This month sees (hears?) the release of Taylor Swift’s tenth studio album, Midnights. Did anyone else at WeLive spend way too much moola on merch for an album they hadn’t even heard? (I have now heard it. I dig it.) I would hope my fellow contributors are better at managing their finances but then again, for yours truly, midnight couldn’t come soon enough for, um, Midnights. Did the album change music forever? Can we still use the term “bop” in 2022?
Swift also dropped her latest music video, “Anti-Hero,” directed by the pop star herself (and at midnight tonight, the video for Bejeweled will drop too). It got me thinking: what are the best music videos she’s directed (or at least co-directed) so far? While Tay Tay was making not one but two new albums during the pandemic, I did a ranking of her best music videos (as of 2021) on my own YouTube channel. I was being creative during COVID, I swear. However, I’ve now put my thoughts into words, so read on to get my full thoughts on Ms. Swift’s best directorial efforts.
5. LOVER, co-directed by Drew Kirsch (2019)
The breezy Mazzy Star-like vibes of “Lover” ‘s lyrics mesh perfectly with Swift’s colorful snow globe world. A family home is compartmentalized into sections recalling Wes Anderson: a lavishly decorated living room, with a cat painting, a Christmas time moment, a life-sized fishbowl, all of it, the right kind of feels. Christian Owens plays the titular lover to Swift’s affections and, of course, insecurities.
In many ways, Lover is a warm, fuzzy counterpoint to 2014’s Blank Space, which Joseph Kahn directed. Both feature Swift as someone who’s maybe too into her partner. The video’s saturated colors and innocent tone opt for a happy ending in contrast to the never-ending cycle of chaos that closes Blank Space. Plus, although several of Swift’s biggest tracks often end with a breakup, Lover’s finale is so adorable only a true hater could rain on this parade.
4. CARDIGAN (2020)
Shot during the lockdown with a host of precautions, the first single from folklore was a brilliant example of how restrictions blossom creativity. Swift is the only person seen in the whole video, most likely a result of the singer not wearing a mask on camera while the crew was social distancing. We begin in a 19th-century wooden shack that gives way to a soft green landscape and, eventually, strands her swimming to a lone piano in a storm-drenched ocean. The transition to each new location is brought about by Swift finding a passage in unlikely objects: a piano top and a lush green bench.
A golden rope guides her… but to where? As with Lover, the narrative is intentionally cyclical. Visually, it’s a good change-up from the crisp color palates of her previous work, like the hilarious You Need To Calm Down. Cardigan’s feel is more textured and austere, with images that linger (like a tattoo kiss?). When Swift finally puts on the titular cardigan sweater, my regrets for not ordering it from TaylorSwift.com sting every darn time I watch the video.
3. ANTI-HERO (2022)
“It’s me,” “Hi,” “I’m the problem; it’s me.” Who knew such a catchy chorus could be so self-reflective? For the first music video off of Midnights, Swift lets us peek inside her cranium. The results echo the low-fi antics of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with the singer’s own personal experiences front and center.
The funny folks dressed as ghosts are a cross between It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and Swift’s early hit video We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Throughout the video, mostly taking place in a home with 70s decor, Taylor can’t escape her own doppelganger and other obstacles.
A highlight: singing “sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby,” a dinner with friends is crashed by a fifteen-foot-tall Swift. What’s illuminating and refreshing is to see her in a world that’s all about her own actions. Put simply (in a fun, cute way, obviously), it’s about what Swift’s done, not what has happened around or at her. By the end, Taylor being Taylor, she finds a way to have a drink with her giant-sized self and her doppelganger on a rooftop. Time for drinks.
Random thoughts: Anti-Hero solidifies a lot of visual motifs seen throughout all these videos:
- Swift is seen only from her backside
- The focus on oversized objects/herself and tiny ones
- Surreal imagery
- Muted colors that resonate
2. THE MAN (2020)
Taylor Swift made VMA history by being the first female performer to win the best director award in 2020 for The Man. The first video Swift directed entirely on her own is akin to the time Orson Welles made his film debut with Citizen Kane. Jokes aside, the comparison fits. Both projects are takedowns of a certain kind of “man.” Welles famously aimed his big RKO feature at media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Swift’s track isn’t literally about anyone specific (although the shade at Leo “in saint-tropez” is fun); instead, the focus is on the destructive institutions that allow such toxic men to thrive.
In the span of four minutes, we witness life through the POV of a dude who manspreads on a train, is hailed as “greatest dad ever” for putting in the least amount of effort, constantly yells at everyone, and marries a twenty-something in his late 90s.
Under effective make-up revealed in the end credits, Swift never speaks a word as “the man.” Yet she 100% nails the kind of person who fails upwards in a society that allows him to be such a monster. (Speaking of, the hallway of endless hand slaps is a clever nod to Roman Polanski’s Suspicion.) That the video is funny and not a downer is a credit to the pop star’s own particular brand of humor. And the voice of Dywane Johnson at the end is perfect.
1. ALL TOO WELL: THE SHORT FILM (2021)
Considered by many to be her masterpiece, both as a song and a video, All Too Well, the ten-minute version, is nearly fifteen as a music video. Charting the ups and downs of a love story isn’t new for Swift, but the focus is more grounded, intimate, yet somehow epic too. It’s astonishing.
Pablo Neruda’s “Love is short, forgetting is long” is a terrific quote to begin the tale. Sadie Sink (Stranger Things) stars as a writer whose relationship with an older man (Dylan O’Brien) is more relevant today than when the original (shorter) track was released on the album Red back in 2012. Much of what’s effective and so moving is in specific choices by Swift: the 16mm boxed framing, the performances, and little moments, like dancing by the refrigerator light. Later, Swift shows up as a woman changed by the events of her past. Stronger, resilient.
Like many video vets that went on to have outstanding careers, such as David Fincher or Spike Jonze, this is the video that cements Taylor Swift as a filmmaker.
BONUS: Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (2020)
During the Pandemic, while most of us were doing nothing (and some of us were baking bread for some reason), Swift produced her eighth studio album, folklore. From her home in LA as well as the homes of collaborators Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dressnor of The National, and Bon Iver himself, Justin Vernon. The album went on to win numerous accolades, including the Grammy’s Album of the Year in 2021. For Swift, the album was the creative inspiration that informed her songwriting for the better. Most of her writing has been autobiographical, yet folklore and its sister follow-up Evermore dived into the fictional and real-life tales of others.
So when the opportunity came for Taylor to record the album live, she decided to film it. This isn’t a backstage documentary à la Get Back; the other big music session (some band named The Beatles, apparently) debuted on Disney+ a year later. Taylor, Aaron, Jack, and, via his home (and still masked), Justin performed the entire album like it was the first time. Because it was a first time of sorts. Throughout, Taylor opens up about song lyrics and inspirations. The highlight is the backstory on the true life tale of Rebekah Harkness for “The Last Great American Dynasty.” Unpretentious, relaxed, and guided by Swift’s confidence behind the camera, it’s an experience not just for fans but as a time capsule for the COVID era.