Taylor Swift’s troubled relationship with revenge

What’s better than revenge? Writing a song about the person who wronged you.

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In 2010, Taylor Swift released a song called “Better Than Revenge”. An electric-guitar filled, aggressive pop song from her album Speak Now, it sees her sing about a girl who stole her boyfriend. Like most of Swift’s songs, it had a media narrative to go with it: it was reported that song was about her ex, Joe Jonas, leaving her for actress Camilla Belle. “She’s an actress,” Swift sings, but, “She’s better known for the things that she does / On the mattress”. Ouch. The chorus’s final hook announces, “She should keep in mind / There is nothing I do better than revenge.”

Like many of Swift’s song titles (see also: “Our Song”, “The Story of Us”, “Blank Space”), the name “Better Than Revenge” has a double meaning that also nods to the songwriting process behind the song itself. What’s better than revenge? Writing a song about the person who wronged you.

The song plays with this idea – Swift sings, “She thinks I’m psycho ‘cause I like to rhyme her name with things”. “You might have him,” she adds, “but I always get the last word”. Or, as Swift said herself, while collecting an award for “Mean” at the 2012 Grammys, “There’s really no feeling quite like writing a song about someone who’s really mean to you, and someone who completely hates you, and makes your life miserable – and then winning a Grammy for it.”

This is a thread that runs throughout Swift’s discography. The second song on her first album, “Picture to Burn”, sees Swift refuse to cry over an ex who has wronged her. “There’s no time for tears / I’m just sitting here / Planning my revenge,” she sings – revenge that includes going out with all her ex’s best friends, getting her daddy to beat him up… and telling everyone that he’s gay.

The video features Swift and her band sneak into her ex’s house, where they exact some comically tame chaos: toilet papering the living room, writing “poser” on the bathroom mirror in shaving foam, spitting in his mouthwash, and licking his cutlery. The twist is it’s all a pipe dream: the end of the video sees Swift snap out of a daydream and shrug. “You know what? I’m over it.” The fantasy was enough to purge her of her vengeful impulses.

There’s Mean” (the song she made that Grammys comment about) imagines living in a big exciting city, as a big exciting pop star, while her critics are “drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing”, as the ultimate payback. There’s “Blank Space”, with its threat of “I’ll write your name” – in a love heart, on a revenge list, or worse, in a song. There’s “Bad Blood”, with its promise, “All these things will catch up to you”. And now, there’s “Look What You Made Me Do”, a track with another self-referential title (you made me write this song) that revisits “Blank Space”’s list (your name “is in red, underlined”) and insists “I got mine, but you’ll all get yours”. Perhaps we’re just one album cycle away from Swift sampling the Gossip Girl voiceover: Sticks and stones may break bones, but a poison pen is the best revenge.

If “Better Than Revenge” was meant to be, well, better than revenge, it backfired. A couple of years on from its release, when Swift’s star was rising and rising, people began to pick up on more problematic elements of its lyrics – specifically, those that slut-shamed and demonised other women. Buzzfeed ran a piece called “Does Taylor Swift Hate Other Women?” about her lyrics’ fixation with romantic rivals. The song remains a key reference point in endless Is Taylor Swift Feminist? debates. Camilla Belle even got involved with the Swift v Nicki Minaj/Katy Perry controversy of 2015 by tweeting about the hypocrisy of Swift’s feminism.

“I was 18 when I wrote that,” a 25-year-old Swift told the Guardian when addressing the controversy around the song in 2014. “That’s the age you are when you think someone can actually take your boyfriend. Then you grow up”. Even Swift herself was eventually disavowing its message. You know what they say: before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

So Swift has always had a troubled relationship with revenge, one that’s only got more sticky in recent years. The song “Bad Blood” – reportedly about her feud with Katy Perry – only added fuel to the narrative that Taylor Swift was a hypocrite for piggybacking on feminism one minute, and tearing down female “rivals” the next. A statement that could be read as implying her ex Calvin Harris was taking credit for her songwriting on “This Is What You Came For” also ended in more bad publicity for Swift when Harris tweeted “I know you’re off tour and you need someone new to bury like Katy ETC but I’m not that guy, sorry.”

At the 2016 Grammys, Swift thought she had got back at Kanye West, for his lyric “I think me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? / I made that bitch famous”. Accepting her award for Album of the Year, Swift was much more serious than in 2012, slowly insisting, “There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but if you just focus on the work […] you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.” Her Grammy win and its accompanying speech was retaliation against Kanye’s misogynistic lyric. Again, it backfired. You already know what happened next.

Swift has often suggested that the real revenge is in the songwriting. But she doesn’t like it if you suggest her songwriting is really a tool for revenge. “I really resent the ‘Be careful, buddy, she’s going to write a song about you’ angle,” she told the Guardian in the same 2014 interview, “because it trivialises what I do. It makes it seem like creating art is something you do as a cheap weapon rather than an artistic process.

“I don’t like it when they start to make cheap shots at my songwriting. Because there’s no joke to be made there.”

Perhaps she’s right. I know a lot of people who dislike Taylor Swift: the brand, myself included. I know significantly fewer people who dislike Taylor Swift: the songwriter. I still listen to Swift songs from across her discography and am flooded with the kind of rush usually reserved for chugging a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake in one go, or looking at particularly irresistible pictures of Harry Styles’s face. You can’t argue with a really, really good Taylor Swift song. (If you’re asking: “Our Song”, “You Belong With Me”, “The Way I Loved You”, “Mean”, “Red”, “Style”, “Wildest Dreams”, “New Romantics”). You can try, but her melodies snake around you and pull you in against your will, like a laugh that bubbles up when you’re angry with someone who is, frustratingly, still very funny. Suddenly, you’re 23 plays deep. Perhaps Taylor Swift’s best revenge is making songs a lot of people still want to listen to, even when she irritates them beyond measure.

But that makes “Look What You Made Me Do” more confusing – Swift’s stone cold, rock hard, impossible to deny melodies are swapped out for a Right Said Fred-referencing chorus that goes nowhere, her typically universal lyrics replaced with an obsession with karma and coming back from the dead that goes beyond the average person’s pettiest day. The song simply isn’t good enough to withstand the scrutiny coming at it from all sides.

Maybe the problem is that Swift is simply involved in too many fights now, too high-profile for her stories of heartbreak and fantasies of revenge to be vague enough to stay relatable. The “Look What You Made Me Do” video is so busy with allusions to Calvin Harris, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Tom Hiddleston and others that you get whiplash trying to process them all – T Shirts, dollar bills, headstones with pseudonyms, lockets spelling out “NO”. Swift has ended up with more rivals than she can count.

Swift’s 2010 song “Dear John” was addressed to John Mayer, a figure painted as a villain for his tyrannical list of enemies. “You’ll add my name to your long list of traitors who don’t understand”, she sings. Now, she’s reversed roles, leaning in to her own “long list of ex lovers”, of names “in red, underlined”, checking it once, checking it twice, like a maniacal Father Christmas. Again, we’re bordering on Gossip Girl pantomime – I think of Blair Waldorf’s line, “Do you know how hard it is to get revenge when your enemy is changing every five minutes?”

Hopefully, the best music on Reputation is yet to be heard (I never was a fan of most of her lead singles). It seems unlikely that Taylor Swift will own the mistakes she’s made, or create a genuinely soul-searching record. But if she wants satisfaction after the myriad slights she feels have been made against her, she should clamber out from of the whirlpool of referential jibes “Look What You Made Me Do” sinks into. She needs to write a song that’s better than revenge.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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