In this wild world we live in, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift have been in the music business long enough and done enough different albums that they are able to reflect on their past selves through their music in a way that the audience (even an audience member like me, who doesn't follow along too closely) can understand the reference. Recently, they both released songs about themselves (and particularly their relationship to their past public selves), and it seems like a good time to put them side by side.
Musically, "Younger Now" and "Look What You Made Me Do" are barely in the same genre, and there's very little to compare between the songs on the surface. Despite that, the career trajectories of Taylor swift and Miley Cyrus bring a different kind of comparison. They are two very powerful women in the world of music who have moved from a country style into straight pop (and in Miley Cyrus's case, somewhat back out of it and into something else), who have grown up in front of us, and how have been the center of controversies from their adolescence. How do they handle their own image, especially when we all seem to feel we have a right to it? I decided to look at that question and watch the two videos back to back, and here are my thoughts on them.
"Look What You Made Me Do" by Taylor Swift
Without getting too in-depth, Swift is operating on two basic levels of commentary through her images: she shows us her past selves--reminding us how she's changed--while also using what amounts to stock images of the diva/vixen/Hollywood darling-turned-bad. However, the trope-like imagery she's using (the robotic controller, the snake-queen, the diamond bath) are overdone and caricatured, reminding us that they are constructions. Lyrically, the song itself references her "new self," which she presents as a conglomeration of lots of other pop-star's selves (think about Lady Gaga plus motorcycles, or Britney Spears/Madonna and snakes). She borrows contemporary dance video stereotypes, particularly the muscle-bound, effeminate dancers in fishnets (now that you know its a trope, you'll see it in everything). The key is that it was edgy when Gaga did it; now, it's another construction, and one that Swift can show us as such because we can't seem to fit her in it, and can't deny that no one, no one, no one really fits it either.
The final dialogue between the Taylors is an explicit rejection of the past and an acknowledgement of how her past selves were treated. There is, here, an attempt at showing a newer self. The trouble is that we only see the manufactured tropes, and the past. Nothing in the song tells us that she is not who she's been made to be; her only defense is that she was "made" into someone like other people. Her use of the stereotypes reminds us how fake they are, and how little bearing they can possibly have on reality. As a satire, it's angry, and pointed, screaming "This imagined Taylor Swift is not possible." If the whole album follows in this vein, we'll know that the imagined Taylor Swift is the only face she's willing to show us anymore--like she said, the vulnerable Taylor is dead.
"Younger Now" by Miley Cyrus
Cyrus does the same thing as Swift in her images, but the combinations are more nuanced and show more than just an overblown sense of stereotype. She brings out a guitar, but never plays it; she dresses an elderly man in a sparkly costume and gives him a sledgehammer; her hair is dyed blonde in such a way that the red still shows; she wears the Elvis-blue jumpsuit; Hannah Montana choreography is re-purposed for a fifties scene. The past is there, but we have to remember it for ourselves. Cyrus doesn't just re-purpose the past--she recontextualizes it in a way that still seems funny visually. For all its power, Swift didn't amuse me, and Cyrus did.
Lyrically, this makes sense. She's working from a sense of growth, one that can accept that she has been all of these people, and is still somehow like them, just a different version. While Swift painstakingly recreated her past selves, Cyrus twists them into her new self in a way that leaves both visible. Her hair styles and the choice to leave her tattoos visible in the fifties scene is aiding in that. She's still satirizing herself and our perceptions of her, but the message is very different, and it's not so easy to boil down into a single sentence. If anything, Cyrus is telling us the joke about her, and we get to laugh with her. You'll notice that Miley Cyrus is co-director, and like Swift, she writes her own lyrics. There's not much question: we're supposed to get it, but the layers might take a few minutes to unpack. She might be playing with us, but it feels like we're in the game.
Ultimately, the difference between the two songs is that Cyrus is commenting on who she was, while Swift seems to be re-enforcing the most current image that critics and tabloids have painted for her. She is still not in control of her image: Swift has only commodified it and satirized it, beyond what she did in the "Blank Space" video. On the other hand, Cyrus is using images divorced from herself to create contrast between our perception and her reality. Cyrus has shown time and time again that she's a pro at handling her past self. While she joked years ago that Hannah Montana is dead, Swift is just now getting to the point where the old Taylor is dead, only to be resurrected for the profit. Hopefully, Swift will catch up with Cyrus sooner than later, if we're lucky. Eventually, no matter the difficulty, you have to actually shake it off, and without dying in the process.