Over the last few months, I have read several articles written about Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” from her 2017 album reputation that claim to completely decode it, and reveal all of its symbols. Although it has been about seven months since the song’s initial release, these pieces don’t even come close to the level of symbolism portrayed in both the lyrics and the music video. Here, I, as a super-fan, will attempt to break down the song point-by-point, scene-by-scene, “Sparknotes” style, so that those who aren’t Swift fans can relate, and for those who are, can appreciate. Time, Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Billboard—you did it well, but not well enough.
Before diving in, I would like to stress that I am not Taylor Swift or the four other writers credited, Jack Antonoff, Fred Fairbrass, Richard Fairbrass, and Rob Manzoli. This is my own interpretation. Let’s begin.
We start in a graveyard with a zombie-fied Taylor. The gravestone says “Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Reputation.”
This refers to the #RIPTaylorSwift movement on social media in 2016 in response to Kim Kardashian-West releasing, or “exposing” a recording of a phone call between Taylor and Kanye West about his song “Famous” from his 2016 album The Life of Pablo.
Here is a link to an article depicting the details of the feud if you’d like to read more about it.
Cut to Zombie Taylor filling her own grave with dirt, Zombie Taylor is wearing the blue dress from her “Out of the Woods” music video, from her album 1989 of 2015, suggesting that era of her life is over; it’s dead. Additionally, the dress Dead Taylor is wearing in her grave, is what she wore to the 2014 Met Gala. “Out of the Woods” was also the last single Taylor released from that album, so Taylor is picking up where she left off.
In the background you can see a headstone engraved with “Nils Sjöberg,” her songwriting pseudonym. Nils Sjöberg is credited as one of the writers for Calvin Harris’s 2016 song, “This Is What You Came For.” Harris and Swift met in February of 2015 and ended their relationship in June of 2016.
This headstone suggests Taylor is done hiding behind faux personas, and that Nils Sjöberg, or her secret identities, is dead–she’s going to take credit for everything she does from here on out.
The lyrics of this scene:
I don’t like your little games
Don’t like your tilted stage
The role you made me play
Of the fool, no, I don’t like you
Taylor never specifically names Kanye, but he did use a tilted stage during his Saint Pablo tour, so this is possibly a jab at him. “The role you made me play / of the fool” refers to the “role” (of a snake, a shady bitch, etc.) Taylor was given after Kardashian-West released the footage. Regardless of Kanye’s stage on tour, the “tilted” reference can also be generally thought of as being put in a rigged, one-sided situation for the personal gain of another, like the release of the phone call.
Flashing to Taylor Swift bathing in diamonds, that cost over $10 million dollars, is mocking critics who look at Taylor as a money-hungry, starved for fame, vapid mogul.
Just above her shoulder on the left is a lone dollar bill, symbolizing her lawsuit win against David Mueller, a former Colorado radio DJ who groped Taylor in a 2013 backstage meet-and-greet photoshoot for her RED tour. Mueller was fired from his job and was asking for to $3 million for the loss of his career. Taylor countersued Mueller for sexual-assault of just $1, and won.
The lyrics of this scene:
I don’t like your perfect crime
How you laugh when you lie
You said the gun was mine
Isn’t cool, no, I don’t like you
The perfect crime Taylor refers to can go back to the incident with Kim Kardashian-West. Taylor claimed she was not aware of Kanye’s degrading lyrics mentioning her in “Famous,” but the recording Kardashian-West released shows otherwise–thus, a “perfect crime.” It’s important to note the video Kardashian-West released shows Taylor approving Kanye’s lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” but not “‘cuz I made that bitch famous,” which Taylor says she never consented to being called “that bitch.”
“You said the gun was mine” can be thought of as those believing the incident with Kimye was her fault, or her gun, that “killed her career.” Clearly, this did not kill her career, so this line pokes fun at that accusation.
Oh boy. There’s a lot to unload in this scene. Here, we see Taylor sitting on a golden throne surrounded by reptiles. The snakes refer to Taylor herself being called a “snake,” or shady, during the feud with Kimye, and Taylor’s social media at the time was bombarded with snake emojis from Kimye fans, which isn’t too much of a compliment. This is where we first see Taylor taking the negative title of being a snake and branding it as her own. One snake pours Taylor a cup of tea, alluding to the act of “spilling the tea,” a colloquialism meaning to share gossip.
Additionally, this scene mirrors an Instagram (below) from Kendall Jenner, half-sister of Kim Kardashian-West, a few days after Kardashian-West “exposed” Taylor. The post is captioned “tea time,” possibly referring to the colloquialism, especially because she’s holding a water bottle, not a cup of tea. The comments on this photo feature thousands of snake emojis.
Jenner is also on the phone in the photo, possibly a nod to the phone conversation between Kanye and Taylor regarding “Famous.” Her legs are also crossed and her hair is slicked back like Taylor in this scene of LWYMMD.
