Would that all new years started with fantastic beasts and stormy weather. They don’t, but thanks to Taylor Swift, 2016 did for us. The video for "Out of the Woods", complete with its fairy tale narrative, is my first favourite thing of 2016 and it proves that the indomitable Ms Swift is only getting better and better.
Once again, director Joseph Kahn is at the helm of the video. He’s previously directed the manic beauty of "Blank Space", the action-packed "Bad Blood" and the Hollywood-styled "Wildest Dreams", all of Swift’s 1989 album, as well as videos for Destiny’s Child ("Say My Name", "Jumpin’ Jumpin’"), Britney Spears ("Stronger", "Toxic", "Womanizer"), Lady Gaga, U2, Aerosmith, Gwen Stefani, Maroon 5, Eminem and a few dozen other major stars.
Is it too much to say he’s really struck gold with the Swift videos? I don’t think it’s too much to say at all. So I’ll say it - Kahn has struck gold with the videos he’s directed for Taylor Swift. This may just be because of Kahn’s own talent and his team of course - the cinematography in each of these videos is fantastic, but who knows? Maybe Swift has the Midas touch too.
"Out of the Woods" is a ferocious fairy tale wonder that wears its heart on its sleeve. Its message couldn’t be clearer - in fact, it’s spelled out in words at the end of the video, just in case we didn’t get it. The line "she lost him but she found herself and somehow that was everything" also appear in the liner notes to 1989. It’s one of Swift’s most autobiographical songs: she refers to the snowmobile accident she and Harry Stiles were in ("Remember when you hit the breaks too soon/Twenty stitches in a hospital room"), to the paper aeroplane necklace they’d been seen wearing/sharing, so speculation as to who this song is about may not even be necessary.
Regardless, the song itself is a solid one. Steady 80’s inspired synthpop rhythms and some brilliant percussion courtesy Jack Antonoff of fun; it has the most dramatic repetitive chorus and this great sense of urgency about it. It’s hard not to get caught up with every "good!"
Back to the video. We open on a beach, with Swift standing alone looking out to sea. Magic beanstalks grow out of the sand, curling up around her. Cut to some full-on Red Riding Hood woods, with a pack of wolves watching Swift walk barefoot off the path. She’s chased by them (are they haters? paps? fans? fame!), they manage to tear off her stylish long dress but she jumps through time and space into the Arctic (perhaps).
They follow her through this new place, forcing her to jump off a cliff into a sea. But Swift isn’t the drowning sort, so she jumps through again, through the snowy landscape and into a raining, filthy mud swamp which is totally like the swamp in which Artax died in The Neverending Story or where Supergirl Kara gets bogged down in the Phantom Zone. But this is Taylor Swift and she makes it out of there, though with that damned beanstalk starting to grow over her.
Also... shots of Swift definitely looking at us as the ice/woods/water/beanstalk finally retreat, shrinking under her side-eye. There are pretty embers floating around and then there’s a fire in the woods. I don’t know who ignited it but I hope it was Taylor.
She walks back out of the burning woods onto the beach where it all began. She’s broken and muddy and bruised, she’s battled the forces of nature, but she’s whole and she’s found herself. Honestly, it’s enough to make you cry, you know? Gone are the days of "Bad Blood" when she needed a big loan from the girl zone to get back at those who hurt her. Now all she needs is to find herself and be whole again.
Seriously though, this is really great.
Taylor Swift and Joseph Kahn couldn’t have made it clearer that the evolution here if of the female protagonist, of the young woman who, when she can no longer run away from those who hunt her, still refuses to back down and faces her fears until she can stand back on her own feet, until she can claim back her own agency. There is no one in this video other than Taylor Swift.
Her only interaction is directly with her audience - and what more would we want?
P.S. Some months ago, Swift performed "Out of the Woods" at the Grammy Museum, in which she described her number one feeling in a certain relationship as anxiety. This piano-only version is less urgent than the cut featured on the album, but somehow so much more sad. I’m going to stick to the fiercer video, thanks.