The critical responses to Taylor Swift’s new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” have prompted me to think about what it means to create art and how much one’s art must reflect one’s own emotions, thoughts, and worldview. Swift, of course, has always been known for being an intensely personal artist, for writing songs drawn from her own experiences, inspired by real and people and events. So, with the release of “Look What You Made Me Do,” critics have been quick to suggest the song is about Kanye or about Katie Perry, or maybe both of them, or maybe the media as enemy in general—and to suggest that Swift is therefore, once again, playing the victim as she blames other people for her actions and fails to get over events that transpired a year or even longer ago.
However, Swift is far from unique in her tendency to draw inspiration from her own life experiences for her art and, essentially, to “write what she knows.” What is unique is her audience’s assumption that she clings to the past, that the fact she’s singing about an event or a person means she still actively cares about the topic in exactly the same way she did when she first drafted the song. But is it not possible for an artist to write about something they used to feel? Or to imagine a character who feels something similar to but not exactly what they themselves felt?
Imagine if a YA author delved into their past to remember what it felt like to be laughed at for a mishap in gym, or to win the tenth grade spelling bee, or to be angry with their mom who just never seemed to understand. Would we accuse the author of being stuck in their teen years, of being ridiculous for being embarrassed twenty years later for being hit in the face with a baseball, of being pathetic for still feeling pride that they won a high school academic competition? Or would we recognize that it’s legitimate, even necessary, to pull up these memories in order for them to write a believable teen character? Would we assume the author still hates their mother, or would we acknowledge that they can write believably about hating their mother without still actively feeling the emotion?
Swift’s songs tend to be about relatively recent events in her life, however, so perhaps a better analogy would be an author who argues with their boyfriend, then writes a poem or short story about the fight. The feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal are fresh in the moment of writing. But do they have to stay fresh? The author will probably revise the poem or story, no longer upset about the fight. They will query it, no longer upset. And they may see it in print a year later, no longer upset. They may even read the work out loud to an audience a year or more later. But will the audience assume they’re still mad at their boyfriend and “can’t get over” things? Probably not.
The reality is that I don’t know anything about Taylor Swift’s personal life or thoughts. I can’t know anything beyond what I’m told by the media or what’s presented to me by her own PR team or those teams of other celebrities, all of whom have an agenda. Perhaps it’s completely true that she holds onto emotions, believes with a vengeance everything she sings, can’t let go of grudges or the past. However, it’s equally possible that her songs are inspired by emotions, that she is shaped by her experiences and her reactions to them, but not controlled by them. I think artists can draw on things they once felt without being caged by those emotions—and that the best artists do. You can’t sing, or write, or illustrate only what you’re feeling in a specific moment, in the present; if you did, your art would be fleeting and flat.
Good artists can draw from all their life experiences and turn them into something that other people can relate to. Singing about wanting vengeance on a cheating boyfriend doesn’t mean you’re still angry (though you might be) or that you advocate violence or you’re generally a nasty person. It could just mean that you once imagined you’d like vengeance, that you had daydreams of how you’d get back at that jerk if you could. And that’s something that other people who have been cheated on by their boyfriends may relate to, even if neither you nor any of them are actually going to enact any type of revenge. The song captures a moment in time, but that doesn’t mean the artist is trapped with it. It could just mean they’re talented at representing human emotion, the good or the bad, and that they have the talent to tap back into that emotion when they perform the song over and over again.