed by five eighths and another quarter is way beyond me.
What is missing from the searing aesthetic critiques of Swift’s musical material, its packaging and delivery, and the cinematic flaws of the video, is an analysis of the its obvious political resonance. To be sure, the song is all about the songstress: pop can only function according to this axiom. But equally as axiomatic—if, like quantum theory, also counterintuitive—is the truth that, on YouTube twenty pounds of shit really can be stuffed into a ten-pound bag. That is to say, there’s room for both Swift and Hillary Clinton in this sack. “Look What You Made Me Do” is not only a pop paean to Swift’s own supposed refashioning, but also to be heard and seen as a roadmap for the resurrection of the erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate’s self-respect.
In the run-up to the last election every pop and movie star was making his, her, and their allegiances known. Swift’s nemesis Katy Perry was unabashed in her support of Clinton. An even more apparently menacing opponent, the rapper Kanye West, played footsy with Trump. Yet nary a word on politics emanated from Swift’s high-gloss lips. In all the faux-controversies she’s been embroiled in, especially that between her and West, Swift’s mantra has been: keep focused on “the work.” She’ll not accept any blind date between her “art” and that bad boy, “politics.”
That ethic was apparent early on, even before her teen years when her parents—the one a current, the other a former Merrill Lynch executive—moved with the pop prodigy from Pennsylvania to Nashville. There she was groomed to be a Mozart of country music. A songwriting savant, Swift was made into the all-American girl who glowed more brightly than all that Nashville neon powered by the TVA. Her talent, focus, and brand momentum won her Grammies and myriad other awards and an enormous fortune. Country could not contain her talent and ambition. She got more industry accolades and got them sooner than any pop star in history.
From her first album, Taylor Swift (see the axiom above), her image has retained its wholesome glow, unsullied by all that early heavy petting in cool cars with hunky boys whose hands moved in one direction: from the steering wheel to her bod. Nor has the string of high profile liaisons that followed sullied the good-girl sheen.
Accordingly, or perhaps paradoxically, her base has many Trump supporters. Yet Swift has showed feminist strength, notably suing and winning last month against a Denver DJ who groped her. But she did not raise her voice for Hillary during the unendurable campaign. Fans and foes criticized her for it.
Now with “Look,” Swift offers an important message for the fallen candidate. The single comes in anticipation of the November release of Swift’s sixth album, Reputation. Clinton, too, is now eager to defend her reputation. Swift, by contrast, pretends to destroy hers, and thus elevate it to even more monumental heights.
The video opens with the zombie Swift clawing her way out from beneath a tombstone engraved with the words “Here Lies the Reputation of the Taylor Swift.” The creature intones a staccato plainchant as she fills in her own grave: “I don’t like your little games / Don’t like your tilted stage / The role you made me play.” Then we see that the pristine Swift in virginal white shift lies at the bottom of the pit.
Pure decadence ensues in which self-repudiation and self-indulgence embrace more tightly than a pair of sumo wrestlers. Swift bathes in a soaking tub of diamonds and cash. She sips tea on a throne while being tickled by phallic snakes. She sports PVC dominatrix rig and wields a crop. She knocks over a row of writhing men as if they were dominoes. She crashes a gold Lamborghini, a toy so much faster and more furious than the muscle cars hymned in her adolescent years. Sheathed in orange satin boots, she perches on swing like that louche woman painted by Fragonard, but she does so not in a pleasant grove but inside a giant birdcage. The gilded prison cannot contain her: zap!—she’s busted out and wielding a kitty mask and baseball bat. The beat hammers beneath her breathy oaths: “I’ll be the actress staring in your bad dreams.”
She takes a phone call, a typically Swiftian exercise in self-mockery that could be taken to refer to her clandestine mobile phone approval of Kanye’s lines “I feel Taylor Swift still owe me sex / I made that bitch famous”—later to be publically, hypocritically disavowed in stoic feminist tones by Swift. As the video red lips nearly kiss the receiver the music does the unthinkable—it pauses, so that Swift can respond, “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead.”
The beat dissipates and the singing and dancing stop. Swift’s many personae line up on the rain-soaked tarmac in front of her private jet emblazoned with the word “Reputation.” These characters bicker with one another in a catty dramatic tableaux: the ingénue; the sequined songstress; the cheerleader of her own career; the prima ballerina; the jaded star in studded leather; and the multiple award-winner in silver gown hugs her latest statuette and the microphone lest Kanye grab it from her as he did to diss her on stage at the 2009 Video Music Awards. This Swift, neither more nor less self-obsessed than the other Swifts flanking her, speaks the video’s best line “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.” Her multi-personalities then shout her down.
It seems more than simply a coincidence that Hillary Clinton’s memoir of the presidential debacle, What Happened, comes out in a few days. “Look What You Made Me Do” could have—probably should have—been Clinton’s title. In the blockbuster video Swift graciously provides the disgraced and defeated one-time shoe-in for the presidency a way out of the tomb of her own deadly image. Scrap your old identities, or at least pretend to. Add a question mark to the finger wagging title What Happened. Have fun with the old yous. It’ll only increase sales.