Welcome to Taylor Swift's "Screw You" Era
Taylor Swift is pissed, and she’s made that very clear.
On Thursday, just before midnight, the pop star finally dropped her highly anticipated first single off Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do.” With it came new merch, snake jewelry, a music video release date, and hints at an upcoming tour. It’s the lyrics, though, that make this new song one of the most polarizing in recent pop history. In case you haven’t heard: The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh! ‘Cause she’s dead!
Produced and co-written by Jack Antonoff (man behind Bleachers, boyfriend to Lena Dunham), the pop bop is, as Apple Music describes, indeed “a sinister tack fueled by thundering bass and a thirst for revenge.” It samples Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” and sounds as though Lorde, Peaches, Avril Lavigne, and the old Taylor joined forces and gave birth to a music baby. One that's thirsty for revenge.
It must be said: The song is not, sonically, an enjoyable experience. And it's a little predictable too. Swift teased us for a week with video imagery of a slithering snake that many have speculated referred to her headline-making, dramatic feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. And people are pretty sure their presumptions were correct since "Look" seems to offer her point of view on the storyline. The lyrics find the 27-year-old in the defense—a position she’s all too familiar with.
"Look" pits Swift against a nemesis, possibly a long list of them, who's dragged her through the streets in public; now, she's fed up and ready to fight back. Possibly, she refers to Kanye’s floating Saint Pablo Tour stage (“I don’t like your little games, don’t like your tilted stage”); Katy Perry’s supposed fascination with ruling the land of pop (“I don’t like your kingdom keys, they once belonged to me”); and the media’s vilification of her as a boy-crazed girl who flirts with them one day and chews them out the next (“I don’t trust nobody, and nobody trusts me”).
This song elicits a scrunched-face reaction upon first listen. It’s not uplifting. It’s not political. It’s kind of mean. (It's not good.) Thrown into the national conversation, it's possibly even a little tone deaf? Taylor had an opportunity to say, “Enough is enough! Let’s make things right”—and in so doing send that message to her colossal fan base (Swift has over 187 million followers on Twitter and Instagram combined). But that’s not what we got. There's no sense that Taylor wants to work it out with her unnamed foe. This is rage at its purest.
What Taylor did do with "Look" is say "enough is enough" to the public and the haters. She’s made a career out of sweet, sweet love songs about broken hearts and friendship and frenemyship. Her trajectory has been innocent, a little safe, and fun! 2014’s 1989, which maintained a top-10 spot on the Billboard 200 for 51 consecutive weeks and racked up over $14.9 million in track sales, was critically acclaimed because it marked Swift’s official transition from country to pop. Yes, “Bad Blood” is supposedly all about her drama with Perry, but from a far, it was all silly fun. She corralled her infamous girl squad, waved her feminist flag high, and proved that yeah, guys, Taylor Swift has an edge! But a soft one.
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And that sweet, syrupy turn-the-other-cheek attitude is exactly what we've come to expect of her. But this isn't 2014. And this isn't old Taylor. Like the song or not (and again, we're not not about to add "Look" to any playlists), Taylor Swift has the right to be angry, and this is what anger sounds like.
It's understandable that she'd feel compelled to address what has been said publicly about her. No, she didn’t return with a happy-go-lucky Kumbaya anthem. She stood up for herself. She slipped her boxing gloves on. And she indirectly responded to the critics who have used their relationships with her to gather attention (Hello, “Swish, Swish”). Like her sexual assault trial did, this is another way she's shown her fancase, particularly young girls, how to say no, a message she’s delivered before.
“I want to say to all the young women out there ... there will be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame,” she said in her 2016 Grammys speech. “But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
That strain of self-empowerment persists but changed shape on this track. Here, rather than a source of positivity, of resilience, it's one of vengeance—but also of drive and self-care: “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time, Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time". Maybe it's not the message that we, her listeners, need at this moment. But it's the one that she needed. Rage is something that needs to be acknowledged. Sometimes, you've just got to scream.
So where will Reputation, and, specifically, “Look What You Made Me Do” fall into the mix? This is likely to become Swift’s official “screw you” era. In response to West’s misogynistic lyrics on “Famous” last year, Swift originally said she “would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.” Well, she just placed herself right at the center.