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Consumer Narratives

December 1, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Before reading today's blog, I suggest watching the following four minute music video:

Taylor Swift “Look What You Made Me Do

It would be hard to pin down my musical tastes. Truly, I can listen to nearly anything. While I am not an expert in anything, I feel pretty compelled to discuss Taylor Swift's recent video for “Look What You Made Me Do” from the album Reputation, released in 2017. This song pulls hard at an anger that feels primitive. To me, both song and video are haunted with complexity – in the sense of anger that lacks any specific resolution. This is sort of a coming-of-age video, but is hardly that concise.

Taylor Swift signed her first album deal at age 14 and has been at the top of the charts since. I cannot imagine life as a teenage celebrity, though America has certainly had a number of them. It seems that we often read about their crisis later in life. I suppose that I will call it a “coming-of-age” crisis for lack of a better term, but it's far more than that. Their struggles are splashed about by media, fans and critics forever, forever google-able. And I am sure that the constant demand of reliving life outside of your private space makes life feel a bit out of control. As a result, in the video, the new Taylor stomps on all previous Taylors while also claiming that the old Taylor is dead. It makes me wonder...what are we singing along to here?

What follows are my notes on the video. The fast and furious pace of the video only increases anxiety, anger and emotion. The colors move from dark to vibrant depending upon the scene. And Taylor's eyes center the whole piece – closely engaging with us, or shutting us out entirely.

First: Haunted, dark, destruction, TS lights shine from a graveyard filled with fog, crows, and some mystery swamp. Her tomb reads: “Here lies TAYLOR SWIFT'S REPUTATION”. Then zombie Taylor crawls from the crypt, scraping. Demoralized? Or free? Not sure yet. She sings: “I don't like your little games, don't like your tilted stage, the role you made me play, the fool, no I don't like you.” Why intro with zombie Taylor? This is a retrospective. Are we supposed to understand a self-continuum? Is there a point at which the self becomes something other? Is she irretrievably separated from the former, more naïve self? Is the zombie born from a combination of innocence and pain?

Quick switch: There's a flash of beautiful, young, all-dressed in white Taylor in the grave. Eyes closed, casket open. Is she a bride, virgin, child, all of innocence? Then flash forward to young, rich Taylor soaking in diamonds, surrounded by mirrors – reflections of self. She focuses on us. Repeats, “No I don't like you.” Only now we know more about what she doesn't like, “I don't like your perfect crime, how you laugh when you lie, you said the gun was mine, is it cruel? No I don't like you.”

Next: mirrors evolve into Taylor at the top of a golden throne, red dress. Papal throne? Snakes crawl up the throne. All snakes stop at “OH!” Snakes slither and also serve tea. Are these false prophets, or false friends? How can a celebrity trust anything? (If I were you, I wouldn't drink the tea, Taylor.) She sings, “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time. I've got a list of names and yours is in red underlined. I check it once and then I check it twice, OH”.... She's about to jump again, but I'm stumped here. What is the red dress underlining? This hardened version of Taylor (in response to whatever made her hard - and I think the viewer has a number of ideas about those outside forces) wears a vicious, red underbelly. This hardened version has consumed at least some of what made her hard while simultaneously quoting Santa Claus. And that worries me.

Jump to car crash. “Look what you made me do, look what you made me do, look what you just made me do, look what you just made me do!” Gold race car meets streetlight in slow motion, jewels flying next to coffee, platinum blond hair swirls on the head tilt, still slow motion. Sunglasses permanently fixed, masking the ever-expressive eyes. She wears a cheetah coat and black sequined dress and grasps a Grammy award. Passenger = cheetah. Paparazzi watches, snaps photos, but doesn't help in any way, and never fear, damage exists on the car alone. No one is concerned – driver and cheetah included. Flames from the car flicker in the background, upstaged by flashing cameras. This feels very personal – and makes me think of the impossible emotional situations that celebrities must navigate every day.

Next: Taylor swinging in a cage. This is not the circus? “I...don't like your kingdom....keys they once belonged to me you asked me for a place to sleep, locked me out and threw a feast”. Birdcage... are we talking Maya Angelou's birdcage? Does a birdcage now represent all levels of imprisonment? Orange dress, island flair, the horrendous juxtaposition of color in captivity. Who are the guards – they look like ninjas from a chess club? Don't they know that white makes the first move? And still she swings above their knives in the cage with champagne and lobster. How are we to interpret that? Maybe the feast is something altogether unhealthy. Maybe the feast is flesh. (I am waiting to see the zombie again – she feels very close to the crypt inside this cage.)

Now: Bank robbers in catmasks, everyone falls to the floor. Choreographed? Group of ninja men have been replaced by girls who stash gold. Taylor rips off her mask: “The world moves on another day another drama drama but not for me all I think about is karma karma.” Gold baseball bat tips to the screen, points like the eyes. Baseball bat circles and all cats look up. Look up, towards the door. Is this another type of jail cell – why are the pretty little cats loading up riches? Maybe there's something richer than gold.

Now she's in a motorcycle gang? I mean, now she's in a motorcycle gang. Maybe the same girls, without cute masks. Does everything take place at night? Tough to tell with the constant switching. Headlights on, face center: “Maybe I got mine, but you'll all get yours!...

“Baby I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time.” Enter S&M Taylor. Red and black theme continues. “I check my list and yours is in red underlined”. Santa's list again, underscored by red and blue neon underlines. (Remember the feast and the tea? More of the thing that she hates has been imbibed.) Even harder now, bodies appear robotic and synthetic. The bodies, the robots, reflect red lights, not stop lights, but more like red light districts. (I don't know about you, but I'm waiting for the ball to drop like in Minority Report.) If we have entered a new zone, this may be darker than the crypt at the beginning. Are we still in a retrospective? How does time function in a music video – especially one which may weave in a bit of autobiography? I'm learning that virtual death comes at a great cost to the still living.

Black fishnets. Now she's the boss. Strong entrance, messy hair. Those doors swing open as the birdcage didn't. This must be free. In four minutes, this video has shown a number of geometric realms...lots of lines and cages ripe for crossing and opening. The chessmen have all changed into queered figures wearing “I love TS” tops. Who is the you? Media? Audience? People from her past? And what defines participation at this point? It seems we all listen, snapping along with the beat, feet tapping, a quick sway of the hips, much like Taylor's fishnet self. Is she inviting us into the room, or removing herself from all connection? Or maybe something altogether else.

“Rep” at the top of the pile. Doesn't trust anyone. She kicks at the climbing Taylors. Can we say that she's standing on the backs of more innocent Taylors? Or that she's kicked all previous versions of Taylor out? Taylor and her rep stand in front of a neon cross. If she hasn't smashed your innocence, I think it might be coming. Wait for it.

Repeat: “I don't trust nobody and nobody trusts me. I'll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.” The Taylor pile falls, of course, but you knew that it would. And then she says, “The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now....Why?...Oh, cuz she's dead.” Two second zombie shot and then choreographed fishnets jump in. The lyrics “look what you made me do” repeat often, kind of like smiling when you mean to cry. Has she figured out how to laugh while lying? If so, then innocence isn't subjugated, it's replaced by something mean, nasty and slimy, like the snakes.

Taylor's plane awaits, gold, of course, but sawed in half, dripping with the red-painted “reputation”. Outside the plane, all former video Taylors argue amongst themselves. The Grammy Taylor says: “Umm, I would very much like to excluded from this narrative.” And I think you know the answer to that.

Is anyone satisfied at the end of this song? The angst aches. What is my reputation as a consumer, and, honestly, can I be excluded from this narrative?

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