What Taylor Swift's 'Look What You Made Me Do' Shows Us About Adulthood: Critic's Take
Taylor Swift is having her Saturn Return moment.
Astrologists believe that because Saturn takes about 29.5 years to complete one orbit around the sun, we tend to endure our first major attitude overhaul in our late 20s. It’s like a “cosmic bar mitzvah,” as AstroStyle says, a difficult entry into true adulthood that looks an awful lot like adolescence -- full of fury and change and strife. And you don’t have to believe in astrology to know this sort of thing often happens as one approaches 30. You’ve been through a massive breakup or two. You’ve figured out your fairy-tale ending is not on its way. You’ve found out people aren't always good. You’ve probably even found out you aren’t always good.
If this phase had a theme song, it would be Swift’s new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Swift will turn 28 in December, so she’s right on time with this angsty first release from her forthcoming album, Reputation. The song, as the title suggests, lashes out at her perceived tormentors (“I don’t like your tilted stage, the role you made me play” could be a Kanye reference) and more general rivals like the media and public perception. (“Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.”) It’s as catchy as any of her signature hits, but its arrangement is sparser and darker, with none of her soaring melodies -- instead, it runs on spoken lyrics and minor chords. And it comes with a new emo look -- black lipstick, slicked-back hair, choker, deliberately deconstructed sweatshirt.
This kind of rebellion makes perfect sense for this time in her career as well as her life. Her stardom is also entering its own kind of awkward, adolescent phase; her first album dropped 11 years ago. She hit new heights of fame and critical recognition with her pop breakthrough album 1989 three years ago, so she’s due for a downfall in public perception. In fact, she appears to be at the lowest point in her likability cycle: Her inspiring display of confidence in a sexual assault lawsuit trial represented a rare moment of widespread approval for her, and even then many reactions began with “Not the biggest Taylor Swift fan, but …”
After all the scrutiny of her love life, her professed feminist beliefs, her public beefs with Katy Perry and West (along with his wife, Kim Kardashian), Swift has reached her breaking point. She’s stomping off to her room and yelling, “Look what you made me do!” before slamming the door. Accordingly, it is not her most nuanced work. Swift became famous because she’s a gifted songwriter, particularly brilliant at country-music-honed storytelling and at perceiving her own heartbreaks from a self-aware distance. “Look What You Made Me Do” does not represent the pinnacle of her artistry. But perhaps it’s a necessary evolution, a stop on the way to her next phase in life and song.
Swift’s brand was built on her original persona, that of an everygirl whose scribbling in her diary happened to possess lush metaphors, perfect rhythm, great pop song structure, gripping storytelling, and beautiful wordplay. (“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” “Our song is a slamming screen door, sneaking out late tapping on your window.”)
But in more recent years she’s strained to maintain that perfect-girl sheen. Her feud with fellow pop star Katy Perry was far from relatable: It apparently started as a fight over backup dancers for a world tour and climaxed with a high-budget, all-star-cast music video for the song “Bad Blood.” Her long-running grudge with West began with her as a clear victim -- when he stormed the MTV VMAs stage during her 2009 acceptance speech -- and climaxed with her being criticized as disingenuous. (Swift called out West for his lyric, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” Kardashian then released a tape of an approving phone call, although reps for Swift maintain she neither heard nor approved the "I made that bitch famous" line.) Her surest course of action at this point is to give up the perfectionist act and embrace her imperfections and her rage.
Many others have attempted reinvention via the fame-sucks anthem, owning their public histories as an attempt to move forward. George Michael’s "Freedom ’90," complete with a video that symbolically burned his signature leather jacket, remains the standard-bearer. Britney Spears’ 2007 “Piece of Me” even shared a line with “Look What You Made Me Do” -- “another day, another drama.” Beyoncé released an entire self-titled album in 2013 that appeared to retell her story, this time in more honest, angry, sexy detail than she’d ever allowed herself. She ended the visual version of that album with a song that included the line, “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want.”
Alas, “Look What You Made Me Do” doesn’t quite measure up to any of those works, nor to Swift’s body of work. In fact, 1989’s “Blank Space” fulfilled this purpose much better from an artistic perspective. “Blank Space” tells a story that you don’t need a PhD in Swift Gossipology to understand. It displays the self-awareness that distinguishes her among her pop star brethren. It contains many lyrical gems, among them, “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” It’s hard to reconcile that sophistication with “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead.”
But it’s okay if Swift wants to smash, slash, rage, and burn with obviousness for a song. No doubt her fan army is psyching themselves up to this one on repeat, getting ready to defend her honor online when the entire album drops in November. They’ve grown up right along with her, so their mood might well match hers.
So what did he/she/we/they make Swift do? If the answer is that this cruel world is forcing her into a new phase of adulthood -- one with more anger and imperfection -- that’s not bad news. Let’s just hope this New Taylor displays some of her old qualities -- wit, subtlety, smarts, and a gift for storytelling -- on the rest of Reputation.