This weekend, first in a college-football promo, and then on social media, Taylor Swift released “…Ready for It?,” the opening song from her forthcoming Reputation. If the new single was, as it seems, an attempt to move past the widespread disdain for “Look What You Made Me Do,” then its release was yet another miscalculation in an album rollout full of them. (Not that it’s mattered on the charts.) Because “…Ready for It?” is a baffling song. There are artists you expect to put out a clunker every once in awhile: people like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran. For Swift, whose quality control is legendary, to release a song this … off is unsettling; it’s like seeing Michael Jordan miss a layup. (I should note that this is not a unanimous opinion — our music critic Craig Jenkins thinks it’s fine.)
How many odd creative choices went into making this song — which is credited to Swift, Max Martin, Ali Payami, and Shellback — a reality? Let me count them:
1. Taylor Swift raps.
There are big swings, and then there’s Taylor Swift deciding to build an entire song around an imitation of Nicki Minaj’s flow on the “Flawless” remix. (Others have heard Sleigh Bells, and I also got a little bit of Jay-Z on “Empire State of Mind.”) It’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve seen an A-list pop star do this year, and I’ve watched this GIF almost a thousand times.
2. Taylor Swift raps about sex.
Remember Beyoncé’s “Rocket?” That was a song with a similar thesis statement as this one — “I enjoy having sex with my man, for reasons I will now elucidate” — but Beyoncé knew how to get, well, sexy with it. That song was slinky. It was seductive. It switched up the rhythm on the way to multiple climaxes. “…Ready for It?,” on the other hand, has a strange mismatch between tone and content: Taylor’s verses have a vibe you could only call “snotty.” When Beyoncé bragged about the freaky shit she was into, it felt lived in. Taylor’s feels like someone trying to impress you.
3. The line, “He can be my jailer / Burton to this Taylor.”
I listened to the song for the first time on a bus, and let me tell you, I will always recall the looks I got when I gasped out loud in astonishment at this line. There are certainly other bad lines in the song (“I can be a phantom / Holding him for ransom” comes to mind) but none will screw your mind up like this one. The “jailer” bit feels like a bit of S&M dress-up that falls flat — not for the first time — while the Burton/Taylor thing is not only a bizarre non sequitur in service to a forced rhyme, but also sets expectations way too high for poor Joe Alwyn’s acting career.
4. That outro.
Used to be, one of the hallmarks of Taylor Swift’s songwriting was how she would subtly switch up the lyrics in a refrain throughout the song. (See “Mine,” for just one example.) Now, though, a catchy Swift phrase is likely to repeat over and over again without variation. It happened with “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me” on “Look What You Made Me Do,” and now here with “Let the games begin,” which she repeats a whopping 12 times in the outro. I don’t know who to blame for this, so I’m going to blame Jack Antonoff, who introduced his brand of mantra-style songwriting to Swift on “Out of the Woods.”
5. The fact that the chorus is good!
After all this, there is one thing even weirder that the aggro-sex raps in the verses: The chorus is pretty good! It’s like a sequel to “Wildest Dreams”; all it’s missing is that song’s classic orgasm-sigh. You could totally build a good Taylor Swift song around it, instead of … what they actually did. A pessimist might say that, combined with the wet-fart chorus of “Look What You Made Me Do,” we’ve now got two Swift songs with major elements that somebody in the studio should have vetoed. An optimist might say that Swift’s still got all her writing chops, even if she’s chosen to obscure them with some terrible stylistic choices. We’ll find out who’s right on November 10.