Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” Video

According to Steven Shaviro, the combination of digital media and neoliberal capitalism has changed the way movies are composed, their underlying logic. I’ve argued that these changes in film composition parallel recent-ish changes in pop music song composition. Brostep sounds like Transformers having sex because, well, Skrillex and Michael Bay are using the same basic methods to achieve the same general aesthetic. (Seriously, there’s a “Transformers having sex” tag on Mixcloud.) This 2011 video mashes a Transformers clip with a brostep song, and in the same way that 2 Many DJs showed that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Bootylicious” are effectively the same song structure, it shows that Bey and brostep are effectively the same compositional structure.



But that’s all a preface to what I really want to talk about: Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video.


Like “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together,” “Bad Blood” is another Max Martin produced pop dubstep track, with verses and choruses organized around a soar or a drop. The first soar/drop happens as Swift’s character is getting suited up by the Trinity, around 1:20-1:30. Here the handclaps rhythmically intensify till a drop, but a drop with no wobble. We just land on the downbeat as Swift sings “now,” and the bass and percussion comes back in. [1] This is repeated at 2:15. These soars take us from the verses into the choruses; they’re mini-climaxes.

The main drop happens at the end of the bridge leading into the final chorus (the same place it is in WANEGBT and in “Shake It Off”). As in “Shake It Off,” Swift’s voice provides the wobble. Here, it’s where she sings, on a single repeated pitch, “Blood runs thin.” As she sings the drop, Catastrophe (Swift) appears as a redhead, and Kendrick Lamar, who raps the verses, has disappeared, visually, from the rest of the video, as Catastrophe leads a party of all her gal pals in a final showdown with Arsyn (Gomez). This drop is the most musically important part of the song, just as this shot is the most visually and narratively important. To explain why it is the most visually and narratively important piece of the video, let me first pull back and contextualize the video in terms of the rest of 1989, the album on which “Bad Blood” appears.

This is the second catalog video from 1989. “Shake It Off” catalogues different styles of femininity, each associated with a different musical genre (and sometimes music video, such as the “Hey Mickey!” reference); Swift’s character transcends these feminine stereotypes, embodying what is supposedly her own distinct and quirky self. In the same way that “Shake It Off” catalogues both genres of femininity and music/music video genres, “Bad Blood” catalogues both kinds of women and movie references. The video references a slew of scifi/action films: Kill Bill, Tron, Fifth Element, Sin City, etc. (even the Kingsmen?). Similarly, a panoloy of women celebreties (Lena Dunham, Ellie Goulding, Marishka Hargitay, Jessical Alba, just to name a few) practice a skill with Catastrophe (maybe she’s learning from them?), a skill they can use to battle her frenemy Arsyn; so again, as in “Shake It Off,” Swift’s character sublates a whole bunch of different femininities into her own identity: she can be the transcendent mix of all women, she can do everything but the rest of her crew can do only one thing each. And this sublation is represented, visually, by the change in hair color from blonde to red.

Narratively, this hair color change happens when Kendrick Lamar visually drops out of the video. He rapped the verses, and throughout the soar up to the main drop, he and Catastrophe appear in complementary half-face shots, as though they were two halves of the same face, one white, one black; one woman, one man. Could Catastrophe’s red hair be an indication that she’s also sublated Kendrick, his (very very respectable) blackness into her multiracial feminine mix? Could this sublation of Kendrick, his blackness, and his rapping, be part of her broader effort to distance herself from genre narrowness and claim instead a pluralist pop omnivorousness?

I think so…mainly because “Bad Blood”’s invisible reference is Michael Jackson’s “Jam.” “Bad Blood” is Swift’s first song featuring a black rapper. (She was featured on B.O.B.’s “Both Of Us,” but that was his track, on his album.) “Jam” was Jackson’s first and most prominent track with a rap feature. Tamara Roberts argues that “Jam,” like many of Jackson’s songs, has ”a sound that consisted of the transracial base that was his musical heritage punctuated by carefully wielded hyperracial sounds such as hard rock guitar and rap vocals” (26). “Jam” uses hyperracially coded sonic features, like electric rock guitar (which reads white) or rap (which reads black) in combination to establish and reaffirm that pop is a transracial mix of racially-coded genres. Thus, as Roberts continues, “when he supposedly integrated MTV in 1982, Jackson did not racially cross over but redefined what the mainstream was: a space in which an interracial and intercultural musical past gets filtered through a hyperracial frame” (26). So, since the 1980s, “pop” has been a genre that sublates racially coded parts into a mainstream mix: it calls on hyperracially coded elements only to both negate-and-preserve them (hence this Hegelian language of sublation). As Robert puts it, “the multiracial/cultural legacy of Jackson’s pop kingdom, in which contemporary artists not only imagine a vast world of racialized sounds in their library but also weave them together with self-conscious acknowledgement of their juxtaposition” (36). In this light, “Bad Blood’s” use of Kendrick is part of 1989’s sustained campaign to establish Swift as a pop artist: she is pop in the same way that the King of Pop is. Swift uses hyperracially coded elements to demonstrate a transracial (but not necessarily non-white supremacist) mainstream mix.

