Taylor Swift Goes to a Darker Place: Discuss – The New York Times


“I’m sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” Taylor Swift announces near the end of her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which was released across streaming services on Thursday night. “Why? Oh … ’cause she’s dead.”

And just like that — in case wiping clean her social media accounts and replacing the bubbly content with a video triptych of a C.G.I. snake was too subtle — the mood was set for “Reputation,” her sixth album, due out Nov. 10. (In addition to a standard edition, the album will be available with two 72-page magazines at Target.) No longer wide-eyed and fairy tale-obsessed, Ms. Swift is hinting at half of a heel turn, but putting the onus for her hardening on the behavior of others.

Specifically, the lyrics of “Look What You Made Me Do” — which announces its melodrama with a dark, fantasy-film string swell and plinking piano keys before turning harsh and electronic — make barely veiled reference to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who became Ms. Swift’s most confrontational rivals last year in a drawn-out scrap over the lyrics to Mr. West’s song “Famous.” (Katy Perry, another longtime adversary, may emerge from this one unscathed.)


For her long-gestating musical rejoinder — Ms. Swift has released just one song, for a movie soundtrack, since the Grammy-winning “1989” in 2014 — she collaborated with the writer and producer Jack Antonoff, one of the leading architects of her post-country sound. In an odd twist, “Look What You Made Me Do” also grants songwriting credit to the members of the mostly forgotten British group Right Said Fred — Fred Fairbrass, Richard Fairbrass and Rob Manzoli — for its light interpolation of their No. 1 novelty hit “I’m Too Sexy” in its mantra-like chorus.

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To discuss the song and where it positions Ms. Swift after a bumpy few years for her public persona, we’ve gathered the critics Jon Caramanica, Jon Pareles and Wesley Morris, as well as the pop music editor Caryn Ganz. Another day, another drama.

JON PARELES Sure, Taylor Swift has deleted her social media trail and declared “the old Taylor” dead. But her most treasured persona — Taylor the avenger — remains alive and more unforgiving than ever on “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Ms. Swift’s songs have been settling scores — and showing her fans that wronged women can speak up — ever since her music had country trappings and her (ex-)boyfriends weren’t necessarily famous. But this is one is pure accusation, as if it’s more about a transaction than a relationship.

It doesn’t matter whether “Look What You Made Me Do” can be parsed as the latest go-round in Ms. Swift’s tabloid-fodder celebrity feuds or as more general post-breakup venting: “I don’t like your perfect crime/How you laugh when you lie.” The important thing is that she has the upper hand again.

As a pop song, it’s inside-out. Its verses and choruses are as ruthlessly stark as a hip-hop production, mostly just drumbeats and electronic tones, behind a nursery-rhyme melody in the verse and a rhythmic chant in the chorus.

There’s a plusher, more dramatic arrangement, with piano and brass-like synthesizers, in the prechorus, while the bridge is orchestrated with strings: “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.” Those sections are archly melodramatic, “emotional” with air quotes.

But the chorus itself, instead of unfurling a grand melody line, just chants the song title: eight times with slight variations, in tones that can be vindictive, mocking, dismissive, even a little playful. (The video image is ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail, the celebrity news cycle on endless repeat.) She’s not trying to sound pretty, or to provide the big group singalong release of a big chorus hook; she’s counterpunching. The title of the album due in November is “Reputation”; let’s hope it’s not all about this.

Still, this song arrives only days after Ms. Swift won a sexual-assault case involving a radio host who groped her during a meet-and-greet photo session. It was a countersuit, asking for symbolic damages of $1, that she initiated after he sued her alleging her accusation was false. Look what he made her do.

JON CARAMANICA “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative”: Ms. Swift wrote those words just 13 months ago, but as has become clear in this country, 13 months is a lifetime.

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Her new single is ongoing litigation — a broadside against Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, a retort to their campaign against her in the wake of the fallout following the release of Mr. West’s “Famous,” which Mr. West took as a joke and Ms. Swift took as a slight.

This new song is both a rejection and embrace of the narrative that caricatured her as a manipulator passing for a naïf. Rather than ignoring that circumstance, and its attendant public conversation, altogether, “Look What You Made Me Do” extends the drama in an effort to seize control of it.

As warfare, it is casual verging on blithe. Ms. Swift has always had enemies — antagonists animate her — but this is not as savage as “Dear John,” or even “Mean,” songs written for a specific target.

