When Taylor Swift took the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and Kanye West snatched her microphone away to praise Beyoncé’s work, the media became obsessed with their feud. The bizarre moment rapidly evolved into a cultural touchstone, producing a slew of “Imma let you finish” jokes and prompting reporters to hound both artists about their plans for retaliation. West was consternated for his interruption, even after issuing both public and private apologies to the artist. Swift was the victim, a young girl whose moment to shine had been eclipsed by a crazed egomaniac. The fascination with this feud eventually waned, but the die was already cast: Taylor Swift was officially the victim.
Swift rode this wave of sympathy and support to the top of the charts. She became known as “America’s Sweetheart,” which meant any perceived slight against her character or music was aggrandized into sexist bullying. Anyone who dared to badmouth sweet, wholesome Taylor Swift was instantly the bad guy, no matter how valid the criticisms lobbied against her. Fans claimed that Swift was a proud feminist and that her detractors were misogynists who feared successful women. While there is a kernel of truth to this argument, one has to question its validity when these same fans attacked black singers like Beyoncé for being proud of their accomplishments. Swift’s fans—and Swift herself—believed feminism amounted to not slut-shaming her for having a string of boyfriends. If Beyoncé or Rihanna had publicly dated as many men as Swift or composed an album’s worth of breakup songs, these so-called feminists would have had a drastic change of heart about the concept of slut-shaming.
However, Swift could not maintain her squeaky-clean public image forever. She attracted controversy when the music video for “Shake it Off” depicted black women as twerking props: she refused to speak on the issue or use her enormous social media platform beyond tweeting moderate platitudes about kindness, knowing that any political friction would alienate the fans she depended on for profit. After the release of “Red,” Swift copyrighted several lines from her songs and threatened to take fans to court for using her lyrics in any context. But perhaps most scandalous was when a naked model of Swift appeared in West’s “Famous” music video and Swift claimed that she had never agreed to be featured. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, was quick to release audio of Swift giving West her blessing, earning America’s Sweetheart a new title—“snake.”
Instead of accepting responsibility for her actions, Swift retreated back into her role as the victim. She believed she had been slandered by a merciless public; her loyal fans agreed, instilling Swift with the courage to rebel against this reputation. Late this summer, Swift deleted her social media accounts, only signing on to upload snake-related artwork and audio. This mysterious activity culminated in the release of Swift’s newest single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” an insipid and uninspired song about reputations that smacks of a middle school anti-bullying campaign.
The video is an ill-conceived attempt to create a new reputation for Swift by cribbing imagery from black culture and “killing off” her past personas, such as the perky adolescent from “You Belong With Me.” All of this rebellion is wincingly performative: Swift is merely victimizing herself to a different tune. By slicking her hair back and drenching herself in diamonds, she acts as if she is empowering herself when in fact she is slipping back into the dynamic created when Swift’s microphone was stolen on that VMAs stage. The proponents of her stale brand of white feminism hailed the song as liberating, commending Swift for daring to reclaim the “snake” slur. Swift postures like a woman rising above her oppressors, but her video has all the bite of a negative Yelp review written by an entitled suburbanite.
The unswerving support of her fans has carried Swift through the roughest of patches, which makes her recent efforts to take advantage of them all the more repugnant. Swift has introduced a new campaign through Ticketmaster that requires fans to buy several copies of her upcoming album and merchandise just to secure concert tickets. This revenue-generating scheme preys on young fans who idolize Swift, forcing them to spend enormous amounts of money under the impression that they are still helping a victimized young woman. Taylor Swift is not so young anymore. She has tremendous wealth, an army of fans prepared to defend her to the ends of the earth and an ability to twist any condemnation of her character into an unfounded insult. “Look what you made me do,” she cries, refusing to take responsibility for her actions and hoping another Kanye West will come along to remind the world of her innocence.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Taylor Swift appeared at the Grammys in 2009. Taylor Swift appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009. The Chronicle regrets the error.