Everything is life and death with Taylor Swift, huh?
With the “1989” album, the bouquet-throwing was a little excessive. Now that she’s released the lead single to her follow-up, there is panic in the streets.
Relax. This is all by design. It has to be.
There is no way that Swift, with a minimal record of missteps over her 12-year career and super producers like Max Martin and Shellback on speed dial, tried her best to appeal to the masses and accidentally came out with “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Yet the reaction has been as such, which shows how emotional we all are.
The reality: The song is abrasive and one of the worst of her pop career. It is probably not, however, a sign that Swift has lost her way. Fall into that trap if you’d like.
A few things to keep in mind as it relates to LWYMMD and the forthcoming “Reputation,” due Nov. 10:
IT’S A SIGN OF THE TIMES
In an age of the consumer having as much of an appetite for a tire fire as one for a work of art, just being good doesn’t necessarily keep you relevant. You need to do something that can be the subject of a twitter thread. You need to be meme-able, even a potential laughing stock.
Lesser stars aren’t afforded the opportunity Taylor Swift, with her 85 million-plus Twitter followers and double-digit Grammy count, has each time she puts out an album. If that Joe Jonas band puts out some shit like that as a lead single, it will get minimal run and the album will be forgotten before it even arrives.
LWYMMD, however, will be relevant. It will be popular, even if as “the junk Taylor Swift song,” and it will undoubtedly build anticipation of the album.
Had this lead single been something like “I Wish You Would,” a fine, Taylor Swift-sounding Jack Antonoff collaboration off “1989,” would we be talking about Taylor Swift and her upcoming album as much as we are? Of course not, and that’s the “better song.”
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME SHE’S DONE THIS; IT’S JUST THE MOST EXTREME
When Swift was putting out “Red,” the lead single was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a monster of a singalong that perfectly bridged the gap between Swift’s pop-country days and her new place as the BSB/NSYNC/Britney of the 2010s.
It was not, however, presumed to be the best that Swift had up her sleeve. The Village Voice correctly predicted this at the time despite liking the song. They were right, as “Red” had the superior “I Knew You Were Trouble” and, arguably, “22.”
Saving the best stuff is hardly a rare trick, but Swift and Martin re-invented the method when it came to the “1989” rollout. “Shake if Off,” while upbeat, was almost embarrassing. It was recognized as such critically; it’s not often that a dance number is called “depressing.”
Yet that song served to do two things: go to No. 1 on the charts because it was still a Taylor Swift song and build anticipation for whether she was actually going to put on an album that corny. Everything worked.
It also planted a thought: If “Shake it Off” can go to No. 1 because it’s a Taylor Swift song, anything can, right? “Look What You Made Me Do” is Swift attempting to answer that question. In the meantime, the Nov. 10 countdown is in full “what the hell is she doing?” swing. It’s becoming a tried-and-true method for Swift.
SHE MADE THE LEAST-SAFE PLAY
“Shake it Off” was the guinea pig for the “let’s rock the boat with the lead single” experiment. It was measured in its execution, however, perhaps because Swift had not yet tried such a stunt. So the writing and production was handled by Martin and Shellback; if the song was going to be ridiculous, it was at least going to be shiny.
That song was such a massive hit that maybe it didn’t even need to be so polished. As Swift went about doubling down on the method for “Reputation,” she did not use Martin, who’s best known for writing and/or producing every fucking pop song you’ve liked for the last 20 years.
Instead, she went with Antonoff, who contributed two songs to “1989” (“Out of the Woods” and the aforementioned “I Wish You Would”) after the ex-Fun guitarist’s success with Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.” Though Antonoff has become something of the it-producer of 2017 (he served as the lead producer on Lorde’s “Melodrama”), he is nowhere near the hit-maker that Martin or Shellback is. In fact, he might have been the weakest producer on “1989,” a group that also included Ryan Tedder, Mattman & Robin and Greg Kurstin.
Antonoff certainly has a style. He’s like the Michael Bay of pop. His work is often noisy, either due to huge beats, wonky effects or just sounds that seem out of place. He’s also a master of abrupt transitions.
“Look What You Made Me Do” checks a lot of those boxes. From the verse to the pre-chorus to the chorus, the next part never feels natural, not even as you’re going through it for a second time after each part’s initial run. That can be really cool — it definitely is as “Green Light” shifts from the intro to the pre-chorus” — but it’s also unsettling depending on how it’s done.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is not your standard Taylor Swift C-G-E song. She was going for abrasive and Antonoff was the best man for the job. If she wanted something that would be better-received, she had better producers at her disposal.
So no, “Look What You Made Me Do” is not a good song, even if I personally enjoy the hell out of it. It’s a bad song that we will all survive, Taylor Swift included.