The below write-up is stolen directly from the Top 40 tracks of 2017 countdown I’m currently doing with my boy Tim Maytom over on our new site, Tim + Alex dot com. I’d encourage you to read the whole list – I promise, most of the write-ups are much snappier than this – but I went a bit renegade on this entry and felt like it probably deserved its own space.
My first reaction on hearing “Look What You Made Me Do” was that it felt like three or four songs glued together, and a hundred listens later, that hasn’t changed much. It’s fragmentary, and some of those fragments work better than others – the flashing red weak point being the song’s chorus.
It’s a succession of disparate but memorable moments. The Disney Princess flourishes of the intro, mutating suddenly into something darker when the first line arrives. The list of names with yours in red underlined, as a mirror of “Blank Space”. The way the floor of the song drops out at 1:30, revealing that it was a trap all along. And, of course, “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now”, the greatest memetic joke-form that pop produced in 2017.
This fragmentary nature fits, if you squint, with the theme of multiple Taylor personalities, as highlighted in the accompanying Joseph Kahn video and that aforementioned spoken word section.
In practice, though, the song just plays like a string of unrelated chants, each hook and verse and chorus its own incantation.
A protection charm, to magic up cold armour around Taylor’s heart. Summoning shards of mirrored glass to replace her skin, shining scalpels in place of fingernails. Pyrotechnikinesis, to blow away her enemies. Necromancy, the only way to resurrect her sense of pride.
But, for all that she borrows some of Her tricks, Taylor is not 2017’s most powerful pop-witch. Taylor never succeeds in casting the spell she is really attempting here, not just with the song but its presentation, the marketing and music video and album art.
What Taylor really wants is a possession spell. She wants to put herself in the body and brain of someone who genuinely cares as little as she’s desperately claiming to here. In this, in convincing us that the old Taylor truly is dead, she resolutely fails.
I can relate.
Look, I’ve been talking about ‘Taylor’ throughout, but I’m not interested much in autobiographical readings of the song, the cottage industry of ‘who is this line about’ guesswork that sprung up around the track’s release. I’ve been talking the song’s magic as if it only affects Taylor herself, but in truth these spells are cast on the listener. On you. On, let’s be honest, me.
What Taylor really summons on “Look What You Made Me” do is music that sounds like power armour. It may just be an illusion – when you look at it closely from the outside, study the lyrics or the structure or the intent, you can see the cracks between the plates, might wonder why Taylor feels the need to protect herself this way – but when you’re inside it, you feel invincible.
So whenever I want to pretend I’m a supervillain for three-and-a-half minutes, I can pop on “Look What You Made Me Do” and adopt the cackling invulnerability of Cate Blanchett’s Hela. In 2017, that’s useful more often than you might expect.