Let’s go back to the drop. I talked a little about the video’s visual narrative above, but here I want to focus on the music. Leading up to the drop, there’s a bridge focused mainly on Swift’s lyrically melodic vocals; most of the dubsteppy instruments drop out. KL punctuates the end of the first repetition; this is the first time he and TS appear in split-faced split screen. In the second repetition, TS punctuates the fourth beat of every measure with a Lumineers-style “Hey!,” and KL responds on the and of four with an “aaaah”; when this happens, they’re in split screens, but Janus-headded rather than split-faced (notably, they’ve switched sides; TS is now on the right, KL on the left). At the climax just before the drop, TS and KL appear full-faced in split screen, and sing in unison “If you live like that…”; this leads directly to the drop. So we have all these musical combinations of TS & KL that culminate in red-headed Catastrophe–she doesn’t just sublate all the different types of women/femininity, but Kendrick and his (totally respectable) blackness, too. Catastrophe, like Taylor, is the strong, harmonious mix of diverse capacities, genres, types, whatever–she has all the different variables in the right arrangement. Contrast this with Arsyn and her gas-mask wearing army of mostly faceless women covered in all black everything). Catastrophe is bright and variable, Arsyn is dark and monotonous. This scene is an almost too-convenient illustration of Jared Sexton’s claim that white supremacy has shifted the color line from a white/non-white binary (where whiteness is to be kept pure, one drop of non-white blood makes you not white) to a non-black/black binary (where queer/non-bourgeois blackness is to be kept from contaminating the otherwise healthy pluralist mix).

The song is clearly part of 1989’s sustained campaign to situate TS as pop, that is, as belonging to a genre that calls on racialized (and gendered–dubstep clearly reads as masculine, aka “bros need their drops!”) musical genre markers in order to present itself as transcending the very differences it (re)articulates as narrow and limited. At this drop, the video reflects this narrative of TS-as-pluralist-heroine.

But the two drops in the beginning of the video undercut the centrality of the song’s main drop in the video’s structure. The video changes the composition of the song: it gives us two drops before the song even starts. First, the opening scene goes from a shot of the London skyline, birthplace of dubstep (the faint British police siren in the background is reminiscent of The Clash’s “White Riot,” which also opens with just a police siren…is this Swift getting a girl riot of her own? We know how much she likes to Lean In.), to a shot of an office [2]. A a body lands on an office desk, its thud coinciding with our first gut-punching bass hit, which echoes when we’re introduced to each Catastrophe and Arsyn. We then get some very post-WIlliams/Elfman superhero film score march version of the “Bad Blood” hook as Catastrophe and Arsyn set up the narrative of the video: they collaborate in the beginning, but at the end of the introduction Arsyn turns on Catastrophe. This betrayal gives us the second drop:Arsyn kicks Catastrophe out a window. We get a weak wobble right as Catastrophe crashes through the window, and as her body hits a car below, we have no cinematic sound for this, or any representation of the crash in the accompanying music, as we do in the opening scene.

Kahn gives us two drops with actual bass (and maybe sub-bass? I’ve only listened on earbuds so I don’t know. But they sound as fully resonant and bone-shaking as any big-budget action movie soundtrack.). Compared to TS’s sung treble drop, these prefatory drops sound more powerful (and, maybe, dare I say, “authentic”?) than her popped-up version at the song’s climax. So, even though the big explosion scene at the end might be the video’s narrative climax, the first two drops are its sonic climax.  As TS and Max Martin wrote the song, “Bad Blood” climaxes like a conventional pop song does: late, after two smaller climaxes. As Kahn reworks it, “Bad Blood” climaxes like a lot of contemporary EDM does: early and often. Kahn’s soundtrack de-centers the sung drop as the musical or sonic climax of “Bad Blood.” If today most action movies are non-narrative, following something like the compositional logic of a dubstep track more than the expository logic of traditional narrative, then we hear the organization more than we see it (this is Shaviro’s point). And the organization we hear doesn’t treat Catastrophe as the sublation of all the racialized, gendered genres into one pop mix.

And perhaps in so doing, in making both the song and the video work more like dubstep and less like pop, Kahn’s video de-centers, or at least destabilizes, makes wobbly, “Bad Blood’s” racial narrative. Instead of transcending hyperracialized genre markers, “Bad Blood” merely follows, anticlimactically, from them. I mean, doesn’t Kenderick’s first verse say: “I don’t hate you but I hate to critique, overrate you/These beats of a dark heart/use basslines to replace you”?

[1] Right around 1:32/3, swift sings a staccato “Hey!”–she’s invoking a pop trend that started a few years ago with The Lumineers’ “Hey Ho.” Such “Hey!”s also appear on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (just as “Bad Blood” is Swift’s track with a black male rapper, “Dark Horse” was Perry’s–Juicy J). This perhaps lends some credence that the person Swift has bad blood with is indeed Perry. Less gossipy and more music-y, it’s noticeable that this percussive “Hey!” is a common feature of a lot of pop songs, whereas trap employs “Hey!” in a different way. In trap songs, there’s a sample of a male choral “Hey!” that usually gets played on every offbeat. So unlike Chris Molanphy, I see the “Hey!” in BB as fundamentally different than the DJ Mustard-style trap “Hey!”

[2] There’s a lot more to say here about the particular shot of London we get–Canary Wharf–and its pre- and post-gentrification relationship to early grime and dubstep, and how that might also affect how we hear the song. But I’d want to reread Dan Hancox’s Dizzie book before I said anything more than “hey, this probably matters.”