If you look closely, you’ll see the words “Et Tu Brute” engraved into the arms of the throne, which means “and you, Brutus?” in Latin. The phrase is often used to signify an unexpected betrayal by a friend (Kendall Jenner?). This is from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, and is said by Caesar to Brutus as he is being stabbed to death (more specifically, stabbed in the back) in his assassination, realizing his friend Brutus betrayed him.
The lyrics of this scene:
But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time
Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time
I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined
I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!
Let’s start with the first two lines. Every controversy Taylor has faced, she comes back strong and better than ever. Like, Grammy award winning strong. She reminds us that she rose up from the dead (her year long hiatus from the public eye) with this new, critically acclaimed album.
Now let’s talk about the “list of names.” In her 1989 song “Blank Space” she sings she has a “long list of ex-lovers” so it’s possibly Taylor hinting that this list is not exclusively ex-romantic partners, but of ex-friends, too. Additionally, Taylor sings “yours is in red, underlined.” Sound familiar?
These lyrics could be a nod to this iconic scene from the movie Mean Girls and its Burn Book. Need further evidence? The song itself is set to a beat from Mean Girls:
This is where Katy Perry comes into play of LWYMMD. After Taylor mentioned an ex-friend who stole her backup dancers in a Rolling Stone interview in 2014, Katy Petty tweeted that we should “watch out for the Regina George in sheep’s clothing…” Taylor’s use of the beat and name in red, underlined, from Mean Girls, hints towards regarding Perry.
In this scene we see Taylor crash on a dead-end street clutching a grammy. Sound familiar? The title song of her 2012 album Red, has this as its opening line: “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street.” Red failed to win album of the year at the Grammys, which crushed Taylor, and marked the era of leaving country music to go full pop.
Some say this is another jab at Katy Perry, especially since she is holding a Grammy (which Perry has yet to receive). I see this scene as paparazzi thriving off her “car crash” moments, like when Kanye West stormed the stage at the 2009 VMAs and interrupted Taylor’s acceptance speech for winning Best Video for “You Belong With Me” to let her know, “Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had the best video of all time.” Or, the 2013 Grammys when the announcer drew out the “rrrrr…” of album of the year winner Random Access Memories by Daft Punk, to make it sound like Red. This scene looks like all the media cares about is her crash, and not her Grammy. But, the similarities to Perry are uncanny and worth mentioning.
Even though her dress in this scene has snake skin-like sequins, she is decked in Cheetah and has an actual Cheetah in the passenger seat, perhaps a nod to Perry’s album Roar. The way she is styled in this scene, particularly the hair, also mirrors Perry’s. Some have mentioned that the car Taylor crashes resembles the car from Perry’s “Waking Up In Vegas” music video, but I’m not too sure.
The lyrics in this scene (chorus):
Ooh, look what you made me do
Look what you made me do
Look what you just made me do
Look what you just made me (x2)
So what did they make Taylor do? The chorus of LWYMMD is heavily up for interpretation. Here are a few thoughts of what they might have made her do:
- Kill the “old Taylor” and start a new era.
- Write a song about them.
- Make a lot of money from the drama they created.
I see it as a sarcastic, “Oh wow, you got me! You really killed my career didn’t you,” sort of meaning, which I think fits along the lines of the each of the three listed above. I think it means all three.
This scene gets glossed over by many articles which I think is a shame. The use of the cage can be a reference to the price that comes with fame–no privacy, constant scrutiny, etc. More importantly, the cage is gold. The cage being made of gold reminds me of how occasionally people will judge celebrities for their less-than-happy moments because, how could they be sad when they have all that money? Taylor reminds us here “all that money” and fame isn’t always a good thing. Her outfit also resembles an orange jumpsuit.
The lyrics in this scene:
I don’t like your kingdom keys
They once belonged to me
You ask me for a place to sleep
Locked me out and threw a feast (what!?)
When thinking of her album as a whole, the “kingdom keys” can relate to the song “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” In the song, she sings, “So why’d you have to rain on my parade? I’m shaking my head / I’m locking the gates.” Before the Kimye feud, Taylor was known for her extravagant fourth of July parties and being a lovely hostess overall, which we learn in the 2014 Rolling Stone interview mentioned earlier. She’s got homemade snacks, several types of coffee to choose from, offers tours, has four guest bedrooms, outfits for guests, I could go on.
After the phone call heard-’round-the-world, she left the public eye for a while, including social media. Her role as the perfect hostess was diminished.
“Locked me out” can be thought of as how one-sided the Kimye situation she was placed in was. Kimye had complete control over the gossip. “And threw a feast” can relate to the “Taylor Swift Is Over Party,” when Twitter users celebrated the downfall of Taylor with tweets and memes. It can also be related to Katy Perry’s song “Bon Appétit,” where Perry is actually a feast in the music video.
In this scene, Swift swings a bat around while wearing a cat mask, a nod to her title as a “crazy cat lady,” during a heist. This scene is a shout out to an open letter she wrote to Apple Music in 2015, condemning them for not paying artists during the service’s three-month free trial:
“Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing… We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”
After publishing the open letter, Apple responded quickly that artists would be paid during the three-month free trial. The bank vault in this scene has a marquee bearing the name “Stream Co.” She has since made up with Apple Music and Spotify, streaming her entire discography on both.
