In her reputation (pun intended) for bland, white feminism and controversial feuds involving certain rappers, Taylor Swift has had her share of unsavory political faux pas. But after an album cycle darker than a Game of Thrones trailer and a highly-anticipated Instagram countdown, the pop princess returns with another contribution to her repertoire — what may yet prove to be the pièce de resistance from a glittery new oeuvre.
That’s French, for those of you plebeians who didn’t study abroad for one semester, memorize the five noble grapes of Bordeaux, and post a full album on Instagram to commemorate the burning of Notre Dame and (whoops! totally inadvertently) your many extravagant Parisian excursions.
Oh, you didn’t stroll through the Champs-Elysées with a crêpe in one hand and five lit cigarettes in the other? Cute. Well, guess who did? That’s right: Taylor G.D. Swift. You better believe Swift splashed out on a Criterion Channel subscription and camped out in one of her four multimillion-dollar mansions with a heavily-highlighted copy of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Seriously, the evidence is incontrovertible: Last month, she dropped a music video that is literally the grandchild of the Nouvelle Vague.
Sacre bleu, you cry! Mon dieu! Surely “ME!,” in its frivolity and sparkly kindergarten iconography, is a far cry from the austere palatial grounds of “L’Année dernière à Marienbad.” How could a video that features a unicorn gargoyle dripping with liquefied Pepto Bismol-colored tulle ever measure up to the densely literary, postmodern absurdism of “Pierrot le fou”? Surely “girl there ain’t no ‘I’ in team” pales in comparison to the complexity of the ill-fated homosocial love triangle in “Jules et Jim”?
To that I say: When has Taylor Swift’s symbolism ever been obvious? For over a literal decade now, legions of Swift devotees have pored over music video Easter eggs and Instagram clues, decoding with the obsessive fervor of a Zodiac Killer conspiracist. Capitalized letters! Secret graffiti messages! Snake metaphors! The woman is a cipher. If there’s one rule of the Taylor Swift universe, it’s that semiotics are king. Everything means something.
So buckle the hell up, skeptics. “ME!” is a direct aesthetic descendant of the French New Wave, and nobody will change my mind.
To start, Swift plays Marianne to Brandon Urie’s Ferdinand, Patricia to his Michel. They hurl half-hearted insults at each other with the conviction of amateur actors. Sound familiar? Ever heard of Anna Karina? Jean-Claude Brialy? The French New Wave gave rise to a new generation of talent without the institutional backing, and the results speak for themselves. Jean-Pierre Léaud walked so Taylor Swift could run.
But that’s not all. These insults are also in French, albeit with the criminally bad pronunciation of a high-strung French student dictating to a Sony voice recorder on the day of the AP test. “Comment ose-tu!” Swift, who has definitely watched “À bout de souffle,” shrieks in a conscious imitation of Jean Seberg.
Much like Seberg’s character in the film, Swift predicts that “trouble’s gonna follow where I go.” Trouble arrives in the form of identically attired women in pastel pantsuits, an obvious critique of the reproducibility of image in the vein of Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image.” The irony of talking about individuality while surrounded by clones embodies the same postmodernism anticipated by Godard in “Pierrot le fou.” Someone get Anna Wintour on the phone, because ladies and gentlemen, This Is Camp.
Swift proceeds to promptly dismantle the patriarchy. Every film buff worth her salt knows that the New Wave coincided with the advent of the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF), a women’s liberation movement that gained traction in the context of mai 68. “There’s a lot of cool chicks out there,” says Swift, turning away Urie’s advances, first a bouquet of flowers, then a ring. Most Swifties might make some claim about Swift’s budding relationship with that Joe Alwyn guy, but clearly it’s more complex than that. By turning away the engagement, Swift is obviously rejecting the hallmarks of a hegemonic patriarchal romance. Very de Beauvoir of her.
Even after all this decisive evidence, you might still be skeptical that a pop star would have this caliber of arthouse film literacy. To which I say: If BTS can draw from the theories of Carl Jung and Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” music video can be infused with “Pierrot le fou” imagery, then Taylor Swift can have her Anna Karina moment. At worst, she can feasibly argue she has no idea what she’s doing — “Qu’est-ce que je peux faire? Je sais pas quoi faire!” — and it would honestly still be so on brand, she could slap it on a $60 T-shirt and sell it.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.