Look what you made Taylor Swift do, people: release a horrible song.
The lyrics about karma and revenge in the new single “Look What You Made Me Do” are vague enough to leave you wondering exactly who she is referring to—the blogosphere parlor game you can bet most entertainment outlets will gleefully play—but still pointed enough that even a casual follower of all T. Swift-associated drama could connect the dots between certain lines in the song and the potential list of enemies she could be referencing.
This week of frenzy first saw Swift delete the contents of her social media accounts, drumming up speculation of new music. Then she cryptically—and cheekily—posted grainy footage of what appeared to be a snake, a possible appropriation of the emoji Kardashian fans flooded Swift’s Instagram comments with after Kardashian’s bombshell Snapchat revelation (and a blatant disregard for fans or followers who suffer from ophidiophobia).
Finally, she announced that her new single would be released Thursday night and that her next album, Reputation, would be coming in November.
It was all announced alongside a promo image that appeared to put on blast the media’s unforgiving coverage of the pop star in the three years since she released Grammy-winning 1989—an attention-getting (if perhaps tone-deaf) decision to take on the media and dispute the accuracy of its coverage at a time when the president (the one who many still suspect Swift might have voted for) discredits the press as “fake news.”
Needless to say, it was a dizzying amount of hype leading up to the launch of “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift’s latest single and the first out of many legitimately great pop singles that we can say is aggressively bad.
Of course, the degree to which Taylor Swift, her brand, her persona, and even her music is polarizing is absolutely insane. Early Twitter reactions to the single run the gamut from echoes of our instant recoiling to shrieks of “yaaas” and promises to set up residence at the club all weekend to dance along to the banger. That’s fine. Everyone has the right to their own taste, even those misguided fools who made “Despacito” the Song of the Summer.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is many things. It’s a thumping dance track soaked in paranoid psycho-pop melodrama. It’s a droning ditty interrupted by an absolutely deranged chorus. It’s a club track and a mission statement. It’s also, as it were, a eulogy.
“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” Swift says in an instantly iconic spoken-word interlude right before the song’s final act. “Why? Oh. Because she’s dead.”
Take that for whatever the hell it means. No more Mrs. Nice Taylor? (Was she ever that nice?) No more America’s Sweetheart? (She’s long since removed herself from that narrative.) She no longer cares what you think about her? (This song’s very existence seems to contradict just that.)
For all its messy messaging, there’s something admirable about the show’s dramatic ambitions. In a way that’s almost Lady Gaga-esque, there’s a theatricality to it all, a sense of drama and play that is unapologetic about its obviousness and its camp. The song is so overrun with revenge metaphors—is that an Arya Stark reference?—that it’s a wonder it doesn’t fade out with a panicked Swift asking “Get it!? Get it!? GET IT!?” over and over again.
While the song’s biggest issues lie in its confusing production—somehow trapped between the throwback pop of the late ‘90s and thinking it’s edgily pushing forward the genre—the lyrics, histrionic as they may be, occasionally hint at Swift’s genius songwriting ability. She brings a sense of humor and mischief that leads to some of her best turns of phrase since “Blank Space.”
For the song’s latent defiance, there’s some of her lingering rah-rah empowerment that should make it a radio hit: “But I got smarter I got harder in the nick of time. I mean I rose up from the dead I do it all the time. I got a list of names and yours in red, underlined. I check it once, and then I check it twice.”
Then there’s her spoken word breakdown that serves as the lead-up to her big death notice: “The world moves on another day another drama, drama. But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma. And then the world moves on but one thing’s for sure. Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.”
Regardless of how you feel about the optics of Swift’s choice of universal diss track—Who’s she dissing? Apparently everyone.—she’s having undeniable fun with it, which in turn makes the Blackout-era Britney Spears paranoia spiral silly, haunting, and, yes, fun, too, especially as she maniacally starts chanting “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trust me / I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.”
But that’s also the most frustrating thing about the track. From the blatant play for headlines with the whole “Taylor Swift is dead” thing to the middle fingers symbolically blazing from start to finish (girl is even selling gold snake rings on her official clothing store site), she’s telegraphing that this single, this evolution—whatever it is—should be considered a big deal.
But such a grand metaphorical gesture should be backed by a grand, booming, bombastic song. “Look What You Made Me Do,” really, is just kind of dull. There are more allusions to real-life drama in the lyrics than there actually is drama in the song.
(The drama, by the way, continues: As Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live social director @tkylemac pointed out on Twitter, it sounds like Swift poached the beat from a scene in Mean Girls. As is legend, Katy Perry once allegedly referred to Swift as a “Regina George in sheep’s clothing” on Twitter. It’s all too much.)
And, because it bears repeating: my god is that chorus bad.
It’s like that exercise from a high school dramedy where a teen looks in the mirror and rehearses a line they’re nervous to say over and over, each time putting the em-fa-sis on a different si-lob-el. It doesn’t read as genuine and, worse, brings the song to a grinding halt; a true Taylor Swift chorus soars.
Listen, artists reinvent themselves all the time. We’ve genuinely loved Swift’s music through all of its various stages. It’s a fascinating transformation she’s gone through, too. Here is a music superstar who shot into the stratosphere on the plucky springboard of her stripped-down, guitar-strumming earnestness—the gee-golly relatability and simplified romanticism of “You Belong With Me,” “Love Story,” or even “Mean.” A pop star makeover complete with some requisite jadedness, cynicism, and even saltiness took her career and elevated her music to new unfathomable heights, with 1989 making her the first female artist to win the Album of the Year Grammy twice.
Through it all she became culture’s most electrified lightning rod. Having an opinion one way or the other about her, her music, her wokeness, her politics—hell, her mere existence—is akin to screaming into the wind from the mountaintop. So quickly would the gusts of contrarian opinion drown out your observations that making them has become an almost fruitless exercise. When it comes to Taylor Swift, there’s no changing minds.
It’s interesting how much we’ve talked about her in the last three years considering she’s kept such a low profile—at least by Taylor Swift standards. The whole time some people were wondering if she was in hiding. Turns out she was molting, shedding that snakeskin and her former persona. As she sings her new song, is she empowered with her defiant chant? Or, based on this single, is she bitterly weeping in regret: “Look what you made me do!”
Sorry, Taylor. So sorry.