I’ve never written a “fan” letter before (not even to Justin Timberlake back in his *NSYNC days), so the fact that I’m writing one now hopefully conveys my appreciation and true “fandom” of yours! I’ve loved your music since your first hit single hit country radio. Even when you left country music and transformed into a pop icon, it didn’t bother me. You were a teenager when you started your career – of course it was going to change over time. In some ways, I feel like I grew up with you. Even though I’m a few years older than you are, I could totally relate to the angst of a crush who doesn’t return your affection (“Hey Stephen”), the frustration of crazy-making relationships (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”), and the confusion of young adulthood (“22”).
You recently released the first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” from your upcoming album. Although your last album, “1989,” was a bit edgier and personally less relatable for me than your previous work, I still enjoyed it and was looking forward to see what you’d be putting out next.
A friend texted me the morning the song was released, asking for my thoughts (and to make sure I was okay – I absolutely hate snakes!). I gave her my initial impressions, but filed away the notion to reflect further on the song later.
Well, later has come, and reflected I have, and actually, my initial impression is no longer. It’s changed and not in the way I would’ve expected it to change. And I wanted to let you know that I think you’re tougher than you think you are. And not in the way this song portrays.
It’s pretty clear in this song that you’ve been through some stuff, and more than just break-ups with other celebrities. Your conflicts with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and Katy Perry, as well as the recent sexual assault case you won, have been fodder for news outlets and tabloids alike. Forgive me for “analyzing” you, but as a therapist, I can’t help but notice the strong emotions you seem to be experiencing:
Betrayal. You allude to feeling betrayed by someone you trusted (“You said the gun was mine,” “You asked me for a place to sleep. Locked me out and threw a feast”), and also say they made you play the role of a “fool.” Clearly, you trusted someone and they betrayed this trust, betraying your confidence, and/or possibly blaming you for something you didn’t do. Like anyone would probably feel, you feel foolish and ashamed for trusting them in the first place.
Lonely. “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me” – this is the definition of loneliness. If you can’t trust anyone and if no one trusts you enough to invite you into or invest in a relationship, you are completely isolated.
Powerless. To me, this seems to be a prominent theme. It’s in the title of the song: “Look What You Made Me Do,” as if you didn’t have a choice to turn into a hard person. “The role you made me play”: As a result of this betrayal, you now consider yourself a fool. Maybe your decision to trust this person was foolish. Maybe you ignored warning signs that this person was not a safe person. Maybe you were completely duped. Either way, it’s normal for you to feel powerless. That’s the scary thing about trust – we take a risk when we trust someone and what we risk is our heart, the possibility we might feel shame and hurt if our trust is betrayed. We cannot control another person’s behavior, which is why trust and relationship are risky (of course, we should seriously get to know a person and their character before we place our trust in them). But even if they’re the most trustworthy person in the world, when we enter into a relationship, we sign up for the very real and very strong—no, guaranteed possibility that we will be hurt in some way, shape, or form because human beings are imperfect and we hurt each other. The fact that you feel like a fool shows you opened up your heart in the first place. You chose to let someone in. Therefore, you chose to risk looking foolish. But is this a bad thing? I would argue no. Unless you open yourself up to the possibility of getting hurt, you will never be vulnerable enough to have a deep, meaningful relationship, whether that’s a friendship or romantic relationship. Taylor, you chose to invest, which is what you do when you want a meaningful relationship! Unfortunately, it ended badly and you were hurt. It doesn’t mean you should “shake off” the hurt. It just means that you were hurt and that sucks.
Instead, though, you insist: “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time.” You were not going to remain the fool. You’re wising up. You’re hardening up. You’ve had to do it pretty much throughout your entire career, and maybe even your whole life. Whereas a few years ago, you were able to “shake it off,” you’ve realized you need to toughen up and go after the haters: “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.” This betrayal was so big, so deep that you can’t just shake it off or call your betrayer mean anymore. You can’t ascribe characteristics to the person who hurt you anymore (like you did in “Mean”). This level of powerlessness feels so strong that you now have to change who you are by becoming hard and vengeful.
You were recently in the news for winning a sexual assault case against a DJ who groped you in a photograph. Congratulations on winning the case, and the $1 you sought! My respect, appreciation, and subsequent “fandom” of you grew, when I read that your main concern was to raise awareness for victims of sexual assault. (In a recent Rolling Stone article about this song’s music video, they point out the single dollar bill among the diamonds in the bathtub as representing the dollar you won in the case. I’m curious if this is true? If so, awesome!)
As a therapist, I’ve worked with several women and men (yes, it happens to men too!), who have been victims of sexual abuse, assault and harassment. I’ve seen how these evil acts typically leave victims feeling powerless over their own bodies, as someone has invaded their most personal of space and taken away their ability to choose, among other things. It is not surprising (and actually, most refreshing) that you can’t just “shake off” the sexual abuse you experienced and that countless others experience on a regular basis.
Here’s the thing though: seeking justice, raising awareness, and sending a message of solidarity and encouragement to other victims, like you did with your court case, is NOT making yourself hard and vengeful. It’s actually doing the opposite. It’s making yourself even more vulnerable by pursuing justice when you know there’s a chance of losing, as well as educating and protecting, and loving others by sharing your very personal story. So, I’m not sure I’m buying the whole look-what-you-made-me-do-I’m-hard-and-vengeful act now. Not to mention, the phrase “look what you made me do” seems to give some credit to the abuser for you fighting back. Taylor, why are you giving credit to your abuser? Telling someone, even a loved one, about sexual abuse is usually an incredibly scary thing for a victim, much less reporting it to the authorities and pressing charges. You are courageous! Not only were the details of the assault outlined in a courtroom before perfect strangers, they were broadcasted to the world, including the incriminating photo. Talk about guts. That was all you, sister. No one made you do that. You set an incredible example for and stood with other victims of assault. You don’t need to be all dominatrix-woman, hell bent on revenge (“I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams”) and obsessed with karma (“The world moves on…but not for me…all I think about is karma”). You’re already strong and tough as nails.
The song includes a brief interlude in which you are heard answering a phone call: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.” “Why?” “Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!”
Actually, I think the “old” Taylor is very much alive. And maybe stronger than ever.
I hope you can believe it yourself.
P.S. Here are those Rolling Stones articles I read about your music video and your court case: