Why People Treat Taylor Swift's Albums Like They're the Damn 'Da Vinci Code'

Since the pop star released her new single, which very obviously references a series of public feuds she's recently been embroiled in, her fans have been obsessively searching for subtext that probably isn't there.

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Aug 25 2017, 7:33pm

Photo via Instagram

More than any other pop star working today, Taylor Swift has engendered an entire subgenre of music criticism through the disconnect between the two-dimensionality of her work and the generosity of her rabid fans. Swift's new single, "Look What You Made Me Do," the first from her upcoming album Reputation, was released about 12 hours ago, and already a number of over-the-top interpretations have sent listeners into Beautiful Mind levels of calculation, so desperate are they to crack the code of lyrics like "The world goes on, another day, another drama, drama / But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma."

The first theories emerged on Wednesday, when Swift released the Reputation album cover and the gothic font used seemed to share suspicious similarities with the font Kanye West used on the promotional T-shirts for his 2016 album The Life of Pablo (TLOP), on which the rapper declared, "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous." They spiraled from there. Reputation's release date, November 10, is the same date as the tenth anniversary of the death of West's mother—surely, fans and horrified detractors said, intentional. The imagery of the cover, a black-and-white photo of Taylor alongside a collage of newspaper clippings altered to read, "Taylor Swift," over and over again, fueled more sleuthing. "Based on the cover art, which features Swift wearing a dark lip and surrounded by newsprint, it seems like the theme of this album is her hitting back at the way the media sees her…" reads a People magazine article called, "Have These Fans Figured Out Taylor Swift's New Single?" That Swift might resent the media is not exactly revelatory, but then a Newsweek piece linked her apparent attack on the media with that of Donald Trump, whom many people suspect Swift of supporting. "The timing is, frankly, odd," the Newsweek piece noted. "The Reputation cover hints at a simultaneous obsession and repulsion with one's own coverage in the media. It's hard not to be reminded of...well...you know..."

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Other theories: That the new single was going to be called "Timeless." That Swift's promotional imagery, which also employed videos of a snake, referred to her feud with Kim Kardashian, or to some development in the feud between Swift and Katy Perry (the exact connection is not really clear), or to Swift's birth year, 1989, the year of the snake, or to Swift shedding her skin and being reborn. Following a trail of unfollows and follows on Swift's social-media accounts, fans also deduced that the feud between Swift and Perry could be fake, and that the greeting-card company American Greetings had tweeted a coded message about Swift in a post from August 18, the same day Swift began releasing promotional videos for Reputation.

Much of this speculation is easily debunked as absurdly irrelevant to any kind of critique about the actual music, the kind of superficial symbolism Swift has used as marketing ploy throughout her career. The rest is easily debunked by logic. My favorite is the font: Just as it is impossible to invent leather jogging pants, it is impossible to "rip off" a gothic font, a typographic style that could just as likely be a reference to graphic T-shirts sold at Walmart. Several people have noted—using a chart outlining a letter-by-letter comparison of the fonts—that the Reputation font shares more similarities with the font used in the New York Times logo than with the TLOP merchandise, which makes sense because the whole thing is almost certainly about how the media is bad. Nevertheless, last night, Jon Caramanica, a critic who is actually employed by the New York Times, posted on Instagram, "wow @ Taylor using a modified Pablo font on merch." OK. Regarding the unfortunate album release date, TMZ reports that a source at Universal said they picked the Friday release date because most albums come out of Fridays and the date was chosen "based on other Universal Music Group releases. There is no correlation." Though the comparisons between Taylor Swift and Donald Trump are apt—both of their brands rely on a reality-TV style of blameless, enduring victimhood, and people suspect they both orchestrate complicated, behind-the-scenes schemes that neither seems at all capable of—there is no actual evidence that she voted for him.


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Of course, this is not the first time people have gone berserk over Swift's utterly straightforward work. In 2014, Billboard published an article called, "Taylor Swift's 13 Best Liner Note Secret Messages—So Far," in which the writer reveals some of the insightful communiques hidden on the album 1989. They are either bland mantras—"Date nice boys," "Live in love"—or self-interested references to Swift's numerous public relationship dramas—"Tay," "Hyannis Port." These "secret messages" are planted like Easter eggs for an age group that still merits participation trophies—always in service of placating her fans with the illusion of depth while generating symbiotic buzz for the gossip media.

The interpretation of "Look What You Made Me Do" that makes the most sense arrives in Glamour magazine's breathless piece detailing how "Taylor Swift's New Song Has A Lot of 'Mean Girls' References." The secret spy message here is that Katy Perry allegedly referred to Swift as "the Regina George in sheep's clothing" in 2014. But perhaps the real memo lies in a pair of adult women assuming the framework of a fiction that lays bare the immature and embarrassing delusions of teenage girls.

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On "Mean," another track from 2010's Speak Now, she sings: "Someday I'll be big enough so you can't hit me / And all you're ever gonna be is mean / Why you gotta be so mean?" "Look What You Made Me Do" expresses the same sentiment, repeated over and over and over again: Someone has wronged me, and now I'm going to show them. The only thing she seems to have developed in the intervening seven years is a bizarre bloodthirst, a "list of names" on which the particular hater to whom the song is addressed is "in red, underlined." (There is also, weirdly, a gun mentioned.) Perhaps there's something to be said here about the cynical unoriginality of the people producing records at the highest level of the music industry, the way they churn through the same bullshit over and over to trick listeners into thinking carefully constructed pop stars like Taylor Swift are more than they appear. But this conspiracy has little to do with Taylor Swift, and there is nothing behind her new album but the same old manipulative ploys to attract your time and energy.