The reinvention of an artist at the start of a new album cycle is common, especially for pop musicians. Every album release provides them with a new opportunity to tell the world how the past few years has “changed their perspective,” or “made them think about their roots,” or “want to confront their demons.” Everyone on this Earth changes – even pop superstars, and so it remains a successful, albeit overused tactic of the music industry. The reinvention of an icon piques the public’s general interest, while offering long time followers solace in the fact that the artist they love isn’t going to fall back on their laurels by doing the same thing they did a few years ago.
This tactic of reinvention has been used by Taylor Swift, by my count, three different times in the past 5 years. When her 2012 album, Red was preceded by the poppy lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” her fans were told that it was only a minor reinvention of Swift’s sound as a result of a “dream collaboration” between Swift, and producers Max Martin, and Shellback. That song, along “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and “22” were logical extensions of Swift’s sound into more mainstream and radio friendly territory. It wasn’t said out-loud by anyone at the time, but, the so-called writing was on the wall – both Swift’s music and persona were changing, and she was finding even greater commercial and critical success because of it. Three years ago, Swift released 1989, which according to her was her “first documented, official pop album.” With the help of Martin and Shellback, (and with assistance from Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff), Swift had once again transformed herself – this time from being a country-pop star to a full on pop sensation, leaving her country-fried persona far behind.
Now, as a result of the constant media cycle that surrounds Swift’s every move, we’re being spoon-fed yet another Swift transformation via the first single from her sixth studio album, Reputation entitled “Look What You Made Me Do,” which was released after weeks of hype and anticipation. All the articles and reviews of this song that you’ll read will focus on the line at the end of the bridge that best represents this newest reincarnation of Taylor Swift, where she states matter-of-factly: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, cause she’s dead!” The statement is a result of the fact that Swift feels that her persona and image has been under attack, especially during the past three years, and that she’s ready to move on. She has been at the center of numerous media headlines over the past few years, including her successfully suing a radio DJ for $1 for sexual assault, her relationship and subsequent breakup with Calvin Harris, telling her fans to vote in the 2016 election (but not specifying for who), and her ongoing feuds with Katy Perry and Kanye West.
Swift killing off the “old” version of herself is certainly a blunt statement. To anyone following Swift’s career path, it does garner a bit of an eye-roll. Considering that Swift herself was the one who attracted the attention of the media by turning herself into a massively successful pop star and writing confessional, tabloid ready lyrics. That makes it difficult to sympathize with Swift when she is sick of her image being attacked. The fact that she has changed so much already (both musically and characteristically) in the past five years makes this attempt at a “new Taylor Swift” that much more hollow.
If its album cover and lead single is any indication, Swift is going to address many of these attacks on Reputation. Swift’s ongoing feuds with West and Perry appear to be the main lyrical focus of “Look What You Made Me Do.” Swift directly alludes to these disputes in the first lines of the song by saying “I don’t like your tilted stage,” a reference to the floating stage that was a large part of Kanye’s Saint Pablo tour, while also referencing one of the stages that Katy Perry used during her Super Bowl performance two years ago. There is no attempt by Swift to hide behind layers of symbolism or vagueness in this song, which represents a complete change of direction in her tone and personality. This is Swift at her most direct and most biting, and unfortunately, this dramatic lyrical change doesn’t work, at least without the rest of Reputation to support it.
Perhaps most disappointing about “Look What You Made Me Do” is the musical production. Interpolating Right Said Fred’s 1992 hit, “I’m Too Sexy,” into its chorus, Swift abandons the glittery, hook-filled production of Max Martin’s work on 1989 and instead uses minimal synthetic instrumentation (including the typical 2017 pop tropes – handclaps, an understated chorus with only a drum beat, sparse “oohs”). The choice for the production of this song to be handled solely by Antonoff – an indie/rock musician at heart, despite his success in mainstream pop – is baffling as well. Whether it was Antonoff’s, Swift’s, or someone else’s choice, “Look What You Made Me Do” sounds like nearly everything else on mainstream radio. Perhaps Swift found inspiration from her friend Selena Gomez’s work on “Bad Liar,” a song which also interpolated an old hit (the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,”) and used handclaps and sparse production to support it. Unfortunately, Swift’s direct and biting lyrics don’t support the song as well as Gomez’s lyrics about a crush did.
That brings up another big problem with “Look What You Made Me Do”: this isn’t a fun song, which is especially surprising considering that Swift’s lead singles (“Love Story,” “Mine,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Shake It Off”) have typically been upbeat anthems of love or empowerment. Unlike the majority of Swift’s more recent pop work, this isn’t a song you can really dance to, rock to the beat of, or really sing the chorus to – and that’s a huge problem. Despite this, there’s no doubt in my mind that this song will hit #1 (knocking “Despacito” off after 15 consecutive weeks, just short of tying the record for longest run at the top), but it doesn’t have the hook or the staying power to really make a dent long-term, which, again, without knowing any of the other songs on Reputation, makes this song a curious choice as a lead single.
It’s clear that Swift isn’t going to reinvent the way that mainstream pop music sounds like she did on 1989, instead, she’s merely following along with current trends, reinventing herself as nothing more than another angry pop star – angry at the media and the world around her for tarnishing her previously perfect image, and at the artists who directly call her out and make her uncomfortable. But, maybe she should be the most angry at herself for playing right into the hands of the media (and those who antagonize her) by calling them out so directly. Look what they made her do – they “made” Swift transform herself into something that she inherently isn’t – a villain; an angry, brooding dance artist who focuses too much on the headlines about her, and not enough the strength of the music she’s releasing.
Reputation is out November 10th, and hopefully it’s better than “Look What You Made Me Do” would lead me to believe.