Taylor Swift made us stay up all night for this. Her new single “Look What You Made Me Do” is a hard, cheerless left turn, an unbalanced farrago to accompany the left-to-right top-to-bottom text jumble on the cover of her new album Reputation.
“Look” opens on an innocuous soundtrack flourish that’s quickly sucked into a digital approximation of a record scratch and replaced by thick, subwoofer-rattling bass. The new Taylor descends. Guitar? She hasn’t heard that name in years. New Taylor has one enduring characteristic, and it’s her grudge against Kanye West. “I don’t like your little games / Don’t like your tilted stage,” she begins, a barely-veiled description of the suspended platform from which West delivered his Life of Pablo tour last year. New Taylor is going to allow direct rival Katy Perry to oversee the debut of her music video on this weekend’s VMAs before she will forgive Kanye for calling her a bitch on “Famous.”
There is a certain amount of poetry to that “tilted stage” dig. It calls up the image of an uneven playing field, of Kim Kardashian tipping her hand on Snapchat. (Presumably, that’s the smoking “gun” Swift refers to when she sings about “the perfect crime.”) Public humiliation prevented her from achieving coveted pop queen omnipotence, and so she still perceives herself to be a victim, but revenge is her brand, and so she must play villain. The dissonance drains her lyrics of their usual charm and self-deprecation. We’re left with the absurd image of Swift making a list and checking it twice, like a demented Santa Claus. Which part of this was she made to do, exactly?
“Look What You Made Me Do” was created with Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, producer of two of 1989‘s moderately likable songs, “Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would.” One can safely assume it was the nostalgia-obsessed Antonoff who, having surveyed the cultural landscape, became determined to revive “I’m Too Sexy.” Swift’s chorus is an authorized interpolation of Right Said Fred’s parodic early-’90s dance hit. It lends the song Gaga-style club crossover potential with all the grace of a particularly clumsy Madonna reinvention (“American Life,” maybe?). Right Said Fred profess to love it, as you surely would too if your royalty checks were about to centuple.
Endure the first few repeats of “Look What You Made Me Do” and the claws begin to sink in. There’s that strangely taut beat, the plasticine propulsion that unites so much of Antonoff’s work. For long enough to sing, “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” Swift sounds the part of the self-aware bad girl, instead of a humorless Peaches. Her hammy little skit—”I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead.”—is a meme already, but not one that helps her reputation. The self-mythologizing is verging on satire, the beef with West feels endless and increasingly futile, but the machine is in motion, and the demand for Taylor Swift remains infinite.