Ever since she was a fresh-faced country singer who wore sundresses and strummed a guitar, I have been paying close attention to Taylor Swift’s career. Daughters of Saint Paul often pray for media influencers, so I added her to my prayer list a long time ago. But that’s not the only reason. I’m also a fan; not because she is the best vocalist or performer around, but because she so effectively harnesses the power of storytelling.
Though she is fairly private with the press, Swift writes revealing lyrics like a confessional poet. In virtually every one of her songs, she discloses gut-wrenching details of her life. Otherwise fairly tight-lipped about her romances, scandals, and broken relationships, Swift waits, sometimes months or years, to tell her fans in her albums what she’s really been thinking. And maybe that’s why people love her so much. Swift pours her heart out to her fans and no one else. Never mind if the whole world overhears.
And this may well be the secret of Swift’s success. She knows how to develop an almost familial relationship with the people who like her music. She regularly makes surprise visits to fans, bearing gifts and lingering in people’s living rooms as if she were part of their extended family. So, unsurprisingly, the one thing Swift is willing to talk about openly, outside of her music, is her effusive love for her fans. Upon receiving an award for Best Artist of the Year, she once said of them, “You are the longest and best relationship I’ve ever had.”
Perhaps Swift deftly creates a family atmosphere with her fans because she comes from such a close-knit family herself. She has posted pictures of warm family gatherings, and shared news of her brother’s foray into acting and her mother’s devastating cancer diagnosis. Which is another reason I like Taylor Swift. In a world full of broken, dysfunctional families, Swift seems to come from a pretty solid background. And this used to show itself in the wholesome, almost innocent way she has presented herself over the years, even after her plunge into the world of pop music.
Swift has changed her image more times than a chameleon, but despite the twists and turns, I keep rooting for her, hoping she’ll be one of the few to survive the harrows of fame relatively unscathed. But something has been changing, and her new album seems to be the most definite break with her past that she’s ever made.
Taylor’s new album Reputation will not be released until November 10, but she’s already released a single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” and the video for it came out over this past weekend. Before the single dropped, to the shock of all her fans, Swift deleted all of her content on Twitter and Instagram. It was a masterful marketing move, but also, perhaps, meant to be a disturbing symbol of self-erasure. Shortly after this, Swift posted a few videos of a green snake writhing on the ground. Everyone who follows Taylor drama knows there is backstory to the image of the snake. But aside from that drama, I know I’m not the only one who connected the image with the account of the fall in Genesis. And it probably was not lost on Swift either, who is rumored to have been raised Catholic.
For anyone who follows Swift’s career, it’s not hard to imagine why she titled her album Reputation. Her reputation, for various reasons I won’t go into, has experienced some blows over the past year. I can’t imagine what it is like to be as world-famous as Taylor Swift has been since her teens. But I can imagine that, for someone in her position, a blow to one’s reputation would feel like a death. Her fans have become part of her self identity. They’re even called “Swifties” and the thought of losing them, along with her reputation, must be really upsetting.
But it wasn’t clear just how upset she was until her new single was released. All of Swift’s social media accounts now sport one very revealing line from her new song: “I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.”
And the dark ending to that line?
“Why? Oh … ’cause she’s dead.”
The old Taylor is dead and the new Taylor, if one trusts her new single’s lyrics, is “harder” and “smarter.”
The video for the single begins with a close-up of a headstone, and the words on it are revealing. Carved on the gravestone is “Taylor Swift’s Reputation,” suggesting that it’s her reputation that has died. But the lyrics of the song say that she has died. In other words, the singer’s fame and self-identity are one and that same. But the anthem of Swift’s new single is that despite death she is coming back; she won’t be put down. And as a corpse-like Taylor claws her way out of the grave in the video, one begins to wonder what exactly is giving the singer new life.
The deadpan chorus, “Look what you made me do,” is repeated over and over throughout the song, almost like something out of a horror movie. The only thing in the song and in the video that gives any hope that Swift may have at least retained her sense of humor is the riff off the Right Said Fred 90’s hit “I’m Too Sexy.” But at the core of the song, Swift seems to be suggesting that her death and her new identity are not something she has chosen.
And perhaps this is the most disturbing aspect of the song. Swift is playing the blame game. Her death, her new hardness is the fault of others, not herself. “Look what you made me do,” could be Eve’s motto after the events in the Garden of Eden. The lie of original sin makes us believe that our sins or our “hardness” are always the fault of others. Sin makes us shift the blame. It is not our fault that we are misbehaving, taking revenge, and becoming hard-hearted. No, sin always wants to put the blame on everyone else but ourselves.
Running barely beneath the surface of Taylor Swift’s new single is an old, old song.
Let’s hope she doesn’t take it as seriously as she appears to.
This article originally appeared on Aleteia.org