Taylor Swift’s new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” made a crash landing into the world of popular culture on Aug. 24. In the two weeks since its release, the pop song has set records, made controversy and stimulated a batch of press.
The song is a forerunner of Swift’s impending album, “Reputation,” which will be released on Nov. 10.
Reputation, indeed, seems to be the theme of “Look What You Made Me Do.” The song itself ushers in what seems to be a new public persona for Swift, a darker, harsher version of the girly, loveable Taylor from years past.
Swift has had a long journey to arrive at “Look What You Made Me Do.” She began her musical career back in 2006 with the release of her self-titled album, featuring 11 country-pop tracks, only three of which Swift wrote independently.
The artist’s music made its first major change in 2010 with the release of her third album, “Speak Now,” which began moving away from her country beginnings and was wholly written by Swift.
“I actually wrote all the songs myself for this record,” Swift said at the time. “It didn’t really happen on purpose, it just sort of happened. I’d get my best ideas at three a.m. in Arkansas, and I didn’t have a co-writer around and I would just finish it.”
Swift’s sound continued to evolve over the course of her next few albums, Red carrying an indie-pop vibe in 2012 and 1989 coming in as full-blown pop in 2014.
Since then, Swift has been, for the most part, silent, with no mention of a new album until “Look What You Made Me Do.”
The song was accompanied with the release of the official lyric video posted to the TaylorSwiftVEVO YouTube channel on Aug. 24.
The lyric video calls to mind a bit of the “old Taylor,” telling a narrative of a betrayed female spy who’s back for revenge. The video itself is a crisp and hard-edge graphic representation of the story, with the lyrics and outlines featured in a stark color pallet of blood red, black, white and gray.
“Look What You Made Me Do” has a similar pop feel to the songs of Swift’s album 1989 but the tone is new, edgier and with a touch of rancor that even “Bad Blood” didn’t touch.
There is one pointed comment that cannot be overlooked as part of Swift’s fanciful storytelling.
“I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead,” the lyric declares, spoken in a sickly-sweet tone of Swift’s own voice.
The most contentious part of the song, however, seems to be the chorus, an octuple repetition of the title with slight variations, during which the lyric video features an image of a snake eating its own tail.
Even though the entirety of the song is a step away from Swift’s past musicality and lyrical singing, cashing it in for what could be said to be highly tonal speaking, the chorus is stark, arguably to the point of being insipid.
The choice seemed to be intentional. Alongside present speculation that the ouroboros is a representation of the never-ending and constant barrage of the celebrity media cycle, it can be considered that the chorus is supposed to be grating. Or maybe the snakes are Swift’s version of the Gadsden flag, her own symbol of rebellion against the cycle of drama and criticism within which she’s found herself, a blatant “DON’T TREAD ON ME.”
Swift’s real statements about reputation, however, didn’t truly begin to take form until the release of the official music video on Aug. 27, three days following the song’s initial release.
Buzz about the content of the music video started when a 20-second teaser was posted, showing a few clips and announcing the full video would premier at the 2017 Video Music Awards along the tagline “Brace for Impact.”
Swift also deleted the content of her Instagram and Twitter feeds, replacing it with segmented videos of a slithering snake.
The full video begins by zooming in on a tombstone that bears the epitaph “Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Repetition,” lit with flashes of lightning before an undead Swift emerges from the grave, Michael Jackson “Thriller” style.
The video then cycles through a series of scenes, each depicting some bone of contention that has been picked about Swift, from the single dollar bill she won in last month’s civil case involving D.J. David Mueller to her crusade against streaming companies to the infamous “I Heart T. S.” t-shirt donned by Tom Hiddleston.
Another scene shows Swift sitting atop a golden throne, surrounded by live snakes, wearing snake rings herself and being served tea by said snakes. Yes, more snakes. Don’t tread on Taylor.
The real shock factor comes in the final 45 seconds of the video, where a line of Taylor Swifts, each clad in a representative costume of a stage in Swift’s career, sling all the insults that have ever been directed at Swift at each other. The message seems to be that, yes, Swift is aware of the controversy has surrounded her in the past, but she’s not going to take it lying down anymore. She’s ready to build a new reputation, one that calls people out on what they say about her.
Due to a prodigious number of Taylor Swift fans and the hype surrounding the song and the comments made in the video, the official music video set a YouTube record, hitting 43.2 million views within the first 24 hours of it being live, according to Forbes.
So, what does all this mean? That Reputation is going to be Swift’s biggest accomplishment yet? Not necessarily. The release of the song, the lyric video, the music video teaser and the music video itself were meant to stimulate conversation about the upcoming album, which has resulted in massive success.
More than anything, these past weeks have shed light on what audiences can expect from the “new Taylor.”
The sound of “Look What You Made Me Do” indicates that Swift is continuing to evolve as a musician, keeping on her trajectory away from country, now well into pop. Perhaps the wait, Reputation coming out three years after Swift’s last album, breaking her every other year streak since her debut, was well worth it to receive a fresh side of Taylor Swift.
But “Look What You Made Me Do” certainly makes a statement about Swift’s expectations for her public persona. While another frequent comment about the single is “Oh my god, Taylor got salty,” it’s important to mark the distinction between the two autobiographies that exist for Taylor Swift.
The first is her personal autobiography that sometimes listeners forget is not always the heart of an artist’s music. Just like a fiction author bases his tales in his own experience, each one is not a verbatim account of something that has happened in his life. The second autobiography is the one listeners should be concerned with, the autobiography of Taylor Swift’s public persona.
While the public will never be able to do more than speculate as to the details of Swift’s private life, her public persona is very much on the table and is what Swift appears to be commenting on in “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Regardless of how diplomatic Swift has attempted to be in the face of controversy concerning her public persona, she continues to receive backlash. Is “Look What You Made Me Do” Swift’s way of dismissing herself from accountability? Again, not necessarily. It’s true that no one can make you do anything, but when you’re constantly being pushed around, you’re allowed to push back.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is a push from Swift, a ballsy push, but perhaps warranted.
“Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours,” another lyric from the song declares.
In the over ten years Swift has been releasing her music to the world, she’s seen the good and the bad of the celebrity persona. She has made mistakes, she has grown, and she’s definitely not the same starry-eyed 16-year old she was when her first album was released.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is Swift standing up for herself, ushering in a new stage in her career, and hissing at the people who have stepped on her in the past.
Look what they made her do.
Arts and Entertainment Sectional Editor