On every one of her albums, Taylor Swift has used her impeccable songwriting ability to seek revenge. Every recording had at least one song that dripped as much with bitterness as with chart potential: 2006’s “Picture to Burn,” 2008’s “You’re Not Sorry,” 2010’s “Mean” and “Better Than Revenge,” 2012’s “All Too Well,” 2014’s “Blank Space.” She dunked on each of her past boyfriends so well it became predictable. By now it’s clear that Swift has made anger her brand.
Beginning last week, in a rollout primed for perfection, Swift went dark. Her social media accounts blacked out, and then slowly, every morning starting on Monday, a glitchy video of a CGI snake appeared. On Wednesday, the video was followed by an announcement: an album cover, a title (Reputation), and a release date (November 10). Every album needs a pacesetter, a lead single to prep audiences and fans for the curve ahead, and last night just shy of midnight, Taylor Swift dropped hers.
“Look What You Made Me Do,” the first single off Reputation, clocks in at three-and-a-half minutes of radio-ready, drum-clap-filled chanting. With a thumping beat behind her, Swift sings her way through a song posturing as fury that manifests in a kind of bored ambivalence. The track samples “Operate” by Peaches; Richard Fairbrass, Fred Fairbrass, and Rob Manzoli of the British band Right Said Fred are credited as songwriters — probably to avoid a lawsuit over rhythmic similarities to their song “I’m Too Sexy.”
The single includes a voicemail-message bridge of Swift saying, “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.” The chorus is simply the lyric “Look what you made me do,” repeated. The single was cowritten and produced by Jack Antonoff, who gives the pre-chorus, littered with high notes, a sound reminiscent of another recording he worked on earlier this year, Lorde’s Melodrama. Throughout the song, it’s completely unclear where to focus your attention. It’s lacking a central driving force (be it an emotion or storyline) to tie it together, and so each piece of it feels entirely separate.
In theory and in marketing, “Look What You Made Me Do” is a dig at Kanye West. Their war, of course, dates back to his iconic interruption of her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, but it went nuclear last year following Swift’s feuds with both Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. On “Famous,” West (jokingly?) claimed, “I made that bitch famous,” which Swift (fairly) claimed was misogynistic. The snake Taylor used as promotion for this song on Instagram is a direct callback to the snake emojis with which fans of Kim Kardashian, West’s wife, flooded Taylor’s social media after her leaked phone call — in which we can hear Swift apparently giving “Famous” her blessing — solidified the battle sides. Likewise, the “tilted stage” line in Swift’s new single is a reference to the stage design on West’s Saint Pablo Tour. But you have to already know all of that history to pick up on these allusions. There’s nothing pointed about Swift’s new song. Even the chorus of “look what you made me do” begs the question: What? What was she made to do?
That aloof uncertainty keeps the song from hitting any of the emotional notes that make a Taylor Swift song great. Despite her hyped-up promises of snakes and revenge, there’s nothing here but snide, somewhat obscured references. Anger — true anger — can do wonders, but this song only alludes to it, and never embodies it.
Take Britney Spears’s self-aware media critique “Piece of Me,” from 2007’s Blackout, which was released in the wake of the media frenzy surrounding her head-shaving. “I’m Mrs. She’s Too Big, Now She’s Too Thin,” Britney sings in one searing line. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a more recent example — an entire album centered on an officially unidentified wrong that filled every song with a seething anger. The key to an angry song — to using your music as a tool of revenge — is to allow vulnerability to drive it. Taylor Swift has always known how to do that, but on this song, she seems to have forgotten.
“Look What You Made Me Do” has plenty of aim but no heart. If every move in Swift’s life weren’t chronicled in the public eye, it would be impossible to know that this is a song about Kanye, and being lied to. In the same posturing method of Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too,” the single is too obscure, too inoffensive to say anything true. Anger has to have a clear target to pierce, or at least some momentum, and this song has neither.
That’s not to say Reputation won’t be a smart, even great album. Swift has always used her debut single to pivot her career toward her new sound. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the lead single from Red, and “Shake It Off,” from 1989, are by no means those albums’ best songs, but they prepared audiences for the shift in style that was to come. “Look What You Made Me Do” signals another step away from the bouncing, curly-haired siren of “Love Story” and toward the darkness: Now Swift has no massive, sweeping choruses, no perfect rhymes, and no glistening red lipstick, either. She’s already changed all her social media bios: “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.” Let’s hope this new Taylor can turn gritty and cold and dark without losing the candor that made her great.