At first glance (err, listen), Taylor Swift's new single, "Look What You Made Me Do," seems pretty awful. Already, the mainstream media has torn it to shreds, claiming it's a "shade anthem," "Trump-Era pop art," and "victim-blaming."
But then, Swift released the music video — which has already almost 100 million views as of Thursday afternoon — and the plethora of hidden cues, combined with how it explains the song, are making some people change their opinions.
It spurs a kind of love/hate reaction, which is what the singer/songwriter seems to have about her own "Reputation" — the name of the forthcoming album — and also seems to epitomize how feminists seem to feel about her too.
As far as feminists go, Taylor Swift has never really been a poster-child for the movement, though it's hard not to view her that way: She's got business-savvy, helps other women in need, and often tells younger women to stand up to bullying and accomplish their goals. She might not embrace the rallying cry of the desperate, angry feminist à la Katy Perry or Scarlett Johansson, but she's sharp, independent, and often a role model — what's not to love and why shouldn't she be called a feminist?
Well, her single and accompanying video (the first in three years) might hold a clue. As far as dubstep hits, tingly ballads, or booming anthems go, Swift's last album, "1989," boasted every type. Sure, they were probably all autobiographical but many young women (and men!) related to the themes of shaking off negative gossip, finding a love you know is going to end badly, or even daydreaming about a guy like you would James Dean.
"Look What You Made Me Do," sans video, seems to just sound like a whiny, vengeful version of Taylor Swift. In part of the second verse she sings: "The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama / But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma / And then the world moves on, but one thing's for sure / Maybe I got mine, but you'll all get yours." The chorus literally is, "Look what you made me do," over and over.
The music video adds a little more depth and perspective to the self-referential lyrics, though it's surely as autobiographical as her song "Mean," if not more evolved. With her flair for dramatic sequences — think of the "Blank Space" music video — the video is playfully and artfully, dotted with detailed, hidden references.
It's obvious in several scenes Swift is referencing her previous feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian (at the end, she quips, "I'd very much like to be excluded from this narrative") — even as she throws shade at at least one former boyfriend and one former friend, Katy Perry. If her new music video is a clue as to what type of game she's playing in her new album, it might be Taylor's way of clapping back at the media and Hollywood stars who've picked on her to the point of vilification.
This is, of course, her prerogative, though it may be her downfall. Swift's songs have often all been written from her own perspective, out of her own experiences. Yet, at the same time, part of her gift and genius is that many can still relate to them.
Here, at least from this song, is where I fear "Reputation" may stray — though it's hard to tell without hearing the whole album. She does take slivers of opportunity to poke fun at herself, particularly near the end where multiple "Taylors" appear, clearly representing all the different personas or phases of her life in the public eye. In a song overrun with projection, self-awareness is welcomed, yet what else does this offer that reminds us of the strong yet lovely, sassy yet romantic Taylor Swift we love?
Sure, I guess feminists could proclaim Swift is standing up for herself, writing her own narrative, and refusing to let others take credit for success she's clearly earned. But she's pushy and bombastic about it, taking the opportunity to produce an entire song (perhaps an entire album) about herself, how the media views her, how Hollywood views her, and how the rest of us should as well.
Newsflash, Taylor: We don't listen to Taylor for Taylor — we listen to Taylor because it reminds us of our own loves, our own struggles, our own successes, and our own dreams.
An entire album about a star's own reputation isn't a feminist victory, but exactly where feminism has gone wrong: Instead of standing strong as women who strive for betterment and goals regardless of sex, they stand around whining that the world hasn't appreciated them while blaming their problems on the patriarchy.
Or in Taylor's words, "Look at what you made me do."
Nicole Russell is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a journalist in Washington, D.C., who previously worked in Republican politics in Minnesota. She was the 2010 recipient of the American Spectator's Young Journalist Award.
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