By now, you’ve heard: Taylor Swift has returned, dropping with a new single last night that’s the first off her upcoming album, Reputation. Aside from the fact that it’s lowkey a Right Said Fred cover, the song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” is not super exciting. (If you’re a fan of Swift’s earlier hits, eh, it’s fine; if you’re not, well, I don’t think this will move the needle for you.) But let’s be honest, what is exciting is dissecting just about everything else about the rollout, given all that’s happened since Swift’s last album came out. Like, is that a snake in her teaser videos? (Yes.) Is the font she chose for her album art also a knock at Kanye West? (Maybe, or at Ashlee Simpson?) What’s with the choker? (Who knows!)
But hands down the most pressing question you and your friends will fight over when this song comes on at the bar or in your Uber is this: Is it OK to like Taylor Swift? If you liked her before, how do you feel post-Kimye? If you liked her before but hated this song, do you now reverse course? Does Taylor Swift deserve forgiveness for two-timing Kanye, or was she sabotaged by Kim? Is she a snake, or a master manipulator, or both? IS THE SONG ANY GOOD? (Let me clear that up again: It’s not great.)
We asked the TrackRecord staff and contributors to weigh in. If you didn’t come to read five nuanced takes on the State of Taylor Swift, leave now.
In order, here are the people I thought about during my first six listens of “Look What You Made Me Do”: Kim, Kanye, Fergie, Gwen Stefani, the old Taylor, Jack Antonoff, Right. Said. Fred., Katy Perry, John Mayer, and Carrie Underwood. Carrie didn’t come into play because the new single reignites her long-simmering feud with Swift, but because she helped me crack why Taylor’s villainous pivot is so damn unconvincing. The perfection of “Before He Cheats” is well-documented at this point, mostly for its snarling monster of a chorus:
I dug my key into the side
Of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive (alright)
Carved my name into his leather seats (well fuck)
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights (this guy just fainted)
I slashed a hole in all four tires (this man is dead)
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats (everyone he cares about is also dead)
It’s still striking for a number of reasons. Her specificity is crucial here, and it’s something that’s sorely missed on Taylor’s single, which leaves everyone wondering what exactly we, Kanye, or Katy made her do. (Wear the choker? Sample “I’m Too Sexy?”) Although she’s been able to skirt around the “show don’t tell” maxim for much of her career by totally mastering the song-as-subtweet, she either needed to put the rocky 2016 behind her or double-down on villainy in a more tangible way. “Look What You Made Me Do” is an odd projection of responsibility for an artist who’s seemed in control of every aspect of her career. I just want her to convince us that she’s reclaimed that, lean on the hooks again, or demolish someone’s pick-up truck. —Shawn Cooke
For me, pop affection must pass a particular test: It’s okay to like what you like, as long as it is not harmful to yourself or others. “Look What You Made Me Do” teeters a dangerous line—the title itself uses the language of abuse. It’s a phrase that has been knocked down Google’s search rankings, thanks to the power of Taylor Swift SEO. Either Swift was unaware of the implications or chose to ignore them and indiscriminately use the phrasing to continue a false victim narrative at the expense of people of color around her. (That’s not a far jump if you believe the track is a response to a particularly “Famous” phone call between Swift and Kanye West, one wife Kim Kardashian revealed to the public via Snapchat) In that way, the song is menacing.
But does that mean it’s time to shut her out entirely? There’s no explicit hate speech at play, and contrary to the neo-nazis who’ve used her image as idolatry, she hasn’t directly aligned herself with anything hurtful—though it would be smart for her to denounce that behavior. However, Swift also has a history of only using progressive language for her own advancement. A particularly troubling lyric in “Look What You Made Me Do” is “I don’t like your kingdom keys / They once belonged to me.” As U.K. journalist Laura Snapes points out, it reads like a critique of whiteness no longer being the focal point of pop culture.
None of this tells us much of the song itself, which at times recalls mid-00s Ashlee Simpson or even Panic! at the Disco, and others times interpolates Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and Peaches’ “Operate.” It’s a bold choice, but the extramusical elements make it challenging to believe in. It’s a perfectly fine pop song, but it does warrant cringing. Is it okay to like Taylor Swift? Only if you’re critical about it. —Maria Sherman
Taylor Swift is one of our generation’s greatest artists, and I stand by that. She is an absolutely brilliant songwriter, a great performer, and one of pop’s smartest strategists. Given how earnest she is and how much of her music caters to a young female fanbase, those are facts that get glossed over and maybe even deemed ridiculous by some. But make no mistake: Taylor is a musical legend.
That being said: Taylor’s persona is a much different story. Her “squad” became clique-ish, the feuds became exhausting, and the boyfriend press cycles became repetitive. The revival of her Kanye West beef (which happened thanks to leaked Snapchat footage from Kim Kardashian), however, did something different: It finally made Taylor a villain.
