Taylor Swift has been living on top of the world. Is she about to come tumbling down?
“You know when they let reality stars do one single?”, “[it] is spectacularly bad”, “a Chris Gaines-level disaster.” That’s how Twitter woke up this morning after last night’s release of Taylor Swift’s new song. “Look What You Made Me Do” dropped at midnight, and the reactions came quick. Usually, I would shrug it off, thinking these types of reactions are just the type of hyperbole you always get from the corner of the internet that inhabits my Twitter feed, but the hate around Taylor and her new song today is deafening. We’ve always rolled our eyes at Taylor and her antics (even people like me, who tend to like her music) but this time is different.
This particular cycle started about a week ago, when Taylor cleared all of her social media presence. Her tweets, her instagrams… they were all gone. Then, she put up a weird video of what looked like a snake. It became apparent pretty quickly that the creature in the video was indeed a snake, and that Taylor was about to release new music. And so, this week she revealed the name and cover of her album -titled Reputation. In the cover (pictured above) a picture of Swift is surrounded by newspaper headlines that consist basically of her name over and over again. Finally, she released her new single.
It’s interesting to track how the reactions changed throughout this very quick release strategy. At first, people were intrigued. Taylor’s erasure of her social media was, after all, a very cryptic and vague message. At that point, anything was possible. Taylor was enjoying an uncharacteristically sympathetic moment. She was going to court claiming that a radio host had groped her. She was clearly setting a nice example, and so people reluctantly embraced her actions. But then the court ruled in Taylor’s favor and the floodgates opened. The takes started coming out the second the album art was revealed. It started with the usual “Taylor Swift isn’t really a feminist” thing, and it escalated from there. By the time the single rolled around, people were talking about how Taylor benefits from the suffering of people of color, and claiming that she set the release of her new album to purposely coincide with the anniversary of the death of Kanye West’s mom.
How did we get here? Taylor has had a complicated last couple of years: great for album sales, not do great for her public persona. There was the whole incident in which Kim Kardashian released a video showing Taylor agreeing to lyrics in a Kanye West song that she had publicly condemned (look it up), she was in a short-lived but very much talked about romance with actor Tom Hiddleston, and she was the songwriter behind one of ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris’s hit singles for which she didn’t receive any official credit. But all of those are examples of the kind of feud that Taylor’s persona feeds off of. She loves playing the victim, and she’s built almost every album she’s ever released around such narratives. But then the worst thing that could have ever happened became a reality… Donald Trump won the election, and self-proclaimed feminist Taylor Swift hadn’t done anything to stop him.
Before the election, Taylor was just a smart opportunist. She went around selfishly but harmlessly co-opting whatever trend was popular at the moment in order to sell records. She did it with faux-folk back when Mumford and Sons were a thing, she did it with dubstep when Skrillex was a thing, and she did it with eighties pop just in time to be eclipsed by Carly Rae Jepsen’s genius. Because her music was good, we just shrugged it off. But now, a literal cartoon villain sits in the white house and her lack of political commitment doesn’t seem so harmless. There is context (in her country roots, probably) on why she didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton, but that’s not the point. The perception that what she did (or failed to do) was irresponsible is out there, and it is strong. Like most of us, Taylor wasn’t prepared for a Trump presidency. Then the world changed, and she was left behind.
Which brings us to “Look What You Made Me Do.” It’s not a good song. Musically, it feels very much like a late career Britney Spears dance song, which is far from my favorite kind of music. Lyrically, it is giving us more of the same old stuff Taylor always gives us. The chorus, comprised exclusively of the sentence “look what you made me do”, is a typical example of the victim narrative we’ve heard from her before. But given the current circumstances, the fact that the lyrics imply it was other people (the media? Kanye?) that made her do whatever it is that she’s doing doesn’t sit well at all. That’s not the only tone-deaf element in the whole thing. The Reputation album cover implies a “me vs. fake news” sort of approach that smells of catastrophe in the age of Trump. Add to that the embarrassingly cash-grabby magazines with “hand-written lyrics” that will be sold at Target, and it starts to feel like Taylor’s money-hunger might have gone a few steps too far (and that’s saying a lot).
And yet, there are kernels in this song that make me a tiny bit hopeful that Reputation might be the album I was hoping for after all. The bridge of the song, with the refrain “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”, when taken along with the snake imagery that’s all over the promotional materials so far suggest a shift from Taylor’s persona as a victim. So far we’ve assumed the phrase “look what you made me do” is meant to put blame on other people, and with good reason, that’s the kind of thing Taylor would usually go for. But what if the song is a sort of bridge, an introduction to an album that will not be so much about the people who made Taylor do horrible things, but actually about the horrible things that she did.
Because that’s what I want to know. Anything substantial Taylor has to say about the people who supposedly wronged her she’s exhausted already. I want her to move on, and to revel in these supposed dark and nasty things she’s doing. If this is truly an album about shredding off her skin and revealing her true reptilian self, then we might be about the experience some seriously great music. It’s also worth remembering that she tends to release either divisive or mediocre songs as lead singles for her albums (“We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off” were both first singles), so the album could be great for all we know. At this particular moment, though, the future doesn’t look so bright.