I think, at long last, that we might dispense with the notion that Taylor Swift is in any degree a good person. Certainly she may earn credit in putting up a good, or at least passable, showing to the contrary for as long as she did. But her stamina could only be spread so thin, and the mask inevitably had to slip off.
For shrewder observers, this came as no surprise. Swift-watching is among the most exacting and intense of the critical subgenres, the one which comes closest to a spectator sport. Practitioners are ruthless in cataloguing every instance of bitterness, pettiness, ignorance, antipathy, greed, opportunism, false modesty, and meanness ever carried out by this person. Which is to say, all of the characteristics that make humanity distinct among the living organisms of the world. I mean, I think many of us go through life encountering one person out every 30 or so who we would just as soon not see instantly transferred to the nearest warzone/galactic outpost/existential dimension with or without protective gear.
And yet, I am disappointed in Taylor, and with her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Not because, as others are pointing out, that it is a bad song. Many of Swift’s songs are rather lackluster, or at least lack the staying power of those by Aaliyah, Dolly Parton, Elliott Smith, or even Michael Bolton. But one thing Swift is not is stupid. Everything she does is predicated on careful judgment and deliberative execution. For once, though, I wish she would set aside using it to enable her raw id and assume the mantle of intelligent villainy as per her obvious destiny.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is being touted—or rather, harangued—as a song about revenge. Alas, this is not the case at all. Yes, it makes references to revenge, of lists with names underlined in red ink, of karma, and so on, but that is a byproduct of the larger obsession at the song’s center. Taylor is very unhappy, presumably, with Kanye West for any number of transgressions committed against her over the past eight years. Even though the song is not well written it surely ranks as one of the most relatable in pop history. But that is to aim low, and to prevent Swift’s ascension to exemplar and tastemaker in the joys of revenge.
It might be that the nature of her job as a celebrity, dependent as it is on quick-rotating news cycles, prevents this from happening. Swift may forever be a romanticist of revenge, exalting an insular, almost masturbatory form. She will hence propagate several misconceptions about revenge: that it is theatrical, that it is impulsive, that it is morbid, and that it is served with one decisive stroke. Perhaps these are, somewhere, attitudes applied to undertaking revenge, but hardly could they ever be successful in any meaningful sense. To wit, revenge is about the result, not the intent. And so it is methodical, it requires patience, cunning, and commitment. If Swift possesses any of these latter traits they are grossly misplaced or disproportioned.
Let me illustrate with a better example, which I know through secondhand experience.
A friend of a friend, who for the sake of his privacy I will call “Jeb Bush,” had a falling out with another friend, leaving him in a state of inconsolable abjection. What the precise nature of the rupture was remains unclear, perhaps even to “Jeb Bush,” who had to clear out considerable mental space in order to plan for his retaliation. It very quickly became an all-consuming activity for him, requiring all other life obligations to be coordinated around reaching that end. Indeed, so involved was it that I don’t think “Jeb Bush” ever properly called it revenge, but rather counteroffensive psychic interior redecoration (COPIRD, for short). To better understand what that means, here is what he did.
First “Jeb Bush” needed to study. Not so much the movements of his friend every day, but his profile, let’s say. He made peace with his target so that he might be able to spend time with him, to get a more substantial grasp on his interests and aspirations. The more intently he listened the more comfortable the target was able to confide in him about the truly important material: fears, anxieties, failures, stressers, and so on. In his off time, “Jeb Bush” would read all of the male fictionists: Richard Yates, John Updike, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Rick Moody, and Tom Perrotta, with Nicholson Baker, Nathanael West, and Philip Larkin for good measure. This went on for about a year.
With the intelligence gathered, he put his plan into execution. First he got a better job. Though “Jeb Bush” was reasonably satisfied as an advertising designer, he knew some advancement would do wonders for his plan. It took some time, but he used a competing job offer to parlay his way into a departmental leadership position and, within about six months, as creative director, overseeing not just print visuals, but internet and television. Now it was the target’s turn to listen, about “Jeb Bush’s” improved life, about his job perks, extra vacation time, and monumentally improved healthcare benefits. The target, as I recall, is a sectional executive at an accounting firm, but the message would still be clear he could be doing better. When the target asked what he did to accomplish all this in so short a time, “Jeb Bush” credited Emotional Intelligence, and recited the book’s back matter verbatim.
With the extra income, “Jeb Bush” acquired a membership at Equinox. This leaned his physique somewhat and boosted his confidence. At weekly spin class, he met a woman, a paralegal, and started seeing her casually. Once they became official, however, he took her on sojourns to see both the target and his wife for dinner and brunch. The girlfriend and wife, a freelance marketing consultant, became fast friends. “Jeb Bush” and the target routinely played a game to see which one could insist more strongly to paying the entire check before “Jeb Bush” inevitably persuades to split it. Fun, generally speaking, was had.
The target’s wife enjoyed the girlfriend’s company to such an extent that she sought Equinox membership as well. It was not quite within the confines of their budget but they agreed to make it work. Pretty soon, the target’s wife gained a new set of city-based friends. While the target attended wealth and wellness seminars in hotels off of route whatever, his wife quit the book club in town and attended readings, opening parties, and park events.
Over at the coffee table, the target met a woman. Stilted small talk revealed she “worked in sales” and “went to a state school before dropping out.” They ditched the affirmation chants and trust falls to watch Hot Rod in her hotel room before falling asleep. The target woke up at three in the morning and cried in the bathroom.
The target’s wife missed the last train and stayed over at some loft in Greenpoint. There, she met a six-year New School PhD candidate who looked vaguely like Drake. They talked into the early hours about Dick Hebdige and meditation sessions at the Swedenborgian church he attended. While watching a documentary on Ana Mendieta, the PhD candidate went in for a kiss, which the target’s wife rebuffed before thanking him for the perspective. He nodded and left, more Drakishly than ever.
A few weeks later, the target met “Jeb Bush” in a bar, beleaguered and bewildered to no end. He was beside himself; his life plans seemingly in disarray and his job situation as inert as ever. He’d developed an addiction to wellness seminars, in which watching Pay-per-view with saleswomen became a regular occurrence. The breaking point came midway into You Drive Me Crazy when his wife called to say she’d resolved to get her MFA and kept talking about being a “proud grey wolf.” “Is that a white supremacist thing? Is it a drug thing?” he asked before asking for lawyer recommendations. But “Jeb Bush” just calmed him down, gave him the business card of a marriage counselor, and told them that it was just a rough patch they need to work through.
This puzzled me when I heard it. But “Jeb Bush” clarified: “If I can make this go another generation or two I think I’ll be set.” And to better monitor the plan’s progress, “Jeb Bush” came up on the right side of a firm merger, gained accounts for Pantene and Magic Hat, and moved into a converted warehouse loft in Jersey City with his girlfriend. He then pointed his index fingers to his mouth and blew at them as if they were guns, and walked away.
In that moment, the line between entertainer and artist had never been bolder.