To honor Taylor Swift’s latest rerecording, we’re celebrating 1989 (Taylor’s Version) Week at The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. That means we’re throwing it back to 2014, to relive everything that Taylor—and the rest of pop culture—was up to.
Despite being a card-carrying Swiftie—without the concerning qualities of one—I have a few dissenting opinions about Taylor Swift. The main one: She lacks visual judgement, whether it’s her largely unflattering fashion choices over the years, her boring album covers, or, most of all, her lackluster music videos.
Over the course of her 17-year career, Swift has displayed a strong commitment to the visual medium, including her blockbuster concert movie and an upcoming feature film. That’s not to mention her laughable attempts to make All Too Well: The Short Film an Oscar nominee last year. However, her dense music-video catalog is largely a collection of misfires. Their conceits are often too on-the-nose or never risky enough to be memorable. Many of them also contain way too much CGI or shots of her feet.
However, in the lead-up to this Friday’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version), I’m willing to give her credit for one cinematic offering. It’s the rare Swift video that doesn’t just feel like a needless appendage to a good single, rather the main event. I’m talking about the cameo-filled visuals for “Bad Blood.”
Don’t get me wrong. I still find certain parts of the “Bad Blood” video to be objectionable, including the final scene of Swift and her #squad marching into battle against Selena Gomez, looking like The Expendables 2 poster. But for the most part, it’s a sleek, engaging espionage thriller/noir/sci-fi parody and arguably Swift’s best collaboration with director Joseph Kahn.
Outside of the high-budget video itself, Swift was delivering capital-D drama that strengthened the impact of “Bad Blood” upon its arrival. I’ll never forget where I was when Rolling Stone unveiled a cover story starring Swift in September 2014, a month before the release of 1989. The most circulated quote had to do with the inspiration for “Bad Blood;” Swift, primarily known to put famous men on blast—aside from actress Camila Belle that one time—revealed that the song was actually about a woman in the music industry.
“For years, I was never sure if we were friends or not,” Swift told the publication. “She would come up to me at awards shows and say something and walk away, and I would think, ‘Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?’”
Swift explained the beef was about business, specifically background dancers. “She basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour,” Swift said. “She tried to hire a bunch of people out from under me. And I'm surprisingly non-confrontational. You would not believe how much I hate conflict. So, now I have to avoid her. It's awkward, and I don't like it.”
At the time, it was obvious that Swift was referencing a pop star of her caliber with the same penchant for onstage theatrics. This was back when pop acts like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Kesha and even Britney Spears were putting out music at the same time. However, Katy Perry quickly outed herself the following day when she tweeted a mixed metaphor (that hasn’t been deleted, thank God) clearly aimed at Swift. Since then, Perry’s once chart-topping career has been on an ever-continuing decline, while Swift has practically dominated the world. The two have since claimed to have made amends, but Perry’s support of Oliva Rodrigo, who has her own messy dealings with Swift, tells me that this feud potentially isn’t totally squashed.
If Swift threw the first punch with the “Bad Blood” album track, its music video the following year seemed like an attempt to rub salt in the wound. It’s one thing to have a diss track aimed at you. But for a slew of famous women—plus the rapper of the moment, Kendrick Lamar—to partake in your public bashing is another matter.
Aside from the video’s lavish special effects, the sheer number of cameos were the main attraction. The most surprising guest was Lamar, whose presence on the song’s remix added a sense of legitimacy to a somewhat corny diss track. (There is something about a white woman recruiting a rapper for an angry song that feels stereotypical, however, but I digress.) Other than that, the video featured Lena Dunham smoking a cigar like a mob boss, Zendaya throwing a dagger through a teddy bear, Hailee Steinfeld playing triplets and the foreboding image of Swift and her former bestie Karlie Kloss exchanging punches in a boxing ring.
This ensemble of glamorous and successful women wasn’t random. Swift had been making alliances for a while now, via her infamous “squad.” Ironically, Swift’s new gaggle of celebrity girlfriends was supposedly demonstrative of her newly declared identity as a feminist. But in the context of the “Bad Blood” video and her highly publicized beef with Perry, her posse felt less like a series of organic friendships and more like a weapon.
That’s not to mention the conversations about the type of women Swift was associating herself with: mostly white, tall, thin, model types, if not actual models. The exceptions were two skinny, light-skinned Black women in Zendaya and Empire star Serayah. Nicki Minaj drew more attention to this fact when she criticized the MTV Music Video Music Awards for nominating “Bad Blood” for Video of the Year in 2015 but not her equally popular “Anaconda” video. Perry, of course, made sure to get her licks in at the time with another grammatically confusing tweet.
Looking at the current state of Perry’s career, I’ve always been curious if her current flop era was, in part, a direct result of her fallout with Swift. All of Swift’s public foes have experienced some sort of downfall or hit to their brand, from Scooter Braun to Kloss to Kanye West and, by default, Kim Kardashian. In the case of West, it seemed to be karmic, while Swift fully outed Braun as an industry villain.
I will say that Perry’s response to “Bad Blood,” the track “Swish Swish” (which even featured Nicki Minaj), was just one example of her musical ambitions gone awry following her third album, Prism. (It’s safe to assume that the unabashedly gay, house track would be received a lot better today.) The album that song came from, the sonically adventurous and confused Witness, saw Perry’s status as a chart-topping, record-breaking artist begin to slip. While I can point to several reasons why Perry’s career has never recovered since her feud with Swift, I can’t help but think the “Bad Blood” video contained some secret voodoo.
It’s both ironic and unfortunate that Swift’s most significant (and best) visual offering is a takedown of another woman. Although, I don’t think any fan would regret consuming all of the mess. In 2019, it seemed like her equally cameo-heavy video for her queer “anthem” “You Need to Calm Down” (including an appearance from Katy Perry) was an attempt to right the wrongs of the “Bad Blood” video. Unfortunately, none of her subsequent visuals will ever trump that girlboss fever dream. And her filmography is ultimately better for it.