There’s nothing like a little vengeance to kick start your day.
Recently, after the recommendation of a friend, I listened to Taylor Swift’s new song, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Now, I realize this song has been circulating for about a month, and any attempt to address it would seem passé. However, the opportunity to examine these lyrics and discuss their implications is too tempting.
If you haven’t heard it yet, the song is relatively simple to explain. The title words (“look what you made me do”) comprise exactly half of the lines. The rest of the lyrics follow a theme of bitterness, mistrust, and karma. Supposedly, this is Swift’s sarcastic tribute to her own reputation, a song cloaked in so many layers of irony that I’ve decided not to touch them with a ten-foot pole. If you can discard Swift’s personal references, however, there are still many interesting observations to be made—and a few valuable lessons in accountability.
What distresses me most about the song is its emphasis on blaming others. Of course, sometimes things really aren’t our fault, but rarely do our worst mistakes occur without our help. In fact, we’re so seldom without blame that it hardly seems worthwhile to preoccupy ourselves with others’ trespasses. Swift’s song seems to cater to our less responsible side—the side that pities our own interests, and revels in condemning those who’ve wronged us. This is the part of us that, rather than turning the other cheek, prefers to hit back (that would only be fair, wouldn’t it?). When we feel we’ve been treated unjustly, we tend to run with it, and in doing so, jettison all personal responsibility—hence Swift’s refrain, “look what you made me do.” In these revenge narratives, we tend to be the object, not the subject.
Oddly enough, for a song focused on revenge and self-pity, a look at the lyrics reveals a concerning detachment from personal identity. In the accompanying music video, Swift appears in a series of costumes from her previous projects. The proliferation of Taylors even converse with one another, and not constructively—each of them has strong opinions about the others. This interesting self-dialogue culminates in the popular lines, “Sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. —Why? Because she’s dead.”
Now, when St. Paul exhorted the Galatians to die to themselves and rise in Christ, this may not be what he had in mind. As Christians, we seek opportunities to put our sins behind us and renew our efforts to grow in virtue—we receive forgiveness in Confession, we relish new life in the Eucharist. When we take these steps to “begin again,” we never intend to become worse people for our efforts. And yet Swift’s song seems to endorse a new start without new virtue. In one line, she asserts, “I got smarter, I got harder…/ I rise up from the dead, I do it all the time.” She then launches back into the chorus of self-absolution, followed by a verse or two underlining her desire for vengeance, for “you to get yours.” One has to wonder whether there’s a point to these resurrections if they only make her less forgiving, more preoccupied with the past, and more fixated on self-serving justice.
In short, this song is not an extraordinarily helpful guide to solving personal problems. In fact, it’s an extremely poor one—rather than forgiving and forgetting, this approach inflames and prolongs old wounds. Though it’s difficult to take responsibility for our actions, it’s more difficult to move on without recognizing the reality of the situation. Rather than blame others, and rather than splinter our past into a multitude of “other selves” with whom we don’t associate, we ought to tell ourselves the truth: our lives are a single, unbroken narrative with room both for error and forgiveness. There is much more room for forgiveness if we own up to the errors and just let them go.