Last Friday she deleted all of her social media posts to replace them with three sinister snake videos. In the early hours of this morning Taylor Swift slid back into view with the first song from a new album.
The mean electronic buzz and orchestral strings of the single, Look What You Made Me Do (written with past collaborator Jack Antonoff) sets a venomous tone for the 27-year-old’s sixth album, to be called Reputation, coming on November 10. Like the album’s cover, which features her name repeated endlessly in newsprint, it shows a singer who is hyper-aware of the way that she is perceived by the media and wider public – the face that launched a thousand thinkpieces.
“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh! Because she’s dead,” she says in a startling spoken interlude that turns the page on her wholesome past.
Swift has long portrayed herself as an innocent victim in the gladiatorial battle to be A* on the A-list, from her multiple run-ins with Kanye West, to relationship break-ups with fellow musicians including Styles and Calvin Harris, to her assault and battery lawsuit against a radio DJ who groped her – which ended in her favour just last week. But some events, such as a 2016 fling with actor Tom Hiddleston that was apparently more photo opportunity than real relationship, and the leaking of a phone conversation which appeared to show her agreeing to an unflattering line about her in the West song Famous, have begun to stain her spotless reputation. The snake association began in emoji form, with her detractors pasting it repeatedly beneath her social media posts. Now she’s owning it, and hers is a scary, spiny, vicious one, not a cute cartoon.
On this song, she’s finished being the perfect princess in the Sleeping Beauty mould, static in the centre of her own story while things happen to her. She’s out for revenge. “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red underlined,” she sings. “The world moves on but one thing’s for sure: maybe I got mine but you’ll all get yours.”
The edgy music suits the fist-swinging tone: industrial electronic drums, low, nasty synth sounds and high strings and piano which give a sense of unhinged threat rather than beauty. It’s a relative of her hit single Bad Blood, with its semi-chanted lines, but whereas that song sounded regretful, this one is furious.
There’s not much in the way of a tune but it’s naggingly memorable nonetheless. It’s unlikely to be many people’s new favourite Swift song, demanded in encores for years hence. To Swift, who no doubt has plenty of catchier singles ready to go, that’s less important than the statement it makes. In a pop world where fans seem more interested in what stars such as Jay-Z and Beyonce are saying about each other than what their music sounds like, it places her firmly as the author of her own narrative. It’ll get her talked about again, this time on her terms.