Not That Innocent: fertility, vengeance and serpentine symbolism within pop music

By Mac Spencer

In the summer of last year, globally scrutinised pop star Taylor Swift quietly deleted every piece of content from her online accounts. A brief social media blackout ensued, ultimately broken by a pan-platform teaser video showing an extreme closeup of a snake. Predictably, the video kicked off a cleverly manufactured frenzy amongst fans and journalists alike. The general consensus between them: Swift’s impending single release would be a revenge-themed track, spurred by a recent celebrity feud in which Swift was infamously branded a snake (met with such fan fervour that Instagram ultimately banned the snake emoji from Swift’s comment section).

The fan hypotheses turned out to be mostly correct, and Swift released a track brashly entitled Look What You Made Me Do, the lyrical content of which claws for retribution and vindication against presumed foes. Revenge theme notwithstanding, few but the most earnest fan analyses linked the pre-release snake aesthetic with connotations of fertility and rebirth. Given the predilection of pop artists for dramatic planning, it is likely that Swift or her team were aware of the serpent as an ancient symbol of rebirth and healing. Its skin sloughing presumably symbolised Swift’s career renewal, further consolidated by her concurrent redirection towards a more experimental, electro-pop sound.

Innumerable think-pieces materialised, namely on Swift adopting the victim narrative, on passively re-entering a star-studded squabble from which she had previously requested to be excluded, and so on. What this journalistic focus on the ‘revenge’ aspect has largely left neglected are the implied nuances of rebirth. Swift is a twenty-eight year old woman who has enjoyed widespread recognition for little more than a decade; my question is why her choice to explore a different sonic style necessitates the ‘rebirth’ narrative.

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Swift’s 2017 aesthetic was not the first, and certainly not the most culturally impactful utilisation of the ‘snake as rebirth’ allegory in pop music. One of the most stunning emblems of noughties culture was Britney Spears’ live python-bedecked 2001 VMAs performance of I’m a Slave 4 U, one of the first notable occasions in which she fully performed her sex appeal in terms of choreography, costume, and lyrical content. The show was emblazoned in collective memory as Spears’ discernible transition from bubblegum schoolgirl aesthetic, characteristic of her first two albums, to outward employment of sexuality, as seen on her third album. Spears, in front of millions, had shed her Mickey Mouse Club skin.

What Spears’s case shares with Swift’s, but even more remarkably, is that Spears was a few months shy of twenty years old at the 2001 VMAs. This means that, as a teenager, Spears, in changing her career output, also had the rebirth rhetoric readily applied to her. What this rhetoric achieved was a conceptualisation of her 2001 performance as a cultural marker of her palpable sex appeal. This dichotomised Spears’ ongoing career into discrete pre- and post-VMA parts, highly reminiscent of Freud’s Madonna-whore binary.

It is this dichotomous approach, aided by the proclamation of rebirth, that is emblematic of a larger gendered issue. These highly visible, metaphor-laden moments of female reinvention are problematic not in themselves, but in the unsavoury effect that they help to reproduce. The idea of women as static or one-dimensional, reflected upon even in second wave feminist theory, is underlined as the ‘norm’ by these instances. Women in the public eye, instead of being allowed to perform degrees of sexuality, are often forced to pick a single ‘persona’ and stick to it, a departure from which routinely requires a loud, explicit declaration.

Melanie Lowe, in her 1999 piece on high school-age girls’ reception to Spears, acknowledged her teenage interviewees’ anger and confusion during what was, in hindsight, a transitionary period for Spears’ image. Spears’ 1997 effort presented her at her most ‘pure’ and squeaky-clean, while her 2001 album introduced her as a sexualized woman. Lowe found that the young women in her study were angry at Spears’ effort to tread between the two in this interstitial stage; they felt an “ideological betrayal” at Spears beginning to “embody both lust and purity, virtue and vice”. To perform one or the other was accepted by the girls, and they were not angered by Spears’s “virgin/whore dichotomy, but rather by the projection of two such opposites concurrently”. Spears herself vocalised her struggle with the backlash against her public dimensionality, saying that

“Everyone now, they look back and they’re like, “what happened to your sweet image that you used to be?” and I’m like, “then I came out and you thought I was too provocative!” … It’s, like, you can never win.”

