“Look What You Made Me Do:” Must Art Always Reflect the Creator’s Personal Beliefs? (Discussion)

Discussion Post

Look What You Made Me Did Discussion-min

Credit: Dayne Topkin – Unsplash

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.

Briana

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36 thoughts on ““Look What You Made Me Do:” Must Art Always Reflect the Creator’s Personal Beliefs? (Discussion)

    • Briana says:

      I get the need to write stories that catch people’s attention, but I do find the disparity of how they apply standards weird. Why is Swift assumed to be obsessed with every song she sings, and others aren’t? Particularly because I follow some music critics who really value “sincerity.” There is nothing they would hate more than, say, a love song sung by a singer who has never been on a date, or a song about not fitting in during high school sung by someone who was the “cool kid” as a teen. So, for those people, Swift’s drawing on real experiences to write/sing about should be a good thing!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

    This was a very interesting post! I just think in general the media is too quick to judge and make assumptions that are usually wrong and too quick to apply double standards to celebrities. All celebrities write about what they are feeling, but as you point out, they probably aren’t still feeling it when the album finally comes out. For example, many albums include both love songs and break up songs. I’m sure the artist is not simultaneously in love with someone and wanting to break up with them, so it’s only reasonable that they are pulling on past experiences to make their album more relatable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I was also thinking about love songs as I was writing this. Even Swift isn’t accused, as much, of being obsessed with her past boyfriends just because she has written songs about them. (And she has songs about different guys on the same album!) It’s often the other songs that get picked up and picked apart.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Actually, that reminds me of an article I read a while ago that claims that the Drew of “Teardrops on My Guitar” fame tried to reconnect with Swift a couple years ago and she was just like, “Dude, I wrote that song when I was in high school. I don’t care about you anymore!”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Holly says:

    YES. I completely agree. Just because a song/book/piece of other art is released as a final product now doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist is still consumed by whatever that piece of art expresses (or that they were EVER really consumed by it).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Exactly! It would definitely be possible for someone to take a smallish life event and just kind of expand on it in order to write about it. It doesn’t necessarily mean it was a big deal for them ever.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hannah Reads says:

    I totally agree! And I liked your example of the writer/poet compared to Swift. I think one of the reasons Swift is tied so closely to her experiences is the medias constant coverage of her. We don’t tie the writer to their experiences because we only know of them through the art, so we focus on the art and not on the “real-life” emotions behind it.

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    • Briana says:

      I agree and was also thinking about the issue of just knowing so much about celebrities’ lives, and Swift’s in particular. It occassionally comes out that other singers are singing about something real in their lives, like Beyonce’s husband cheating on her, but for some reason it never really gets picked apart the way Swift does. And then writers are just infinitely more private in the first place. You wouldn’t know a real life event inspired them unless they said so themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I think it can be therapeutic, too! Maybe writing about her break-ups or other upsetting events actually helps Swift get over things, and here we and the media are all jumping down her throat assuming it means she’s actually still obsessed with those things! But I think turning the event into a narrative that you have control of can be really helpful.

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  4. Krysta says:

    To some extent Swift seems to encourage fans to identify her with her songs. She leaves clues in the liner notes and in her videos so fans can identify the individuals who inspired the song. That does not have to mean she is still feeling those same emotions, but I do have to wonder why you would release a song calling out specific people if you are not trying to get some publicity out of it. It will fuel rumors that you are still mad. Why else would you make sure everyone knows who the song is about? Why not make it a generic revenge song? Though I do like the self-wareness it shows about the media’s perceptions and characterizations of her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Yeah, I was thinking that she draws attention to it herself, as well. At this point she can’t even stop though because people will analyze it even without her help! :p I think Swift’s popularity is in part to her not being generic, though. A lot of people respect her as a storyteller, and being mad about a specific thing is more interesting than writing a generic “Grrr, I am mad and going to bash things” song.

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      • Krysta says:

        And it’s true that the song could be more about how the media portrays her feuds than it is about the feuds themselves. Just because she references certain people doesn’t mean she’s aiming for the people.

