The Old Gemma Can’t Come to the Phone Right Now

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!

Look What You Made Me Do – Taylor Swift

Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

Lady Lazarus – Sylvia Plath

Don’t be surprised that I’m about to compare one of my muses to another. As soon as I heard “Look What You Made Me Do” and Taylor Swift announced that the old Taylor couldn’t come to the phone right now, I knew who she was channeling. My old friend Sylvia. I’m not the first person on the internet to have recognised the allusion to the original girl who wrote mad girl’s love song. Consider:

I shut my eyes and the world drops dead

I think I made you up inside my head

That could so easily be a couplet from a Swift song, but of course it’s early Plath. Considering how young Plath was when she died, how she, like Swift, was a precocious and prolific success story, I’m excited to see how Taylor Swift’s lyricism develops. Although perhaps cribbing the rhythm for Look What You Made Me Do from Right Said Fred isn’t the best indicator for future literary acclaim a la Bob Dylan.

This is not a review of “Reputation”. But I feel it’s necessary to point out that since its release, songs on that album have made me laugh, cry, and turn the volume up to 11 and sing along. Taylor Swift is no longer a country popstrel, and she’s so much more than a mainstream popstrel . She’s a phenomenon. I am a relatively sensible thirty six year old woman, writing about Taylor Swift on the internet. She’s so incredibly famous that I’m having to explain race and white privilege to my oldest girl, via Taylor Swift/Kanye West/Beyonce. My A Level standard critical theory knowledge can’t help me with that one.

Both Lady Lazarus and Look What You Made Me Do are definitely revenge poems. The revenge of Lazy Lazarus is more of a threat… the man eating seems to take place “off stage” of the poem, in my opinion, but it’s imminent and foreboding. Meanwhile, Swift’s anarchic crimes, Bond villain style gloating and self-violence, plus many costume changes, indicate that her revenge is not just externally directed, there’s a level of revenge against her previous incarnations. You see, in her narrative, it’s not enough to simply change. Swift and Lady Lazarus’s power isn’t located in their revenge but in their resurrection, rising from the dead again and again.

The Lazarus trope is not simply about death and resurrection, but also about witness. It’s not enough that Swift’s “old Taylor” has had a moment of self discovery and realisation so powerful that her old self died, and can’t be recovered. Now she’s ‘smarter, harder’, she performs her new bad-girl pose, wielding her wealth and a baseball bat. Meanwhile, Lady Lazarus dies so often she’s elevated dying to performance art, rising again like a phoenix from ashes, with red hair. These are women of resilience. They keep on going. (Until they don’t, in Plath’s case, but let’s not go into that). And the way they resurrect and reinvent themselves is a deliberate tactic to ensure that they are seen, and that their new difference, and therefore their new power, is recognised.

And that desire to be seen explains so much reinvention. To be seen as the person we wish to be, rather than as we fear we are. It can be physically significant, like losing a large amount of weight, cutting your hair. It can be small scale, like the joy of experimentation with make up or clothes. It can be a desire to change your job, to go back to work. It could lead to you doing something others might not understand. It could look like a breakdown, it might look like a life crisis. You might want to become the kind of person who is evangelistic about running or meditation or intermittent fasting. You might have a burning desire, or you might simply be curious. There’s a difference between evolving and reinventing yourself. When you reinvent yourself, you tell yourself it’s permanent.

I’ve reinvented myself more times than I care to count. I became the kind of person who occasionally dyes her hair pink. The kind of person who starts a blog, and a Happiness Project. I reinvented myself, and told myself there was no going back. But gradually I stopped wearing earrings in my second ear piercing, I let the pink fade out of my hair, and my red boots are languishing in the cupboard. Reinvention doesn’t work if you’re running away, it turns out. So I choose to stop running, and I reinvent myself again, into the kind of person who returns, and stays.

Whilst wearing new kick ass red lipstick, of course.

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