What is frustrating is that this analysis of teenage girls’ sentiment, with little modification, scales upward to aptly encompass the general population’s common reaction to women in pop. Women can be sensual, or women can be pure, but these fields must remain static, or collective anger ensues. This is why I find the constant application of the rebirth label on women’s changing careers to be concerning: it supports the idea that, if a woman wants to show a different ‘character’, she must rescind then re-introduce her whole self, and never wear multiple masks at a time.

Spears’s case of transformation, in its abrupt performance of sexuality, evoked Freudian dichotomy. In terms of Swift’s new approach, its mechanic not overtly sexual but instead driven by the attainment of vengeance, a different trope of femininity comes to mind. The Furies, or Erinyes, were three female figures in Greek mythology each personifying a negative trait: unceasing anger, jealousy, and vengeful destruction. Tisiphone, the sister embodying vengeance, was often depicted with a snake wrapped around her waist, and was described as using the breath of a serpent to poison victims. Serpentine symbolism again comes to the fore, and still the gendered nuances are numerous. Even in the act of Tisiphone’s brutal torture, it is worth noting that poisoning has enduringly been considered the most feminine form of homicide. In addition to this the three female figures, as inherently destructive as they were, were somehow shoehorned into alignment with fertility. It seems even omnipotent chthonic deities cannot escape the weight of gendered reductionism.

There is little evidence of Swift consciously evoking Greco-Roman mythology in her latest promotion cycle. Yet, her new performance of paving a way to revenge, and brazenly enacting a metaphorical retribution, is still an example of a differing character, one that would not be compatible with her pre-2017 representation of self. By putting in place a form of career ‘pause’, by utilisation (or, non-use) of her social presence, Swift effectively compartmentalized her career into pre- and post-transformation stages, and like Spears it eventually facilitated a snake-laden rebirth. In the climax of the resulting music video for Look What You Made Me Do, Swift stands on top of a literal mound of previous iterations of herself as seen in the public eye. Here she means to denote the completion of her rebirth; subliminally, she also reinforces women’s perceived inability to embody more than one subjectivity.

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This is a phenomenon not contained to these two figures alone. Jennifer Lopez, just six years into her discography, baptised her fourth album Rebirth, saying in interview that she felt she had entered her “second phase” of life. Shakira’s latest album release was her first after giving birth to her second child, the cover art of which depicted her half-emerging from a pool of a cloudy white substance redolent of milk. In an otherwise innocuous promotional interview detailing its development process she stated that  “[t]he person, the mother, the creator — all of those little Shakiras were fighting inside of me, so it was very tumultuous”. In the most lucid example, Lady Gaga reportedly spent three days in a mesh coffin preceding her second album release, ultimately emerging from an egg at the 2011 Grammys and consecrating her status as newly reborn.

I do not disagree that there are occasions wherein the rebirth rhetoric is agentive. In Lady Gaga’s case, for example, it is doubtful that anyone but the chameleonic star herself was the acting architect in her boisterous egg stunt. However, as with every analytical term, there exists a potential for the discourse to be appropriated and used in an agency-stripping and reductive form. I argue that ‘rebirth’ has suffered this fate, used and reused upon women in pop music on so many occasions that much of its descriptive power has been fundamentally diluted. Instead it serves to tie women to their reproductive role, and collectively cloud their contributive power to popular culture. Any decision made by them to engender change in identity, or in adoption of new or multiple narratives, is obscured. Instead biological determinism is fortified, further reducing women to their physicality and limiting their performative mobility as a multi-dimensional being. Ultimately, women are flattened into a static entity, where their enacting of multiple ways of being is seen as a deviation from the norm, and autonomy is limited.

The snake, as in Tisiphone’s and Swift’s case, is indeed indicative of revenge, and of fertility and transformation, but there is a third allegory commonly made: the ouroboros as a symbol of eternality and of wholeness. The artistic process of women in pop can be a multifaceted and even inconsistent journey, but should still be regarded as authentic, as holistic. The niggling dichotomy of innocent/sexualised, for which the rebirth narrative acts as a lubricant, must be reconsidered, and the abiding expectation of women to embody only one identity or the other must be discarded. Expressed succinctly by Spears in interview: “Who’s to say what a woman or a girl is? What’s the definition of that? I’ve just learnt that: I am.”


Mac is a current student on the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy MA at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. His research interests include consumption, gender, and morality. Primarily, he enjoys applying anthropological thought to areas that are often neglected, such as popular culture and celebrity.
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