“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” Taylor Swift declares in a spoken-word epilogue to her dark new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” a bitter snarl underpinning the blithe smile in her light-hearted delivery of the lyric. “Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.”
Such a startling sentiment will likely ring a tad hollow to fans, given how familiar the subject of the track actually is. The pop star teased the release extensively this past week with a trio of cryptic Instagram videos as well as an album art reveal for her Nov. 10-dated record “Reputation,” for which “Look What You Made Me Do” serves as lead single.
Another bridge-burning middle finger to those on her hate list in a long line of such numbers (also see: “Bad Blood,” “All Too Well,” “Better Than Revenge,” etc.), the track finds her taking aim at, among others, long-time celebrity nemesis Kanye West.
The first lines — “I don’t like your little games, don’t like your tilted stage, the role you made me play, the fool” — are an almost alarmingly direct call back to when Kanye and his wife, Kim Kardashian, exposed that Swift had approved lyrics for West’s track “Famous,” which Swift had previously denounced in the press. Coupled with the snake imagery in the pop star’s recent Instagram teases, a clear reference to the emoji Kardashian used to describe her amid the “Famous” furor, the new song seems likely to inflame old tensions.
Also on blast is fellow pop star Katy Perry, with whom Swift has been engaged in a high-profile feud over everything from perceived cattiness on the red carpet to stealing backup dancers.
“The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama,” Swift sings. “But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma.” For those not in the know, that’s a fairly blunt response to Perry’s recent Swift diss-track “Swish Swish,” in which the singer opines that “karma’s not a liar.”
More newfangled than Swift’s predictably acrid lyricism is the unexpectedly edgy, almost nightmarish soundscape in which she unleashes it. The track opens with an atmospheric fusion of keyboards and strings that hover, a tad nervously, before the beat kicks in, skittering away as Swift opens fire. The sonic palette’s darker and angrier, the kind of agitated mixture of musical ingredients you’d expect from an fka twigs or Sky Ferreira more than a Taylor Swift. Then again, that’s the whole point.
Musically, Swift is leaning into her largely underutilized capacity for sonic sensuality, evoking sex-kitten pop icons like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Fergie as well as their modern-day contemporary, stormy “Royals” chanteuse Lorde. And by wearing those influences on her sleeve so unapologetically, the musician seems to be signaling a hard, possibly permanent shift away from the combination of sunnily upbeat pop and tender-hearted, lovelorn country that had previously defined both her sound and public image.
(That she’s also ripping off the lilting, ectastic, wide-eyed sound of Marina and the Diamonds, all but unknown to many of her young fans, is a point most coverage of the single will neglect to mention. So goes the pop hierarchy.)
Held up against her earlier work, “Look What You Made Me Do” is as a whole positively violent, a slithering, sneering track that Swift seems to sigh or spit her lyrics more than sing them. On the self-explanatory chorus — “Look what you made me do,” repeated forever — she sounds resigned to railing against a world of critics and, if anything, more self-justified than ever in that crusade.
There’s a venom to this latest iteration of the once-wholesome country artist — and given the stone-faced stare she’s giving fans on the album art, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this is nothing close to the full extent of her wrath.
Though Swift’s release of the album art for “Reputation” suggested a war against media outlets whose headline fonts she so memorably repurposed, the single posits a different, but entirely plausible mission statement for the new record: it’s a declaration of revenge, writ large across an entire album’s length of kiss-offs, diss tracks, and (most importantly) takedowns.Isaac Feldberg can be reached by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.