The Mirror Has Two Faces: On Fame, Politics, and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” and Beyoncé’s “Formation”
Regardless of the accuracy of the claims of stealing from Beyoncé lodged against Taylor Swift regarding her new single and video “Look What You Made Me Do”, directed by the prolific Joseph Kahn, there is nonetheless a quick jolt of schadenfreude when someone quips, in quotes, “Okay ladies now let’s gentrification.” The riff on the chorus from Beyoncé’s single “Formation” sits atop one of the first images that appeared from Swift’s video, of the singer standing before a “squad” of dancers, in black. After seeing this teaser, before the video actually dropped, folks on Twitter ran with the vague similarities between that and a shot from the Melina Matsoukas directed “Formation” video, making a litany of variantly amusing jokes. But while the resemblance between the two music videos is arguably a stretch — the shots in question barely have the same blocking, never mind a difference in costuming, color palette, set design, and general scene composition, in context of the whole video or otherwise — there is a likeness between the tracks themselves that seems to have gone without much comment. It’s two women, under intense public scrutiny, answering the public in very different ways.
Much has been ballyhooed regarding Taylor Swift’s apolitical stance, what seems like a fundamental unwillingness to declare herself on any side of the political spectrum, explicitly, at least. Justin Charity runs down the numerous iterations of speculation in The Ringer, citing everyone from The Daily Beast to Noisey, whose Dan Ozzi believes that an apolitical stance is no longer an acceptable one in 2017 for any artist. Mark Harris takes a bit of a different approach at Vulture, instead evaluating it as political in the context of it being emblematic of the same behavioral tendencies as the president, writing, “I have no idea what Swift’s politics are (she seems to have been widely excoriated for keeping her vote private, which is obviously her right), but I’ve heard enough of her songs over the years so that of course I know what her politics are: I win, but for the record I’m the victim of haters and losers.” In essence, even when Taylor Swift isn’t political, her politics are about herself.
It’s about self-hood, as is much pop artistic work, Swift’s revenge diss a testament to conceptions of her own perception in the public and amongst other famous people who may or may not have done her wrong. As Sam Mac in Slant puts it, it’s an act of “myth making”. Tired, but myth making all the same. But it’s less engaging with the politics of self-mythology in a self-aware manner, or less self-aware than it would like to think, than it seems to be a product of the (supposedly) solipsistic desire to do so in the first place. Numerous pop stars are interested in atomizing their identity into self-mythology, like Lady Gaga and Cher, and said artists are implicitly interested in the limits of that idea.
That Taylor Swift would continue, rather than outright lift, this idea from pop history is nothing if not predictable, and not in especially bad way. It is tradition. Trying to reclaim your identity and narrative is inevitable for someone as much in the public eye as Swift; just as Jackie Kennedy. Or better yet, Beyoncé.
Beyoncé, too, has made many a transformation throughout her career, from member of Destiny’s Child to solo artist, her sonic aesthetic and thematic proclivities deepening and becoming more complex. With the release of the self-titled Beyoncé and Lemonade, Beyoncé has crafted her work and her image more and more to explore the politics of her identity and that of blackness and womanhood, and the intersections of those identities. Which is not to say that she had, pre-Lemonade, not received some mockery or criticism from the public. On the contrary, she, in diss tradition, addresses it head on: “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess, Paparazzi, catch my fly and my cocky fresh”. These are the first words of “Formation”, ana acknowledgment that Beyoncé suffers no fools. Why does it sound so different from Swift’s track though?
Perhaps it’s because Beyoncé is assertive in understanding that her image and her being are political in the public’s eye, and that people of color and women’s existences are interpreted as political as well. “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation.” It’s a call to arms, to be joined in solidarity and pride, and to assert agency and break free of the hold that the media and public at large have on her. She has a pulse not only on how people see her, but how the world sees people like her in the modern world.
Taylor Swift’s track tries to operate in much the same way. Throwing back the criticisms she’s received at those who spoke them: “I don’t like your little games, Don’t like your tilted stage.” Lots of zombie imagery and a band of former iterations of Swift’s persona arguing amongst themselves proceed. But Swift’s song doesn’t read like a call to arms as much as it does sound like something self-righteous, stubborn in a maybe sophomoric way, its title shifting the blame for whatever criticisms her actions have received to the critics themselves. It asserts agency in the individual, less the collective, and it sounds less like like pride and more like prideful. It may be unfair, but is it perhaps Swift’s whiteness which makes her approach more myopic in scope? That’s just it, though; while Swift’s politics of the self exist inwards, Beyoncé’s exist outside of herself.
There’s nothing wrong with responding to media scrutiny in your own way, but that won’t absolve one of more scrutiny or criticism. As an artist operating in public, your work and your performance are fair game, even if that is, in and of itself, questionable. Swift, taking a sharp left turn from her comparatively jovial “Shake It Off”, the first single off 1989, is fine with being apolitical, concentrating on her selfhood and how she thinks of it, in the context of the media, other artists, partners, etc. Beyoncé, at least through the self-reflexivity of Lemonade and “Formation” via images, lyrics, and poetry by Warsan Shire, sees herself as a piece of politics with macro implications. It means something when both of these female artists proclaim who they are. It’s just the distance they’re aiming for, and how they skip the stone on the water, seems to be the difference.