I had modest expectations for the new Taylor Swift single. All I wanted was for it to contain the word “ass.”
After a deeply polarizing last few years, you had to give it to Swift for the acerbic quotes that trickled out from her recent (and triumphant) sexual assault trial. It seemed almost cinematic, like a noirish Legally Blonde: She got to snap at an attorney, “I’m critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.” She got to say of the accused, “I don’t feel anything about Mr. Mueller. I don’t know him.” And of course, most memorably, when an attorney suggested that no wrongdoing was visible in a frontal-facing photograph of the groping, she had the perfect retort: “Because my ass is located in the back of my body.”
Something about this transcript was thrilling—a peek behind a heavily gilded curtain. In public, Taylor Swift so often seems to be playing an overgrown character—the who-me? naif with an endless, if kind of childish, capacity for wonder. But the person lobbing these barbed witticisms in a court of law seemed like an actual 27-year-old woman, refreshingly grounded in a reality recognizable to you or me. I thought we might get to know her on this new album, Reputation. I was looking forward to that.
And then “Look What You Made Me Do” happened. Unleashed on a deeply confused public late Thursday night, the song is a strange collage of retro reference points: mid-aughts Gossip Girl placement pop, the soundtrack to Disney’s live-action Maleficent, and—yes, really—Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” except devoid of the self-effacing humor and wit. Yes, the new Taylor Swift song just made me compliment Right Said Fred. If I’d read the previous sentence 24 hours ago, I would have thought it was a particularly imaginative joke, and yet here we are. Life comes at you fast.
But that’s the most disappointing thing about “Look What You Made Me Do”: It reveals the limits of Swift’s imagination. This is a reinvention song, damnit! When Swift plays with the imagery of killing off “the old Taylor,” she’s toying with a history of oversize pop iconography: George Michael burning his leather jacket in the “Freedom! ’90” video, Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, Madonna … doing what she does every time she reappears with a new album, aesthetic, and regionally specific accent. Taylor’s idea of reinvention, on the other hand, seems to be the sonic and stylistic equivalent of an extra coat of eyeliner. Invisible everywhere except in the mirror’s reflection.
The video for “Look What You Made Me Do” has not been released yet, but there is an animated lyric video that Swift coproduced with her frequent director Joseph Kahn. All crimson and black, it’s stylized to look like someone who’s seen Hitchcock posters if not an actual Hitchcock movie—a cutesy if clichéd concept of “villainy.” Though Swift doesn’t call out anybody by name, she seems to be continuing to nurse her most high-profile grudges with Katy Perry, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian West, and though some people hear the song as Swift embracing her “dark side,” the story line’s loose enough that she’ll still probably play the victim. At this point, though, it just feels boring, unrelatable, and isolating insular. Those transcripts from the trial revealed that a more mature, flesh-and-blood Taylor Swift exists, and she is grounded in a recognizable reality. “Look What You Made Me Do” is a retreat back into a fairy-tale world.
Swift hammers home the faux-reinvention theme one last time, in the final moments of the song. “I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” she says. “Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead!” It’s a red herring. The old Taylor is alive and well, tending, as always, to her grudges like little, caged pets.