Who killed Taylor Swift? Her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” has her bragging of coming back from the dead, and the sound of her song does, in fact, feel like the work of a hell creature possessing someone once capable of charm.
The most drastic sign of Swift’s semi-fun new malevolence is the chant-and-dance chorus, which channels both Peaches and—this is not a joke but rather something literally acknowledged in the credits to the song—Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” Elsewhere, skewed string instruments are even more obvious in their spookiness than the soundtrack cues from American Horror Story. Underneath it all are churning electronic bass and snappy drum machines, aligning with recent radio trends save for whatever trend explained Swift’s previous success. The song is a monster: catchy but cringeworthy.
Swift, an expert manager of public narratives, trusts that anyone listening has been paying enough attention to the past few years of headlines to guess who the dirty no-good “you” of the title is. The most obvious target: her perpetual tormenter Kanye West, who last year performed on a tilted stage like the one Swift sings about here and trapped her with a phone call like the one she stages in a skit late in the song. Other high-profile rivals, like Katy Perry or the radio host David Mueller, who she just testified against for sexual harassment, slot in just fine. So do the listener’s own villains thanks to the rather vague writing. Who can’t find use for such delicious taunts as, “No, I don’t like you”?
But given the newsprint-encrusted cover of her forthcoming album, Reputation, the safest guess is that “you” is more or less everyone: paparazzi, critics, and the public at large, subjecting her to the standard celebrity crucible of scrutiny. At some point every pop star turns on the industry that made them, and the form of that clapback can include hedonistic liberation (Britney Spears, “Piece of Me”) or folksy deconstruction (Lady Gaga, Joanne). Swift has chosen to lean into the snark, morphing into the destructobot that she’s been accused of hiding inside. This is a trick she pulled once, brilliantly, on 2014’s much funnier “Blank Space.” The new single, though, is only an accidental triumph in reputation management, giving the lie to the idea that a full-on cutthroat persona comes naturally to her.
Because the true horror of “Look What You Made Me Do” is in what Swift reveals, perhaps unintentionally: The pretense of just not caring anymore—the insistence that she’s “harder and smarter,” as she puts it in the Lorde-like pileup of the pre-chorus—is contradicted by how desperately Swift strains to communicate her transformation. She’s telling-not-showing, crudely. The cute vignette about the old Taylor having bit the dust is one example. So are the production choices, relying on old ideas about electronica as intrinsically cold and distancing. And the flat chorus draws on a pop-culture cliche of affectless avengers; Game of Thrones’s ever-more-monotone Arya Stark, fulfilling the same gendered archetype, even has a kill list like the one mentioned here. Swift sounds as though she’s stepping into a pre-made character, one a lot less fascinating than the one she came up with before.
Produced and co-written by Jack Antonoff, the song does have enough spin-class utility to stick around if the public’s able to get past the gut-level discomfort Swift triggers here. The way she clips her syllables in the verses and then unnaturally syncopates them in the chorus, and the way that the pre-chorus is its own monster hook, are signs of the calculation for catchiness that Max Martin executed on Swift’s juggernaut 1989. And the long list of “this sounds like” comments on social media when the song dropped—to Fergie, to Gwen Stefani, to Madonna, to Ladytron—are a sign that she’s out on less of a limb than it seems. The sass and self-aggrandizing routine that Swift has always peddled remains; it’s the recognizable humanity, the writerly poignance, and the eye for fresh angles that are gone. What did we make her do, really? Nothing that hasn’t been done before.