First off, I really appreciate MTV for airing Taylor Swift’s new music video during the first hour of the VMAs. I, like many Game of Thrones fans, had no intention of watching past 9pm, so it was a gesture of goodwill (or desperation for ratings) that they took care of the marquee event straight away.
The music video for Swift’s new single “Look What You Made Me Do” was mired with controversy from the start. The teaser drew social media ire for its visual similarities to Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. There was rampant speculation about how Taylor would address her long list of enemies. Then there was choosing to premiere the video during the VMAs, which was a source of double irony: MTV hasn’t cared about music videos in over a decade, and the host of the ceremony was one of the names on Taylor’s red-lined list, Katy Perry. There were actual opportunities for that old brand of VMA insanity: would Perry introduce her “rival’s” video with some snarky retort? Maybe Taylor filmed an over-dramatic and delightfully unnecessary intro herself that took aim at the host?
No, viewers weren’t that lucky. Instead, Katy was kept backstage while Taylor’s visual retort against all those who wronged her played to the few million who remembered the VMAs were airing last night. The video itself was nice enough until the ending, where the music cut and a line-up of Taylor Swifts at different stages (present were “You Belong With Me” Taylor, “Shake It Off” Taylor, and of course “2009 VMA” Taylor). The Taylors then took turns sniping at each other with the same slights that had been used against her in the past (she’s fake, she’s too surprised at winning awards, she’s too sensitive, she’s a raging bitch). It wasn’t enough that Taylor wrote a whole song blasting all of her haters and critics and wishing them some form of karma-driven despair. Just in case you missed the point: Taylor knows people don’t like her, and she’s sick of them all.
The same night this humorless attempt at self-deprecation aired, Katy Perry was FaceTiming Buzz Aldrin and Kevin Bacon to learn about traveling through space, you know, because she’s the host of the VMAs, whose mascot is a moon man? Get it? Good, because Perry was clearly terrified the metaphor wouldn’t land.
Katy Perry has never met a concept she couldn’t wack over the head with a sledgehammer. Her lack of subtlety was amusing back when she was singing about plastic bags; she even rode it to unprecedented chart success. But these days the shtick is wearing thin, if the sales, or lack thereof, of her latest album Witness are anything to go by. Katy’s struggle must feel vindicating to Swift, but she’s no better. This era, Taylor is just as obvious and try-hard as Katy is. But while Katy’s penchant for trying way too hard is offset at least by her earnest goofiness, Taylor comes off as joyless. Watching her fight with her other selves in the video is exhausting, and not in Katy’s eye-roll worthy, but roll with it kind of way. As I alluded to in my review of “Look What You Made Me Do,” it would be one thing if Taylor was enjoying her darker impulses, but her inability, or unwillingness, to let go of her victimhood makes the whole effort so, well, full of effort. It’s made worse now by how insistent she is about it all.
Katy Perry and Taylor Swift are both exhausting personalities, driven by an insufferable need to win the public’s ever-wavering favor. At least Katy, with her ridiculous astronaut costume and tired hosting skits, is having some fun. Taylor, on the other hand, is fine to drag us all with her down the path of cynical self-discovery, without even a wink towards something remotely rewarding.
I’ll take Katy and her moon boots any day.