In the opening shots of the video for her record breaking new single “Look What You Made Me Do”, we see the zombie formerly known as Taylor Swift claw her way out of a grave. This shovel-wielding revenant is a far cry from the “girl next door” who, in the video for her 2006 debut single “Tim McGraw”, innocently frolicked with a Chevy-driving, chisel-jawed high school heartthrob.
But even then there were clues that this country princess would grow up to become a shrewd pop culture queen. In that song’s lyrics, she was swift to puncture the well-worn hyperbole of the country love song:
He said the way my blue eyes shined
Put those Georgia stars to shame that night
I said ‘That’s a lie’
And she was also able to converse knowingly with the tropes of the genre – the “Dear Johnny” letter she leaves on her beau’s porch references numerous country hits about the “Dear John” break-up note, typically left by a woman for her former lover.
Fast forward 11 years and Swift is again conversing with songs that have gone before. This time, though, it is her own back catalogue that she revisits through a series of visual clues for the eagle-eyed fan.
If the undead Swift’s diaphanous dress looks familiar, that’s because it’s the one she wore in the video for her 2016 single “Out Of The Woods”. This is not mere thriftiness on her part, as the legend on her recently vacated grave – “Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Reputation” – makes plain.
Later, the song is punctuated with the spoken interjection:
I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now …
Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!
That this new single (her first solo material since her 2014 album 1989) comes hot on the tail of a series of media controversies is no coincidence. After well-publicised romantic breakups with Harry Styles, Calvin Harris and Tom Hiddleston, and celebrity feuds with Katy Perry, and the Kardashian-Wests, Swift has also recently won a civil case against a US radio DJ who sexually assaulted her in 2013, winning symbolic damages of US$1 and raising awareness of the chronic underreporting of sexual violence against women.
The message is clear: no more Miss Nice Girl – the new Taylor Swift will give as a good as she gets.
Swift is by no means the first young woman to dramatically disown her wholesome image; for many child stars, it is a predictable (and often PR-choreographed) rite of passage. What makes Swift’s rebranding particularly interesting, though, is the way in which she draws on literary figures for inspiration as she self-consciously cites herself in a long tradition of “good girls gone bad”.