The irony of what’s sure to be the most talked-about moment on Taylor Swift’s generally, intriguingly, frustratingly unpleasant new single—when the music goes into suspended animation so that she can drawl, “I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now … Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead”—is that it’s the point in “Look What You Made Me Do” when the old Taylor is most fully at hand.
Not just in the technology the moment evokes (at this juncture an answering machine is almost as quaint as the princesses and castles she evoked in her early country songs), but in the effect it creates, calling upon the inherent uncanniness of the living voice within the inert object of the landline phone to highlight the indomitable presence of her personality. She used to get this effect by inserting lines that were just a touch too heightened (“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter”) or too colloquial (“like, ever”) for the idiom that a song had previously established. Now she’s getting it by playing the undead poltergeist speaking up from within the crackling static of her own track, acting as the possessing demon in her own horror tale.
Elsewhere, this song is subsumed in social media, in production-forward songcraft, and in the list of grievances that’s accumulated in Swift’s public life (look them up if you really don’t know) since she conquered the music world in 2014–15 with her last album, 1989. The worst of that album’s hit singles, “Bad Blood,” was in a comparably raging mode, although one of the best, “Blank Space,” succeeded by satirizing that same imperious persona. Which one is happening here?
As a teaser for an album titled Reputation—whose cover features a black-and-white photo of a femme fatale–styled Swift framed by tabloid headlines of her name (my favorite Twitter riff: “Very excited for this [squints] straight-to-Hulu documentary about the sensational murder trial of a mysterious babysitter”)—the single makes me fear we’re in for a whole album of subtweeting. Swift’s most effective detractors call her out for loving to play the role of the world’s most powerful victim. (Any resemblances to current inhabitants of the White House are purely coincidental.)
That interpretation, however, tempts me down a path of middle-aged complaints. For instance, that being famous in the current media climate is more than ever a formula for going narcissistically bonkers and dragging your work down with you. It all becomes about the narrative of the narrative, and songs are reduced to moves. To a degree pop always has been like this—answer songs, rivalries, rap beefs, etc., all part of the game. But yesterday Katy Perry non-coincidentally released a video for her Swift-targeting song, “Swish Swish,” featuring Nicki Minaj, and today Swift puts out “Look What You Made Me Do,” on which the chorus (better described as a tagline) is delivered through a weak Minaj impression. Though Swift’s song is better than Perry’s, the old man in me just sees the snake from the teasers Swift put out earlier this week swallowing its own tail—an image that, sure enough, shows up in the lyric video. (Kanye West’s last album, which helped ignite some of Swift’s burns, had more going on musically but lyrically suffered from this syndrome, too.)
If this is what the young-woman-empowerment pop that joyfully dominated the charts earlier this decade has come down to, the form has moved from its imperial renaissance into baroque decadence. It’s one, slightly complicated, thing for everyday fans to absorb expressions of potency and autonomy from superstars and to make them their own, thereby becoming less everyday. It’s another for the superstars to turn into feuding rock ’em sock ’em superheroes in an interminable climactic battle out of an Avengers movie and to still try to feel like these struggles are just like what you’re going through at school, or with your boyfriend, or at work. When Donald Trump tells the crowd at his rally in Phoenix that he’s just like them because, unlike the elites out there, he actually went to a better school, lives in a more beautiful apartment, and now runs the country, so that means “we” (huh?) are the real elites (huh?), the dissonance becomes pathological. The once harmless fun of overidentifying with celebrities can’t be carved casually out of that continuum.
Still, I don’t want to be the cranky neighbor calling in a noise complaint on Swift’s party. At least in her music, if not in her public statements, she’s always been more wise to her own maneuvers than her critics. It’s not an accident that this song is so clattery and clangy (cadging a little radicalism from an apparent Peaches sample), so fitfully melodic, so resistant to singalongability, which has always been Swift’s most irresistible superpower. It’s not a slip that the title phrase is bad-rapped to the cadences of “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred (who are credited as co-writers), that towering and oddly enduring 1992 case of pop at its most deliberately dumb, at its most so-bad-it’s-good. And it’s not a mistake that “Look What You Made Me Do” is the most joke-baiting title to a follow-up hit since Britney Spears put out “Oops!… I Did It Again” in 2000. (Really? They made you do this?)
This track is the first sally in the monthslong campaign that will storm the pop fortress up until the troop surge of Reputation’s release on Nov. 10. When Swift did the same around this time of year with “Shake It Off” in 2014, she chose the track on 1989 with the least storytelling, the least Taylor-typical relationship dynamics, and the most cultural boundary crossing, to shake off her past and clear maximum runway space. With this song’s title, and “she’s dead,” and “I don’t trust nobody, and nobody trusts me” in the bridge, she’s doing the same kind of demolition work on expectations, so she can flex another range on Reputation.
The only real survival skill a former child or teen star has in American life is to be ruthless with your former self. To get up in the face of F. Scott Fitzgerald and insist that you have not only a second act but a third and fourth and fifth. Swift’s turn as self-cannibalizing zombie is in many ways more evidence that she has the mobility to become one of the few artists of her generation that we’re still having to figure out two or three decades down the line (when Perry is playing casinos as a nostalgia act).
Unless, of course, she sheds so much of her old skin that there’s not enough left to shuffle on. I could second-guess the strategies of “Look What You Made Me Do” all day, but the threadbare pleasure it provides (compared, for instance, to the no-less-defiant “Shake It Off”) also makes me ask whether anyone but Swift made her do it. If you can’t tell which are your own demons and which are plastic-masked Halloween facsimiles, your exorcism rites might leave you with some unfortunate side effects.