As the father of three, it takes me as many days longer to respond to pop culture. One day per kid. That’s probably a scientifically proven ratio.
And so, while Taylor Swift set the world on fire this past Sunday night with the premiere of the video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” her first song in three years, I was fighting with a child over bedtime, or using the bathroom for the first time that day uninterrupted with the door closed.
But now I am caught up with the preordained cultural sensation that in 72 hours has already garnered a trillion bajillion YouTube views, and it’s a weird thing to admit, but for the first time ever, I didn’t react to a cultural moment–in this instance, the entirety of the “Bring It On” film series distilled into four synthesized minutes–as a music critic, which I’ve been for nearly two decades. I reacted as a parent. In a profoundly visceral way.
I hated this song. I hated it a lot. I should clarify. The song on its surface is… fine. If you lived in Brooklyn circa 2003, electroclash pop is nothing new. However, the message of the track, the underlying sentiment, is everything I don’t want to teach my children.
And I’m not saying this as a Taylor Swift hater. Nor am I quite a Swiftian. Or a Swifthead. Or do they call them Swifters…? I say it as someone who, over the years, has admired many things about the country singer who managed to make the impressive and rare transition to pop star more successfully than anyone else.
Yet, upon closer inspection, hew new single is not a dark anthem of empowerment. In fact, Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” is about the relinquishment of the soul to your most petty inclinations. It’s about the festering grudge we feed after midnight even though that guy who sold us the gremlin told us not to. And worst of all, and perhaps most offensively, Swift’s latest celebrates anger, resentment and revenge for very long-ago slights. It’s “you said a not-nice thing once” rage, a pop anthem as furious as any Rage Against the Machine track but without any of their attempts to be woke.
And now, millions upon millions of impressionable adolescent girls in Swift’s core base think the same.
Now there are two arguments you could make in response. One, perhaps there are instances in which the vindictiveness is warranted and I’m kneading too hard into the dough. And two, it’s just a pop song. Like, chill, man.
My response to the latter is with one formidable number; 2.3 billion, or the amount of times “Shake It Off” has been viewed on YouTube. To put this into context, if we were to delegate each stream to a single individual, the population of all of Russia, America, Australia, China and Azerbaijan have all heard this song. Which isn’t a bad thing because the essence of “Shake It Off” is basically turn the other cheek in a sassy call-and-response jam. You could almost say it’s a song that Taylor herself circa 2017 should be listening to.
Which brings me to my second point, which was also your first point; Taylor’s very own version of the Arya kill list.
Moments after the ‘Look What You Made Me Do” video premiered during the MTV ceremony, entertainment sites distilled the Easter eggs peppered throughout, and the accompanying shade thrown toward many powerful celebrities such as Kanye, Kim, Katy, Calvin Harris and Tom Hiddleston. Whether it’s the cat masks or the supreme grande bitch slap to a certain ex-boyfriend DJ or the snake references that make so many frequent appearances in the video that it requires its own CNN article devoted to it.
All of this means that Taylor spent an inordinate amount of time focused on how to intersperse as many middle fingers as possible in her first big statement in years. That makes me profoundly sad for the inevitable 2.3 billion adolescents who will consider “Look What You Made Me Do” their mantra theme song of throwing off responsibility for their actions.
And Taylor Swift is way too savvy to feign coy unawareness about the impact her lyrics and videos have on Team Taylor’s developing psyche.
Ultimately, though, I’ve got three kids to worry about–can’t be worrying about those impressionable billions. And after my first listen, I made an assessment not as a critic but as a parent that “Look What You Made Me Do” is going to be one fewer pop song the kids irritate me to death with. Not because it’s the most dangerous pop song ever. Far from it. But considering the purveyor, it’s one of the most disappointing.