Taylor also burns a wad of cash in this scene, possibly suggesting her fight against streaming services was not about the money.
Lyrics during this scene:
The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama
But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma
And then the world moves on, but one thing’s for sure (sure)
Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours
The lyrics in this scene tell us that karma may forgive, but won’t forget. Taylor is saying what goes around comes around, and the list of people who wronged her will get theirs one day. The use of the word karma here also emphasizes that her reaction to those who wronged her isn’t to directly attack back. She lets karma do that, and builds herself instead.
Here is a a jab at her “squad” that the media often refers to, which cares heavily about who’s still in the squad? Who’s out? The women lined in this squad factory are all perfect, factory made, unmoving figures, attacking the suggestion that her “squad,” which includes several models, are shallow and fake.
The chorus plays during this scene.
In this scene, as soon as Taylor walks into the frame, the men drop everything and rush to her side. This is probably a reference to her “serial dater” title given by the media, meaning that she’s controlling and addicted to adding men to her list of ex-lovers for new songs (which is a ridiculous cliché and extremely sexist). When she snaps her fingers, the men take off their outerwear to reveal “I Heart TS” shirts, perhaps a nod to the one ex-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston wore at her Fourth of July party of 2016.
Some have also pointed out that there are eight dancers in the video, which is the number of her famous exes (Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Conor Kennedy, Harry Styles, Calvin Harris, and Tom Hiddleston.) This heavily choreographed and well-executed scene may also be a response to the mockery Taylor has received from the media on her dancing skills.
[The chorus continues in this scene.]
The most iconic moment of the music video–the tower of Taylors. Here Taylor stands in front of a capital T on a mountain of old Taylors in iconic outfits she has worn over the years, including the “You Belong With Me” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” pajamas, the “Shake it Off” ballerina, the bejeweled guitar country Taylor, and the top-hat Taylor from Red. The old Taylors are fighting, struggling to get to the top but they can’t make it.
The lyrics in this scene:
I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me
I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams
I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me
I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams
The lyrics “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me” make me really sad, actually, to know after the Kimye incident, people in general stopped trusting her and started thinking of her as a shady snake. Her “reputation” was spoiled.
At her last “bad dreams,” she opens her arms, making the tower of old Taylors crumble.
While the Taylors are falling, it cuts to Taylor on the phone saying,
“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.”
“Oh, ’cause she’s dead.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. We see the snake reference in her ring, the infamous phone call in her actual phone call, the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty and #RIPTaylorSwift, or maybe even the phone call from the music video of one of her first hits, “Our Song” and the fact that the old Taylor sang that. Either way, she’s telling us she’s not the same Taylor anymore. That Taylor is dead.
After this, the chorus plays again and several past scenes from the video cut in while she is dancing with her “I Heart TS” boys.
10. The ending
The Taylors featured in the music video line up and take a bow for their performance. There is another Taylor in the background spray painting “Reputation” onto a plane, suggesting that’s the new Taylor. The line of Taylors berate each other as following,
You Belong With Me Taylor: You guys!
Zombie Taylor: Stop making that surprised face. It’s so annoying.
Shake it Off Taylor: Yeah, you can’t possibly be that surprised all the time.
[Snake Taylor hisses.]
Dancing Fishnet Tights Taylor: [Pointing towards Zombie Taylor]
What’s with that bitch?
Zombie Taylor: DON’T call me that.
Bejeweled Guitar Taylor: Y’all…
Top Hat Red Taylor: Oh stop acting like you’re so nice. You are so fake.
[Bewjeweled Guitar Taylor starts crying]
[Top Hat Red Taylor mocks her]
Motorcycle Taylor: Oh there she goes, playing the victim, again.
[Snake Taylor hisses again]
Met Gala Taylor: [softly] What are you doing?
Cheetah Print Taylor: [typing on phone] Getting receipts. Gonna edit this later
2009 VMAs Taylor: [clutching award and holding a microphone]
Um, I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.
[all Taylors at once, holding hands over their ears]: Shut up!
In this scene, we get a reference to the “that bitch” line in Kanye’s song “Famous,” and the Kimye phone call incident with Cheetah Print Taylor “getting receipts,” suggesting that it was edited in a misleading way.
The most iconic is the 2009 VMAs Taylor clutching her award, saying, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative,” which annoys the other Taylors, making them scream, “Shut up!” Taylor said this exact quote in now deleted 2016 Instagram post (which was then shared on Twitter) defending herself against the Kimye incident:
When Taylor says she “never asked to be a part of [this narrative], since 2009, she is referring to the 2009 VMAs when Kanye rushed the stage.
I hope you enjoyed my interpretation of LWYMMD, and I tried to make it as thorough as possible. Words cannot describe how much I appreciate and admire everything about this work and its multiple layers of symbolism. I find this song to be a work of art, a masterpiece, that in later years will be thought of as iconic as Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”