Pop has always had a pretty laissez-faire attitude toward language. See: "lovely lady lumps," to "cakes left out in the rain," to "sex on fire," and things "crumbling like pastries." Where in some other genres, the songwriter is held up as a focal point of the music, his or her lyrics guiding the meaning, in pop, the role of the songwriter is a little more nebulous. People crease their foreheads at the idea of a song having a multitude of songwriters, and so there is often a disconnect between the singer and what’s being said. As a result, we can more readily forgive strange turns of phrase, shrouded as they are in other things. Hooks, melodies, choruses, production—these are the things we love about pop music, not so much the lyrics.
However, it feels as though the tide is shifting; with the emergence of the lyric video as an element of the release cycle, words are taking on more importance. The form has been gaining traction for a few years—this article from 2014 breaks it down nicely, showing that, amongst other things, Vevo increased the number of lyric videos in its library from fewer than 400 in 2012, to five times as many in 2014. There are economical reasons for this, with lyric videos being cheaper and quicker to produce than regular music videos. There’s also the argument that lyric videos are, in effect, replacing liner notes, but also, maybe we just care more now. In the past, we have been detached from our pop stars, worshipping them as unknowable idols. Now we are invested, engaged, and ready to find the meaning in everything. The lyric video plays into that.
Now, before we start, it’s worth pointing out the elephant in the room: All lyric videos look like the Oompa Loompa interludes in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Whether it’s Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You," all slick and psychedelic with lots of different visual references, or this new one for folk-punk troubadour Billy Bragg, which looks more like it’s been done quickly and on the cheap, they are all, essentially, colored words explaining that Violet Beauregarde has just turned into a blueberry. Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues" has been cited as an early adopter of the form, but it only gives you certain words—sometimes the wrong ones even—so no, it’s definitely the Oompa Loompas. (To be clear: The defining influence on the visuals of pop music in 2017 are the Oompa Loompas. Can’t stress that enough.)
But hey, is their function now all that different? With the Oompa Loompas, they were surmising and condensing a weird, slightly-macabre-for-a-kids-film narrative into a short skit, recapping what happened so we didn’t get lost in the story. In the case of Taylor Swift’s "Look What You Made Me Do," it’s the same thing.
Taylor had to catch us up on the public acclaim she received in the wake of 1989, her beef with Katy Perry, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian, the backlash against her as a result of Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, and a whole thing with snakes. She could never come back with a song that was just “a song.” Nor could she put something out that touched on wider cultural issues, like Beyoncé did with Lemonade. That’s not who she is. The lyric video, then, is a perfect match for her brand of soap opera pop. Scrawled lyrics juxtaposed with loaded, Easter egg-laden visuals further invite us to read the music like a diary. In a recent VICE article—and also, in many other places—Taylor is referred to as “first and foremost, a businesswoman,” but that’s not true. Taylor is, first and foremost, a country singer, schooled in the “three-chords-and-the-truth” Gospel of Nashville. Her songs have always been autobiographical, or at least, we are always invited to read her songs as autobiographical. Not blessed with a phenomenal vocal range or, really, particularly inventive melodic structures, her songs stand or fall on their lyrics, not in their poetry, but literally the meaning that can be derived from them.
This is interesting in terms of where art and culture are at as a whole right now. To use a phrase coined by British artists Luke Turner and Nastja Rönkkö, best known for collaborating with Shia Labeouf on #AllMyMovies and #Introductions, we have moved toward an era of metamodernism. In this BuzzFeed interview with Turner, metamodernism is summed up as “collapsing distance, rejecting the cool detachment of postmodernism and instead embracing emotion.” Turner goes on to describe the term, saying, “I think it’s just articulating what our generation intuitively understands, the cultural mode we’re existing in, that purely irony and deconstruction are no longer useful in moving forward. I would argue it’s the dominant mode in which artists of our generation are working today.” It’s in these parameters that the rise of the lyric video is best understood.
By foregrounding the lyrics of a song, particularly when the song is first released, you are foregrounding the author, and I would argue also defining the author as the singer, thereby ignoring the frankly very boring debate around how many songwriters appear on a particular track. Given that audiences consume music, all art, now in a hyper-engaged way, this opens up a dialogue of meaning and interpretation. By aligning this to the kind of visual language the internet is fluent in—memes, emojis, etc.—the meaning is bolstered further, and the text becomes richer. Where post-modernism killed the author, metamodernism has resurrected it. To borrow again from Turner: “In a metamodern world I compare the author to Schrödinger's cat... simultaneously dead and alive.”
While this kind of artistic environment is exactly what allows pop stars like Swift to thrive, it also raises the stakes even higher. One thing Swift has been criticized for is an apparent refusal to become engaged in American politics, her stance seen as a tacit endorsement of Donald Trump. Some have argued that the stance is a business decision, but surely Taylor is far too big to suffer the same fate that the Dixie Chicks did when they spoke out against George Bush in 2003, effectively ostracizing themselves from the mainstream country scene. Where her contemporaries have at the very least spoken out against Trump, and in the cases of a huge amount of hip-hop, hewn their work with a sharper, political edge, Taylor hasn’t allowed world events to throw off the narrative of her output. In a metamodern world, this refusal to engage isn’t good enough—your silence becomes filled in by your audience. The consequence of drawing attention to what’s being said is that we also see exactly what’s not being said.