That is because the true subject of this song is not any particular opponent; it is herself. Near the end, she announces that the old Taylor is dead — that’s true in several ways, most notably in the way she leans in to the drama she once tried to dodge: “I don’t like your tilted stage,” she hisses at Mr. West. (There are other indications that Mr. West remains near the front of Ms. Swift’s mind: some of her new merchandise uses a font that’s similar to the one Mr. West popularized on his “The Life of Pablo” T-shirts. One hopes it is a coincidence that her scheduled album release date falls on the 10th anniversary of the death of Mr. West’s mother, Donda.)

But also Ms. Swift as a classic formalist songwriter, that’s dead too. “Look What You Made Me Do” is an attitude, a pose, an energy — it sounds like the introduction to something more acidic yet to come. This song is half-rapped, or half-spoken, a calculated jolt away from the sparkling melodies she’s always excelled at, even at her unhappiest. The production — by Jack Antonoff and Ms. Swift — is slippery and caustic, reminiscent of the places electro and industrial overlapped with pop in the mid-1980s. There’s barely any guitar to speak of, and at the chorus, rather than belt or soar, she bobs and weaves, repeating the title phrase like a nonchalant taunt. The credits suggest an interpolation of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” but the tone and texture say early Kesha, or Fergie.

The whole thing is strikingly measured. It is her biggest shift in tone since the one-two punch of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” in 2012. But those songs were boisterous and savvy iterations of ideas she’d already been exploring. “Look What You Made Me Do,” by contrast, is a gut renovation, and shows that Ms. Swift is willing to incinerate herself if that’s what it takes to burn everyone else.

WESLEY MORRIS Gang, we are gathered here today to celebrate this thing called strife. And I’m bummed. There’s no room, in this rendition of strife, for the usual shading and wit and flexible scale of Ms. Swift’s songwriting. She’s so good at petulance, spite, comeuppance and denouncement. She’s even better at a kind of pop song that’s harder to pull off, but that the greats, from Aretha Franklin to Fiona Apple, achieve with sneaky ease, which is mutual recrimination: We’re both fools! That emotional dexterity is on a break.

Vengeance might be on Ms. Swift’s mind right now, and not because she loves herself some Carly Simon (well, not only that). She just won a sexual assault case that she’s held up as victory for all women, on the one hand. She’s been in an unflatteringly comical fight with Ms. Perry, on the other. “Vengeance” sounds petty and vindictive here. As it is, that title is more or less what Kathy Bates screams at James Caan not that long into “Misery.” But it’s also music (and titling) that seems defensive, wittingly or not, at pop music as much as any one pop star. This song doesn’t sound felt. It sounds compelled to matter. It sounds cynical.

When Taylor declares herself — the old her — dead via phone call, in the breakdown, it gave me the “13 Reasons Why” blues. (Good luck with that, America’s middle-school administrators!) I much prefer the violence in a song like “I Knew You Were Trouble,” where she’s melodically evocative about the physical state of being hurt.

“Flew me to places I’d never been
’Til you put me down, oh
I knew you were trouble when you walked in
So shame on me now
Flew me to places I’d never been
Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground”

Also: What a fun song to sing. Even in the pain, there’s a kind of ecstasy. I’ve listened to “Look What You Made Me Do” five times now, and I don’t hear that. I hear Ms. Perry, Peaches, Lorde, Fergie, J.J. Fad, and, lord help me, J.J. Fad courtesy of Fergie. What I can’t hear is Taylor Swift. Just about all her peers can speak electropop fluently. She’s doing remedial exercises on this one, and all I hear is her cramming.

CARYN GANZ It’s fury, it’s vengeance, it’s gossip. It’s a horror movie, a fairy tale contorted into a calamity. Musically, it’s a pubescent growth spurt — sudden, jerky and accompanied by a sneer.

“Look What You Made Me Do” feels like pure calculation: This one isn’t for the moms toe-tapping at the “1989” concert, or the radio stations still chin-scratching over whether Ms. Swift is country or pop. This song is for the base — the superfans on the internet who are always ready for a fight.

The music? It can be fascinating, alternately cinematic and grindy. The lyric video? It’s stark and striking. Taken together, they feel almost like a Twenty One Pilots project, shape-shifting and dark. But then there’s that “you” looming over everything.

The song isn’t called “Look What I Did,” it’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” a surprising flipping of agency at a moment where Ms. Swift is being heralded for her strong language in court, where she testified that a radio host assaulted her with no equivocation: “I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions. Not mine.” But making this song was her decision: not his. It sounds powerful, yet joyless.

And while the track may be about her longtime antagonist Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry is once again collateral damage here: Her album “Witness” came out the same day Ms. Swift restored her catalog to Spotify, and she’ll be hosting the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night — where Ms. Swift is unveiling her full new video, ensuring the name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Taylor.

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On – 25 Aug, 2017 By JOE COSCARELLI

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