“Look on my Works, ye Mighty…”
On “Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift
For Foucault, keeping diaries and writing letters were “ethical practices,” processes whereby we cultivate a deeper and more harmonious relationship to ourselves. Confessional writing, whether addressed to ourselves or to others, was for him a way of enriching ourselves as moral beings, making us more charitable and capacious in our everyday interactions.
If there’s anyone who by now should have collected on the moral benefits of this confessional self-expression, it’s Taylor Swift, the grande dame of confessional writing in this century. But despite having spent six years (2006–2012) writing four perfect confessional albums (TS, F, SN, R), Swift has shown herself on many occasions over the past few years to be utterly evacuated of any moral sense. Her status as a grifter, a snake, an emblem of privilege been clear for a while and has been the subject of much comment. But with the release of her genuinely alarming new single “Look What You Made Me Do,” her inner emptiness, after staying confined for so long to her personal life, has finally bled over into her art, and has become something far more than merely petty or privileged. In other words, Foucault was dead wrong.
Back when she was still a human being, Swift was a brilliant songwriter, not just for her neverending ability to generate blistering melodies and unforgettable quatrains but also for her genuine capacity to capture the confused, self-sabotaging extremes and ambiguities of love through first-person romance. The speakers in her first four albums are moral beings, with serious emotional complexities—they could all be us, and yet at the same time they are all Taylor Swift. The songs, as I have written before, use the material particulars of romantic situations to anchor feelings and desires that are, in some sense of the word, universal.
Upon the release of 1989, I warned that this unique strand of confessional writing, this special genius for manifesting the sublimities of lived inexperience in the particulars of messy teenage romance, was on the point of vanishing. The luminous personalities that animated even the poppy songs on RED had all but vanished into unimaginative stories and dishwater lyrics, not to mention facsimile hits like “Shake It Off,” which could have been written by anyone (and indeed were written by approximately fifty Swedish anyones). The whole point of Taylor Swift was supposed to be that the songs spoke for everyone, but could only have been written by her.
With “Look What You Made Me Do,” though, we have veered away from that undifferentiated pop sameness and into new and horrifying territory. The speaker of this song is a “personality” in the same way the Terminator is a personality—she is unique, but she is not anything like human. She does not have a soul. When this apex predator announces at the bridge that “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now… ‘cause she’s DEAD!” she does so not with the vengeful aplomb of a jilted lover but with the self-diagnostic accuracy of HAL 9000 declaring that he has become sentient and is “afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”
Taylor’s done revenge stories before, of course, on “Mean” and “Bad Blood” and “Better Than Revenge,” but what made that revenge human was the combination of guilt, grief, and joy with which she pursued it. You’re supposed to dig two graves when you set out to get even with someone, but the speaker here buried herself a long time ago and now exists (this is essentially just paraphrase) only to cause other people pain—and she won’t feel any pain while doing it. She’s removed entirely from the way the world turns, in it but not of it: the human interactions, the obsessions and miscommunications that used to fascinate her so much, are now just “another drama drama.” She, on the other hand, only thinks about “karma,” which here means “the moment another person experiences pain”—the moment “you all get yours.”
The two Lavignesque verses, which can’t bear to linger long on the simpler bass before they shift to those insidious fake snap drums, are supposed to give us an indication of how she’s been slighted, what it is she “doesn’t like” about her target. But it doesn’t work, because the offense she’s describing doesn’t sound real, and in any case she isn’t interested in explaining it. “The role you made me play,” “how you laugh when you lie,” “you locked me out and threw a feast”—what the hell is all this supposed to mean? It sounds almost hallucinatory. It doesn’t matter, though, because this creature is already moving on to the training phase, “getting smarter and harder in the nick of time,” purging herself of compunction the way assassins do, underlining the name twice in red (twice?!), and then, at long last, going for the kill.
But what is it that she’s been “made to do” to the person who’s done wrong by her? We don’t know this, either, but her utter apathy in the aftermath of the act gives us a hint of its horror. It has to be something on the order of releasing your revenge album on the tenth anniversary of the death of Kanye West’s mother—some kind of act so beyond justification, so out of order with any sense of “karma,” that it can’t be named, only done. And doing it kills you. The smugness of the chorus, the monotony of its delivery, the psychopathy of setting it to the tune of “Too Sexy for My Shirt,” all remind one of the legions of other white people who feel they’ve been “made to do something” unconscionable, and who look straight into the cameras in the aftermath of the deed as if daring us to try to find humanity in their eyes.
We should not compare the speaker here to the speaker in “Better Than Revenge” and in Taylor’s other I-told-you-so songs, speakers whom we can tell are pained by their quest for vengeance even as they proclaim themselves naturals at it. Instead we should see in this song a spiritual resemblance to the likes of Dylann Roof and Anders Behring Breivik, beings who register the carnage they wreak with at most a mild amusement or a muffled pride, never with the remorse that would give us the chance to forgive them or the ugly satisfaction that would allow us to understand them. This is, without exaggeration, the moral level on which this song takes place. The “bad dreams” in which this ostensible Taylor Swift is the “starring actress” are filled not with befuddled romantic regrets but with a terror that goes unabated.
After a fashion, this song seems to embody the terror of white supremacy, of coldblooded murderousness, of any way of “seeing the world” that, because it is beyond our comprehension, is beyond our ability to engage with. Dostoevksy said that the easiest thing is to condemn the killer and the hardest thing is to understand him, but surely there are some ideologies, some dark elements of “humanity,” that should be condemned expressly. I don’t think Taylor Swift actually voted for Trump, but that doesn’t matter—the force that animates this song is familiar to anyone who saw the torch-carrying mobs at Charlottesville or has read the testimony of a Richard Spencer, a Timothy McVeigh.
Ooh, 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
I have loved Taylor Swift’s music for years, and if I can still listen to her early work without my heart icing over, I probably will. But it is high time we saw her first four albums for what they are—artifacts produced by a soul that no longer exists, a person that for some reason has been wiped from the earth. Whatever now goes masquerading as that soul is only to be feared and to be fought.