Apparently there are things that even Taylor Swift can’t shake off. As demonstrated by “Look What You Made Me Do,” the first lead single for her upcoming Reputation, the former country star and current pop behemoth has spent no small amount of time brooding on the hit her reputation took in summer 2016 when her statement that she had never given Kanye West permission to talk about her on his Life of Pablo single “Famous” was belied by Kim Kardashian West’s release of a recorded conversation between Swift and West in which she, well, gave Kanye permission to talk about her on “Famous.” If Swift hasn’t been thinking constantly about revenge since then, there’s no indication of it on “Look What You Made Me Do,” whose lyrics linger, then linger further, on the damage she’s suffered.
It’s grievous. She herself openly admits that it was fatal. “I rose up from the dead,” Swift sings in the pre-chorus; the bridge concludes with her announcement that the old Taylor can no longer be heard “because she’s dead.” Pop music is never not repetitive, but Swift’s repetitions, for the first time ever in her career, sound wearying instead of catchy. She talks about a revenge list, then talks again about revenge: “Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.” True, the threats could sound convincing with the right delivery — anything can sound ominous with the right delivery. But Swift’s lines start out wrapped in a melodic cadence that (matched with production that manages the neat trick of being both lurching and insubstantial) can only be described as “Disney-villain karaoke,” leaving it only when she broods monotonously in spoken word.
I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me
I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.
For all the serpent-themed hype leading up to the launch of the song, Swift’s words lack venom, fangs, and smoothness. They have the consistency of wet flour, and their meaning could be converted into a series of impotent hisses without any loss in translation. She claims to have gotten harder, but only comes off as brittle; she says that defeat made her smarter, but sounds if she’s endlessly smarting. It’s impossible for anyone but her most die-hard fans (which are, to be fair, legion) to think that the song represents Taylor in a position of strength; more-casual listeners accustomed — over the course of five good to very good albums — to the high floor and medium ceilings of Swift’s compositions will be appalled at the depth to which she’s fallen. As far as her archnemeses Kim and Kanye go, it’s completely impossible to imagine them doing anything but laughing, hard, at “Look What You Made Me Do.” They’ve “made” Taylor Swift release the worst music of her career: What could possibly be less intimidating than that?
If the sinking, imploded sense that Swift’s song summons feels familiar to careful listeners, there’s a reason. Drake, too, was a pop juggernaut whose carefully constructed public image was damaged enough by a prolonged feud with a boisterous rap artist that he ended up making a mistrust-laced collection that signaled a decline from the total prominence he formerly enjoyed. “Look What You Made Me Do” looks to be to Taylor what “Summer Sixteen” was to Drake last year: a song heralding an upcoming album (11 weeks prior to release for Swift, 13 for Drake) whose scant handful of decent lines (her drama/karma couplet is nice enough) is saddled with anesthetic delivery and an indefensibly corny hook (Drake, if you’ll recall, was “looking for reveeeenge”). Judging solely from its lead single, Reputation already has the potential to be Taylor Swift’s Views: a collection whose stature as a commercial juggernaut fails to overshadow its more permanent character as a creative debacle. Recent history doesn’t have to repeat itself, but if it does, there’s no way to say that she didn’t have fair warning.