Rush to Judgment

Rush’s “Witch Hunt” (from the group’s 1981 album Moving Pictures) arguably forms the greatest torch-and-pitchfork song in music history. The haunting aural experience begins with an ominous instrumental, complete with a chanting rabble in the background. Sizzling guitar licks then give way to Geddy Lee crooning Neal Peart’s lyrics, which blaze a condemnation of mob mentality–misguided self-righteousness, proscription of thought, intolerance of otherness, hasty vigilante justice. Described as moving “like demons possessed,” this irreligious hillttop mob might have emigrated straight from George Lippard’s The Quaker City (see yesterday’s post). Bewitchingly critical, Rush’s denunciation of presumptuous persecutors leaves quite a mark on the listener’s conscience.

Pop Gothic: Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.

Apparently even Taylor Swift is at home in the Macabre Republic. Never has threatened vengeance sounded so catchy as in her latest single, “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Singing about rising from the dead, Swift invokes the horrific from the opening verses. The accompanying music video makes the imagery that much more graphic, depicting a raven-infested cemetery and Swift (or, technically, her personified Reputation) breaking ground as a moldering, reanimate corpse. More than a nod to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the Halloween-worthy scene signals that Swift is hardly looking to bury the hatchet as she comes back from the grave. In the figure of a zombie–a bogey known for its relentless aggression, Swift puts her enemies on grim notice.

The video subsequently fashions Swift as a Gothic monarch, vampirically-taloned, ensconced on a snake-swarmed throne. Dressed in uncheery cherry, she forebodes bloody comeuppance: “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.” After sounding a thoroughly antisocial note (“I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”), Swift insists on haunting nocturnal visitation: “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.”

In past performances, Swift has shown that she isn’t averse to publicly airing grievances via allusive lyrics.  Here, though, the rhetoric is stronger, the stance decidedly darker. Swift plays the deadly female, furious over her own scorning and hellbent on redressing perceived wrongs. With her coolly-delivered refrain, Swift channels the victim-blaming, violence-justifying demeanor and dubious composure of a classic Poe narrator. And while the media inevitably gets swept up in decoding Swift’s lines and the video’s symbolism, it’s less the “you” (whichever former lover or rival musician being referenced) than the disturbingly vague “what” of the song title that proves so arresting: what exactly has this questionably-driven speaker done?

At the very least, she has compelled me to write this post. Because all of the forced comedy of the video’s conclusion–in which Swift pokes fun at her previous images/personae–does nothing to diminish the sinister overtones of this surprisingly prickly piece of pop music.