Here’s the thing about “Look What You Made Me Do.” Despite critics and everyone you know—you being an adult—almost unanimously hating the song, it has already proven to be an extraordinarily successful single, perhaps on its way to being Taylor Swift‘s most popular ever. That the song is bad (or perceived to be bad by a certain group of people) is— when you get to the very upper reaches of pop music, where a single song can generate tens of millions of dollars—almost besides the point. Swift clearly cares about criticism and is hyper-aware of the conversations that swirl around her; she’s also a student of music history who, I would imagine, is very cognizant of her place within it. She doesn’t want to make “bad” music—or, if we’re being more generous, watered-down music—but, at the moment, the reality is that there is no penalty for her doing so.
As such, “Look What You Made Me Do” invites us to crack open what it means when something is an artistic failure but a commercial success. That in of itself is, of course, not unique—in any given year, it’s possible that a majority of the most popular songs will be some shade of bad. But Swift has built up a body of work that has helped set a level of expectations for how good her music should be, which is to say that she is not Iggy Azalea coming out of nowhere with a huge single that is mostly annoying.
Swift’s records up until 1989 were not just some of the best albums around, they also charted a specifically individualistic path through the rough waters of pop music. She was not swayed by pop; instead, pop bent to her, sending a song like “Love Story” screaming up the charts to mingle with the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga. This made her a specifically exciting, and also divisive, pop star. But it began to change with 1989. “Shake It Off” was both her most nakedly commercial single to date, and one of her worst. The singles that followed, though mostly better (save “Bad Blood”), further sounded like nothing we had heard from her before, and she was rewarded with the best chart and sales numbers of her career. “Look What You Made Me Do” did not pull back from a bargain wherein ditching guitars and banjos for beats made her even more popular than ever. Instead, that pact became enshrined, and is so again on “…Ready For It?,” the second track to be released off the forthcoming Reputation.
Thankfully, “…Ready For It?” is much better than “Look What You Made Me Do,” a song about inner turmoil that feels like its fighting itself, with ugly parts fused together searching for a compromise that is never found. Comparatively, “…Ready For It?” is melodically rich and, when it all comes together, far more coherent. Still, its pleasures are mostly on the surface. It opens with a sustained blast of distorted bass—an obvious confrontational pose—and briefly transforms into a floaty sort of riddim, darting its eyes in the direction of America’s renewed fascination with dancehall. To its credit, it does sound like a properly big, monolithic pop song—Max Martin is the headline collaborator here, after all—and not a tryhard approximation of it. Lyrically, there is also more to chew on, with Taylor backing away from the Kanye feud to write a song in which she positions herself as a carnivore in the romantic food chain, yet one who is still vulnerable all the same, dreaming of the things she is going to do with the man she is purusing and assuming that it will all go to plan.
Nonetheless, the song still feels ill-fitting. The central story it tells—not of Taylor Swift being swindled by a bad boy, but instead of her turning the tables—gets lost in a jumble of metaphors, involving killers and ghosts and ransoms and thieves and islands and jails. There are some good lines which crucially display self-awareness via wit (“I see nothing better, I keep him forever, like a vendetta”), instead of being so effortful as to make you question whether she has any self-awareness whatsoever. She used to thread that needle routinely, but now you can still notice her sanding down her songwriting considerably—to Martin, after all, words are just more sounds. (This perhaps explains the rhyme of “bad blood” and “mad love” on “Bad Blood,” easily her worst lyric ever.) Further, it’s just difficult to buy her singing over bits of production that sound like Yeezus and Major Lazer. Part of being a pop star is selling your persona, and at the moment it still feels as if Swift is wearing a costume.
And yet, it’s hard to imagine any of this mattering. I won’t guess at Swift’s motivations, but it seems like an indisputable fact that she is being economically incentivized to make songs that sound like a different person. Hopefully, she will simply get better at it. “…Ready For It?,” for whatever it’s worth, is at least a small step in that direction.