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  5. Sophie Li says:

    Hi Briana, very interesting discussion post! I absolutely agree with you in that artists and writers shouldn’t be limited to writing about their current experience. There isn’t anything wrong with drawing inspiration from one’s past, after all, that person still owns that experience. I also think that writers can write about experiences that are not their own, if they have done enough research. For example, an author can write about a character who suffers from a mental health issues, even if he or she himself does not have experience with those illnesses. How boring would it be if a person can only write about their current experience in the present moment?
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic!

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    • Briana says:

      I also think it’s possible to write about something you haven’t directly experienced. It’s possible to know someone who has experienced you can talk to about it, to read about it, to otherwise research it, etc. I think art would be pretty boring if there were a requirement everything you write had to be strictly autobiographical.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Love this post!! And I agree so much!! I find it ridiculous how people can insist that she should just “get over it”- when they would never do that to other artists- and like you’ve said, they would never say anything about this in any other art form. And I also think you are *so right*- people are taking this so literally- this doesn’t mean she’s still pent up about all these things. I’ve interpreted the song a bit like what she did with “blank spaces”- there’s an element of self-satire here, with references to being a snake (after being called a snake). It’s like she’s owning/embodying the character they’ve foisted on here! Anyway, great discussion! Love what you did here!

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    • Briana says:

      I agree. There are definite references to specific people, but the video makes it clear that she’s also talking about how the media has treated her in general. Which, again, I feel like is something other celebrities get kudos for (like, for “being real” about talking about struggling with the paparazzi or something), but when Swift does it, she’s “obsessed” and “needs to get over it.” I’m also interested in the fact I don’t think I’ve really seen much discussion of the song as a song. It’s all about the lyrics and her image and not whether it’s actually good music or anything like that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yes exactly! She never makes a song about just one thing (and this is logical, considering I know some songwriters who say their work is always an amalgamation of different situations). Yes you’re so right. Yeah I agree with you- every time I’ve tried to find something, it’s just a breakdown of what the song “means” and who it might be about- which doesn’t interest me as much as what people in the industry think of it musically (and how much of a change it is for Swift- cos it really is a big shift)

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  7. hannahpotamus @ peanutbutter&books says:

    I 100000000% AGREE WITH THIS POST. *standing ovation*

    I’ve been hearing a lot of backlash on her newest single, and on Taylor Swift in general. I can’t shake off the feeling that a lot of his has to do with her “reputation” (pun intended ;)) and not her merits as a singer/songwriter. They’re overanalyzing every single second of that music video, and sometimes I just want to point out that not *everything* is a pointed remark aimed at Kanye/Kim or some sort of “diss”. I don’t even think Taylor is the one really designing the music video. But, at the same time, who knows– I may be completely wrong.

    When the first lyric video was released, I thought it was abundantly clear that the song was about her portrayal in the media, and not about her “exes” or her “ex-BFFs”, but apparently everyone else took it the other way. *sighs*

    Liked by 1 person

  8. DoingDewey says:

    I’m with you! I’ve noticed that a lot of people are criticizing the song as trite or petty because of their own assumptions about why Taylor wrote it. I find it a catchy tune and I love the homage to “I’m Too Sexy”, but regardless of how I feel about it, I don’t think should be judged on the basis of imagined context.

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    • Briana says:

      I found it catchier than I was expecting, particularly because I liked Taylor when she started out in country and this is a totally different sound. I wish more people were talking about it as music rather than about her personal life. Like, objectively, do music critics think it’s a good pop song? I don’t even know.

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  9. Milliebot says:

    Very valid point! I do think that singers/songwriters’ art is viewed more personally than writers. I’ve never thought about a writer embodying what they’re writing about but I often link singers feelings to the lyrics of their songs. We definitely shouldn’t be so quick to judge someone based on the content of their lyrics.

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  10. kozbisa says:

    I just think those out there in media world have their darlings and those they want to take down a notch. Once they identify the target, mob mentality kicks in.

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    • Briana says:

      I think that’s true, as well. Sometimes people seem to generally like something, and then one article comes out that says “This is garbage” and suddenly everyone’s like “Why, yes! This is garbage! I don’t like it and never did!” In the case of Swift, I find many of the arguments old because she seems to have pretty set groups of people who like her/her music and people who don’t. The negative articles are just reaffirming to people who didn’t like her before anyway and still don’t like her now; they’re not generally converting people.

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