Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" Is as Basic as Taylor Herself

Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" Is as Basic as Taylor Herself

The expert music theory behind why her comeback single doesn't at all slap, especially compared to her strongest tracks.
KC
illustrated by Kim Cowie

I've never been an avid fan nor hater of Taylor Swift. Until it came to writing this piece, I'd never listened to one of her albums the whole way through, but would happily scream along to "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" given the chance. Her comeback single, "Look What You Made Me Do," swiftly shook me out of that impartial position though. Online, people with handles like TaylorFan1989 were practically shitting themselves at the prospect of her return. And then… that?! That tiny little piece of non-music? Imagine picking up a slice of white bread with the crusts cut off and then squishing it back into dough and then looking up and saying "it's raw" like you're Paul Hollywood. That's what that song is.

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Obviously, the song is bad—and funny—partly because of its extreme pettiness and unsavory references to Taylor's past beeves. It is profoundly irritating that somebody worth $280 million with 86 million Twitter followers has used her platform to chant "ooh look what you made me do" to the tune of "I'm too sexy for my shirt," regarding a personal argument, over and over again in a sort of playground rally. It's not the first time she's gone on about revenge in her work, either. But however juicy, the narrative context was never going to make or break the track. Ultimately, what broke it—for me—was the fact that it's musically boring as hell. It does not even remotely slap.

A colossal amount of utter trash gets released all the time and goes unnoticed, but Taylor's first single in three years was never going to fall by the wayside. People were waiting for it. Eagerly. And while she has the ability to deliver a break-the-internet pop bulldozer to rival Ed Sheeran's "Shape Of You" (in fact, they're both prone to dramatic social media disappearances pre-the big drop) she delivered a lazy, mediocre track that was sufficient to get everyone talking, but not enough to get anyone dancing. Have you seen people slutdrop to this in the club? Nah, didn't think so.

Let's rewind. Taylor Swift built a strong foundation in country pop, with her powerful and distinctive vocal and knack for a catchy tune. When she released Red, and subsequently 1989, she thrived in her identity as a proper grown up pop star. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "Trouble," "Shake It Off," "22," and the astronomical "Blank Space" are admittedly pop classics. They represent the genre at its best: approachable, expansive, catchy hooks, massive choruses. They are not complex or pretentious. They use tried and tested chord sequences—largely pop's best-loved chords I, IV, V and vi—and Taylor was the perfect person to perform these songs because she didn't really stand for anything specific. What she represented was being a pop star, and what the songs represented was pop music.

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Now Taylor Swift's 'good girl gone bad' attempt, exemplified by her quickly-memed "oh, cos she's dead" line, has not yet marked an exciting aesthetic change, or a drive towards a powerful new era. It's simply marked the death of the essence of her superstardom, which was perfect pop. The song has little stylistic continuity from her earlier work. It focuses almost entirely on her public image, with little evidence of artistic motivation (other than in the music video, which is something else entirely). And let's be clear, this is still pop: it's just the kind of pop that makes a lot of people hate pop. While the new Taylor might have more motivation to seek revenge on her enemies, the old Taylor unfortunately seemed to embody all of her musical credibility.

For starters, "LWYMMD" just doesn't really have many instruments in it. It's like a wipe-clean wood-effect surface compared to the shag pile carpet of her early output. While that material was rife with strings, guitar and vocal harmony (largely the classic and reliable choice of thirds, ie: one person two notes higher than the other), "LWYMMD" is largely just her half-singing, half-speaking over a limp drum beat. And though she brings in a couple of vocal harmonies in the second verse, throughout both verses there is not so much as a bassline in the background. There's a distorted version of it, perhaps, but it's not playing a recognisable note. It seems that Taylor Swift's songs are getting increasingly sparse—from banjos, strings and everything in between in the early days, to Max Martin's synth collection in the middle, to, essentially, slam poetry. Maybe her next release will be a country-inspired take on John Cage's "4'33."

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Read more: Taylor Swift Needs to Sit This Year Out

Of course, minimalism alone doesn't always make a track sound shit—sometimes it makes it slap harder (see: Peaches' "AA XXX"). But it's not just about a lack of texture; it's also about her vocal. Rather than her usual nasal but impressive belt, we hear a husky half-shout for about 80 percent of the song (the sections of the song where she is actually singing correspond almost exactly with the sections in which there is harmonic variation, so savor those moments.) The opening, a Disney-style strings snippet, seems to be self-referential, a nod to her princessy, "Love Story" days. It sounds promising, but its fairytale vibes are destroyed by electronic distortion before plunging into the first verse. Here, we're planted firmly on the chord of A minor, the song's home key. Yes, it's customary to use the home chord at the beginning of the song. But while many pop songs would change chord every half-verse or even every line, "LWYMMD" stays in A minor for the entirety of the first verse. There is literally no harmonic variation until the pre-chorus. That's why it sounds so flat. It's actually a pretty tricky song to write music theory about because there is only so much theory on the single chord of A minor.

The pre-chorus is the best bit. The melody is repeated three times—"But I got smarter I got harder in the nick of time / Honey, I rose up from the dead I do it all the time / I got a list of names and yours is in red underlined"—and then we're back into the spoken word for "I check it once, then I check it twice," topped off with the sarky "oh" before the chorus. Underlying all of this is a descending bassline—starting on the note A (under "I got smarter"), and then descending the scale step by step, corresponding with each line of lyrics. This sequence goes A, G, F, E—with the E being the bass note under the line before the chorus. This whole sequence is actually very conventional and strong: the bass note E is supporting an E major chord, which is chord V (the fifth, or the 'dominant') of the home key, A minor.

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So yeah, that E major is decisive and powerful, but its impact is undermined by the fact that the entire chorus rests on the chord A minor, which we've just heard all through the verse. Given, also, that the chorus literally consists of the words "look what you made me do" over and over again, it doesn't make for the most riveting listen. Again, this is a real shame because one of Taylor's previous strengths was variety within her songs. "You Belong With Me", for example, uses a different tune for the introduction, verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge, with a guitar solo, breakdown chorus, and a very enjoyable counterpoint bassline (one that goes up while the vocal line goes down) in the final chorus. In "Treacherous," she even varies the dynamics: you'll notice the chorus is louder in your headphones than the verse.

Read more: The 'Old Taylor' Isn't Dead If She's Still Holding a Grudge

That said, "LWYMMD" does have a few typical Swiftian traits that make it similar to past work, namely the spoken interlude and the way she introduces an instrumental under the song's bridge ("I don't trust nobody and nobody trusts me"). But these consistencies alone don't make up for the gaping hole in "LWYMMD" that is interesting music. Maybe that was her plan all along? To make something musically uninspiring enough to represent the pettiness that underlies it? Admittedly, the 2008-2014 pop that Taylor produced is largely obsolete in today's charts. Artists like Ed Sheeran and Little Mix have begun to shed their pure pop identities with tropical house and R&B influences. You can already hear a marked difference in the production style of Swift's music on 2014's 1989. But while that album was a clear step away from her country beginnings, it felt like a natural progression, confident and relaxed. And despite the industry climate, it's kind of disappointing that the first track in Taylor Swift's new era is her most lacklustre work to date. From an artist who's been on the rise since her breakthrough, it's musically regressive. I hope the rest of Reputation shows what she's capable of, and that I'm proved wrong. Otherwise, Taylor Swift may have become so obsessed with attention (relatable, but still tragic) that she's lost all interest in music itself.

Follow Emily on Twitter and find Kim on Instagram.