It’s nice to see her own her bad press and infamy, though I wish she did it from less of a “You’re the one to blame for my actions” angle, which officially tires out her victim card for possibly the rest of her career. It’ll be the greatest test of all: Can she reclaim her drama in a new way? Can she turn the haters on their heads by making their hate profitable? “Look What You Made Me Do” is not a total success in that regard, but definitely shows that her Reputation has a lot of villainous potential. I don’t think we should be too concerned about whether it’s okay to like Taylor Swift, I just think Taylor Swift should stop begging for us to like her. —Brittany Spanos
Taylor Swift is not my friend, or my sister, or my neighbor. She has not personally wronged me. None of us (unless you’re reading this, Lorde!) really know who Taylor Swift is. She is an absurdly famous, absurdly rich celebrity who we pay attention to. So when we ask if it’s still okay to like Taylor Swift we’re really asking two things: Is her music good? And has she done something so problematic or unequivocally bad that the art she makes no longer matters?
Because with Taylor, drama is always leading the charge, it’s easy to think that maybe she is Bad now. No one, especially someone with as much power and money and influence as Taylor Swift, should be beyond criticism. And in the past year, Taylor’s gotten her fair share of it. She has been criticized (rightfully) for her narrow definition of feminism, her utter silence in the 2016 election cycle, and her ongoing still-unclear drama with Kanye West. But none of these dilemmas (and they are certainly dilemmas for someone who wants to maintain a squeaky clean PR campaign) has a clear line between right and wrong. That is to say, she is not Chris Brown or R. Kelly. Her pettiness and political affiliations don’t cloud my ability to see her work.
I have always liked Taylor Swift as an artist, and I still like her. Technically, her music is well constructed and smart and well-written. She’s emotional and honest and harbors personal vendettas with a fury I envy. I don’t particularly like her newest single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” but she’s been so consistent in making good work that it’s easy for me to see past it. Her art is good. It may not be for you, but it is. Like her if you want. I’m going to. —Kelsey McKinney
Taylor Swift and moral conflict is not a life that I know. There is no universe where Taylor Swift could answer to all of her critics—which could explain her too on-the-nose cover art for Reputation. Why not lean into being a heel when perceived as such? Reputation will no doubt go No. 1, but none of that will quell the personal, non-musical commentary directed her way. Those voices grew tired of her “ahh shucks” routine post-Kanye West’s VMAs interruption and felt personal vindication when Kim Kardashian went to Snapchat to expose Taylor for lying about her conversation with West over his lyrics in the song “Famous.” A crack in her armor, no matter how small or large, was a reason to celebrate.
Swift invites the personal into her music all the time, but what artist doesn’t pull from personal experience in their work? Isn’t that just art? For Swift, the details are more specific, the men are well known, but such is life when you’re the world’s biggest pop star. She’ll receive left-of-field critiques about never speaking up about “Black Lives Matter” or even President Trump. All of which are strangely existential concerns to place on Swift; those who do are looking for political wisdom from someone who is only socially contracted to provide the world bangers. “Look At What You Made Me Do” isn’t quite a banger, unfortunately; it’s messy mid-2000s maximalist pop, which, while fun, is a bit off. Still, it’s 2017: What isn’t a goddamn mess? —David Turner
I expected more, to be honest. Taylor Swift’s latest single was supposed to be Swift’s heel turn. Instead what we got was The Soundtrack to White Feminism. “Look What You Made Me Do” sounds like the musical equivalent of having your girlfriends validate you by telling you how “bad” you are in a group text, or getting drunk on white wine on a rooftop at your ex’s wedding, or throwing a sheetcaking party. On the track, Swift doesn’t accept accountability for any of her actions; instead, it forces the blame onto those who she’s convinced have wronged her (in this case: Katy, Kanye, Kim, etc.) The title is a phrase abusers use.
Despite my thoughts on Swift as a person (I think she’s terrible), she’s always had one or two solid hits on each of her albums that I could listen to guiltily at my desk. This is not one of them. I had hoped that in 2017, Taylor would go all in, expanding on the mania she hinted at in “Blank Space” and the bitterness she espoused in “Bad Blood.” I’d hoped she would finally name names and be the pop villainess I’ve always believed she really is. But this is a woman who’s made a career of cryptically dragging people, and has had a history of not letting things go. (Or, shaking them off, if you will.) Until recently, she was a master manipulator of her narrative. It took Kim Kardashian, a woman who gets filmed for a living, to knock Taylor off her throne for publicly smearing her husband. The backlash is what earned Swift her snake associations.
“Look What You Made Me Do,” is a revenge song doesn’t quite stick the landing. She mentions an Arya Stark-esque list of names, but doesn’t deliver. She never tells us exactly what it is she’s been made to do. (Maybe it was voting for Trump.) “I don’t trust nobody, and nobody trusts me,” might be the song’s most (perhaps only) honest lyric. Now that I’ve given it some thought, perhaps releasing a truly terrible song plays into her villain narrative after all. —Jessie Peterson