The headline news about Taylor Swift's new single, "Look What You Made Me Do", should really be that it sounds like a late 00s gay club anthem, not dissimilar to Britney's "Work Bitch" but with a healthy dollop of Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy". Written by Swift and Jack Antonoff, it's filled with Guetta-esque synths and "Let's Have A Kiki" refrains. There is the campest, most ridiculous bit in the middle eight, where she stages a highly meme-able mock phone call with herself, going: "I'm sorry but the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh…cause SHE'S DEAD!"
However this is Taylor, and so of course, to just talk about the music would be to miss the point almost entirely.
First, some context for the latest chapter in what's already become quite a boring saga. Taylor Swift's last album, 1989, received near-universal acclaim with glowing reviews from The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone and Fact Magazine. Even The Quietus, the last bastion of still-slagging-things-off music criticism, described it as "a statement, a work of note… as perfect as 21st [century] pop albums get".
After the record was released, though, a souring of feeling towards Taylor seemed to bleed through the public consciousness. A sense developed that she held a blinkered understanding of female empowerment, measuring the politics of feminism in largely egoistic terms. Maybe that's why Taylor's 2015 incident with NIcki Minaj rankled for so many. When Nicki complained about structural racism in the music industry, Taylor assumed she was making a slight against her. "I've done nothing but love & support you," she tweeted Nicki at the time. "It's unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your spot." She later apologised.
Seeing a "squad" of super-rich, super-successful women as some sort of step towards female equality became a prominent example of her brand of feminism, as did claiming women shouldn't criticise each other by saying things like "there's special place in hell for women who fail to support other women" after Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made some jokes about her at the Golden Globes. While Swift is outspoken when she perceives herself to be the victim of sexism, she has never spoken out publicly against Donald Trump – not even when he made racist comments, bragged about sexually assaulting women or drew a false equivalence between white nationalists and anti-racists in Charlottesville, making statements denounced by senior Republicans. She has yet to say anything about having a brazen misogynist as her country's president.
Last year she got into another complex scandal, when she claimed Kanye hadn't asked her permission to refer to how he "made that bitch" famous in his song "Famous". Kim Kardashian leaked recordings of a phone call between the pair which seemed to prove he did ask her, although he didn't say he was going to use the word "bitch". Still, many people felt she had disingenuously made Kanye look like a villain when in fact she'd been aware of the song since the beginning.
So yes, Taylor has received some criticism since 1989's release, but a lot of it was well-founded criticism: people had legitimate queries about behaviour that seemed at times problematic or hypocritical. And even then, the press have not been vicious to Taylor: she still has those amazing reviews, her short-lived relationships are still met with wide-eyed amazement and she was commended for donating $250,000 to Kesha while she pursued a lawsuit against Dr Luke. Compared to the treatment doled out by the press to to Britney or Amy Winehouse, you could hardly say Swift has been hard done by.
You wouldn't know that from "Look What You Made Me Do", though. Unlike Taylor's previous work, which could be interpreted as either autobiographical diary entries with secrets hidden in every line or sweeping anthemic songs about everyday emotions, here she makes no pretence that this song is about her. It's about rebirth and shedding skin, but also full of grudges and not letting things go – somewhat contradictory motives. Okay so, if you've not seen them yet, here are some of the lyrics:
"I don't like your little games
Don't like your tilted stage
The role you made me play of the fool
No, I don't like you"
"I don't like your kingdom keys
They once belonged to me
You asked me for a place to sleep
Locked me out and threw a feast
The world moves on
Another day another drama, drama
But not for me, not for me
All I think about is karma
And then the world moves on
But one thing's for sure:
Maybe I got mine but you'll all. Get. Yours."
You can analyse this single in two ways. One: she has shed her skin (DO YOU GET IT? LIKE A SNAKE? ) and is now a more direct, less saccharine person who won't take any shit. No longer limited by smiles and winking references to her life – this is a mile away from the innuendo of "Blank Space" for example – she's becoming a direct conduit for her emotions. There's a certain honesty in how genuinely resentful she sounds. "Maybe I got mine, but you'll all get yours" she snarls, sounding not unlike Dick Dastardly after a particularly displeasing wacky race.
The other view is that Taylor wants us to feverishly guess who she's talking about, reprising the game perfected by Carly Simon's "You're So Vain". Is the song aimed at Calvin Harris, another ex-lover (see: the stuff about the kingdom, since he's had a lot more success since they broke up)? Katy Perry? Kanye (he does perform under a tilted stage)? Or is it about the media itself – as her album cover, apparently designed by your little brother in GCSE art, with its newspaper headlines might suggest. Or guys, guys is it an amalgamation of all of them? Taylor knows today the entire world, from Pitchfork to Mail Online will be playing a guessing game.
The real mystery, though, is working out what has happened to her that she thinks is so terrible. Was it being shown up for not telling the truth? Having her feminist credentials questioned in the Trump era? Being challenged to back up things she has said or done? Her response to controversy seems, once again, to be to cast herself as the victim of a terrible conspiracy. She was once the helpless victim; now she's the angry one. But it doesn't change the fact that she often refuses to publicly tackle the actual criticisms laid at her feet. What's more, at a time when trust in the media has never been lower, and the US president routinely tries to blame his failings on the press, this would be an odd moment in which to lash out against journalists trying to ask questions of her (if that is indeed what she is doing – this could all still be about Calvin).
What's clear is that the old Taylor is not really dead. Only the old Taylor would release a comeback single full of direct, personal barbs but refuse to say who they're directed towards (no doubt later claiming the song is about "lots of things", as though it had nothing to do with her). Only the old Taylor would attempt a "don't give a shit" rebirth but then write a song about never letting the past go. Only the old Taylor would loudly declare, in whispered am-dram intonation, that the old Taylor is dead.
So, Taylor Swift has released a good song that, when you dig into it, includes some very problematic views about her world buried within it. Again. In fact "quite good songs with a questionable moral compass" would have been a solid name for her album. Probably would have been hard to read in that weird font, though.
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