To the uninitiated, Taylor Swift's new single “Look What You Made Me Do” sounds like a catchy pop song engineered for radio. But to anyone who’s been following Swift’s high-profile feuds of the past year, “Look What You Made Me Do” is a goldmine of inside references and phoenix-like triumphs over Swift's real-life melodrama.
Many of Swift’s songs have contained autobiographical references in the past — it's widely believed that “Dear John” was about John Mayer (a belief Mayer himself holds). Whereas her references to specific individuals in past songs were pretty opaque, and required some investigating, her new song stares its targets right in the eyes, slithering snake imagery and all.
Never are the targets' identities more apparent than in the portion of the song when Swift answers the phone and says, “I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, cause she’s dead.”
If you're not familiar with the specifics of the clash between Swift, Kim Kardashian, and Kanye West that occurred in 2016, this phone call probably just appears to be a bridge between verses. In reality, this portion of the song serves more purpose than holding up the melodic structure. That’s where we pop culture historians come in, to connect the dots between song lyrics and life events.
To understand the significance of the phone call in “Look What You Made Me Do,” we have to travel back to the release of West’s single, “Famous,” in 2016. The song begins with an outright reference to Swift, with whom the rapper has had history since 2009, ever since West stormed the stage during Swift’s VMA acceptance speech.
West's song “Famous” begins with the line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex...I made that bitch famous.”
Following the release of the song, Swift’s representatives published a statement in Variety saying, "Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single 'Famous’ on her Twitter account. She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message."
So erupted the Great Phone Call Controversy of 2016.
West, of course, had a response to Swift's representative's allegations. In a (now deleted) Twitter rant published hours after the statement was released, West claimed that “he had a long convo with [Swift] about the line and she thought it was funny and gave her blessings.”
For months, that’s how it remained between Swift and West: a standstill of “he said, she said,” with no concrete evidence supporting either side. Then, Kim Kardashian rekindled the feud in July 2016, when she released a video of West and Swift actually speaking on the phone on her Snapchat story.
The video was intended to incriminate Swift by proving that she and West did, in the end, have a phone conversation. Here’s where it gets tricky. While West did call Swift, in the Snapchats, he reads her a different version of the lyric than the one which ended up in the final track.
In the video, West reads the specific lyric, "For all my south side n****s that know me best, I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex." To that line, and not to a line which contains the word "bitch," Swift said, "It's obviously very tongue in cheek...And I really appreciate you telling me about it, that's really nice!"
Following the Snapchat video fallout, Swift responded in a now-deleted Instagram post, quite accurately, “Where is the video of Kanye telling me he was going to call me ‘that bitch’ in his song? It doesn’t exist because it never happened.”
Despite the clear discrepancy between the lyric West asked permission for and the final lyric, the internet was quick to pounce on Swift, and send snake emoji her way.
That brings us to the phone imagery in Swift’s video for “Look What You Made Me Do.” The old Taylor, Swift implies in the song, would’ve picked up the phone and chatted, as the real Swift had done when West called about “Famous”. But that girl is gone. The new Taylor releases revenge anthems and writes her enemies’ names in red ink on a list akin to Arya Stark’s, and doesn’t take being called a liar in a public arena lightly.
She “got smarter” and she “got harder.” Next time West calls, we doubt she’ll be picking up the phone. The Taylor Swift who made that move is metaphorically dead. (Refinery29 has reached out to Swift for comment.)
“Look What You Made Me Do” joins the ranks of “Hello” by Adele and “Hello? Is It Me You’re Looking For” by Lionel Richie as one of the great phone call songs of all time. While we'll never know to whom Adele and Richie were speaking on the phone, we definitely know who's calling Swift.
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