The lead single from Taylor Swift’s upcoming album, “Reputation,” is nothing short of an audacious piece of ambitious art. To any listener with ears, of course, it is an exercise in atonality. But don’t let that deter you! However, to a listener with eyes, its music video asks the undeniably important question: Why don’t we take Swift seriously as an artist?
The video’s thesis is as straightforward as its research question. Swift clinically argues that the lack of criticality of her audience, and the unrivaled profit that they can offer her, have produced music whose enjoyment is the sonic equivalent of enjoying your own lobotomy. We do not take her seriously because she is no longer producing, as the video carefully shows, serious art.
Thus, the “what” in the proverbial question of the song’s title is, quite simply, the creation of this sonic trauma. The “you” is a direct reference to her financial backers—known in common nomenclature as her “fans”: You made her do this.
Wealth—specifically the unencumbered waste of money on the multiplicity of scenes in the music video—is a proxy for the heaps of cash that she’s acquired over her career from less wealthy individuals (yes: I mean you and me). It’s robbery. The video astutely notes this by depicting a literal robbery carried out by Taylor and her team of four cat-masked women.
In the background, on an overhead ticker, we can see the words “Stream Co.”—subtle, isn’t she?—plastered above her head. This could not possibly be, I assure you, an allusion to her fight to acquire a larger percentage of revenue from streaming companies for all artists.
Instead, as the employees of “Stream Co.” lie ineffectively on the ground, Swift and Co. give up on trying to find a way to move the large pallets of cash from the vault. Perhaps the robbery was a failure. But then, cleverly, Swift decides to painstakingly steal from each individual safety deposit box that line the walls—she is, quite literally, stealing from the individual. It is a subtle depiction of her theft from her listeners. She’s just using “Stream Co.” as a proxy.
One of the opening shots of the video represents these thematic underpinnings of Swift’s musical evolution. Swift lies in a tastefully arranged tub of jewels. Despite her apparently limitless wealth, to her right is a singular dollar bill. The choice is strange at first, until one realizes that this is but another component of her running commentary on the culpability of her fans in the creation of her most unfortunate musical decisions. That lone dollar bill represents the decision to purchase the single. It could not possibly be, I assure you, a reference to her victory in a sexual assault trial over the summer in which she won a singular dollar.
Tangentially and seriously, that victory marked a shockingly successful use of Taylor’s fame and social stature to call attention to problematic societal views on the hegemony of men over women’s bodies—yet, with that said, it is an odd choice to reference it in a music video about revenge and the emergence of “bad” Taylor. What’s the message here? Not to be glibly reductionist, but do you have to be “bad” Taylor to stand up against sexual assault? “Good” Taylor—2009-VMA-Taylor or “Teardrops on my Guitar”-Taylor (as depicted in the video)—wouldn’t?
The opulence that surrounds Swift, the jewels lying under that lone dollar bill, represent the financial power of the totality of her fans. The product of the song, in all of its unpleasant glory, represents what that power has produced.
That power is less concerned with desiring good music than acquiring music from a known name. In fact, Swift doesn’t have to make good music anymore—because she knows that you’ll spend your hard-earned dollar bills on her regardless of the quality of her music. Mid-robbery, Swift sits on an unmoved pallet of bills holding a flaming stack of cash. It is a self-conscious illustration of this premise. You made her do this.
As Swift crashes her car, a Grammy in hand, the totality of the video’s thesis snaps into place. It is not only her fans that have allowed “Look What You Made Me Do” to exist. It is the complacent music industry—a music industry that is too concerned with giving big names awards (big names that crash their cars and are photographed by the paparazzi—as Swift does in her stylized scene), rather than giving Grammys to artists who are still trying to make something with some aesthetic merit or artists that take themselves seriously enough to actually try. Why don’t we take Taylor seriously? Because as the single shows, she doesn’t take herself seriously enough to make good music. She doesn’t take herself seriously because, when you blindly purchase her single with one dollar, you don’t demand that she does.
This music video indicts a complacent music industry—it’s an indictment of the system. The same system that enriched Swift. The same system you pay into when you purchase her music, pay for her concerts, and stream her songs.
Like it or not, you are the system. You made her do this.
—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.