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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Taylor Swift stumbles as she debuts music video for Look What You Made Me Do

Awkward, overthought and underdone, Look What You Made Me Do is is a misstep on almost every level

Taylor Swift. Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
Taylor Swift. Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Two minutes-and-fifty seconds into the thinned-lips electropout of her new single Look What You Made Me Do, Taylor Swift falls back on a tried and tested formula.

"I'm sorry, but the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now," she intones, ushering in the third straight hammy spoken word section to sink a lead Swift single. Why? Synths whirr dramatically to prepare the listener for the song's key punchline or zing. "Oh! 'Cause she's dead!" offers Swift, landing neither gravitas nor campy humour but instead the mild surprise of a receptionist watching a viral cat video.

The first single from an imminent sixth album, Reputation, certainly confirms that the old Taylor - the one with an elegant way with words, the one who bothered to finish writing a chorus - is dead. Awkward, overthought and underdone, it's just one cringeworthy detail in a comeback that, one single in, is a misstep on almost every level.

How did it come to this? Three years ago, Swift was on top of the pop world. Her fifth album, 1989, delivered the kind of sales figures - 1.29m in its first week of release in the US, 9.5m worldwide to date - that the music industry hadn't seen since the early '00s. The following year, the former country prodigy was named as one of Forbes' most powerful women in the world - a status borne out by her rejection of Spotify, the streaming platform so crucial to almost every other artist on the planet.

Two weeks prior to the release of Look What You Made Me Do, Swift had even wrested back a degree of public sympathy following her victory in a sexual assault case against Colorado DJ David Mueller, who had groped the singer at a 2013 concert - a trial in which Swift's contributions were poised and eloquent.

But if it's long been a truism that pop music is a fickle game, its capacity for rapid change has been outdone by the world at large recently, and Look What You Made Me Do is the sound of one of pop's most careful calculators being outpaced by it.

In the three years since 1989, Swift's reputation has taken a battering, the consequence of minor feuds with Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, not to mention a larger, longer-running one with Kanye West and the rapper's wife Kim Kardashian, blowing up beyond tabloid fodder into social media judgments. To cut the sundry she-said-she-said stories short, the end result is that Swift, having built her career on an image as a pristine all-American princess, has become rather more associated with the image of a backstabbing mean girl. Pop fans took to flooding her social media accounts with the snake emoji in such numbers that Instagram used the case as a test for new filters this year that would block certain phrases and emoji.

Ostensibly, Reputation and Look What You Made Me Do constitute Swift embracing her role as pop's latest villain. They were trailed with a video snippet of a snake baring its fangs; the lyric video, animated in black and white except for touches of blood red, draws on campy horror imagery.

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Sonically, this turn towards the dark side unexpectedly manifests itself in an electroclash revival: the arrangement is pared down to pulsing bass and a spindly, stuttering beat faintly reminiscent of Peaches while Swift intones her lyrics with what, one assumes, is an attempt at menace.

It's not a successful experiment. Swift has demonstrated a capacity to wound in the past but it's been most effective in the vehicle of heartfelt ballads such as Dear John and All Too Well, in which the evisceration of her ex-lovers is all the more brutal for the thoughtfulness and empathy of the song. Explicit revenge has always been a dish she's served lukewarm and petulant.

The emotional tenor of Swift's anger still hasn't risen beyond high-school foot-stamping on Look What You Made Me Do. Do what? Essay some mild snark? "I've got a list of names and yours is in red underlined," crows Swift, but it's not the threat level is more burn book than hitlist.

It doesn't help that a songwriter once famed for her attention to evocative detail and ability to wring feeling out of clichés is lowering her lyrical standards with every move away from her country roots: Look What You Made Me Do veers from trying too hard (the overwritten phrase "tilted stage") and not trying hard enough (the damp squib of the second verse's drama/karma rhyme).

It's unclear what effect she's going for when the chorus sputters into repeating the titular phrase eight times. Moodiness? Monomania? All it actually achieves is to make the listener uncomfortably aware that a once-proficient wordsmith has forgotten to finish writing the song's hook.

There's a wider context in which Look What You Made Me Do fails, too. The politics of race and gender are at the forefront of the pop cultural conversation in 2017, and Swift has been on the wrong side of the line in too many of her feuds.

The star who doggedly proclaimed herself a "feminist" during the promotional campaign for her 2014 album 1989 but fell silent as the American political landscape changed under Trump, was caught out taking offence to Minaj's comments on institutional racism and seemed to manipulate her long-running feud with West to portray herself as an innocent victim.

The new single isn't fundamentally, an about-turn for Swift: indeed, it reprises the themes of 2014 lead single Shake It Off almost exactly in its criticism of unnamed haters; positioning of Swift as victim thereof.

Look What You Made Me Do is the sound of a star awkwardly trying to reclaim negative baggage that she doesn't actually understand; someone who's self-aware enough to realise there's a joke she needs to be in on, but is too sour about it to actually mock herself.

In both senses, it's too early to write Swift's Reputation off: each of her last three albums, in pushing further towards the mainstream, have led with an underwhelming single representative of neither the sound, quality or scope of the full record.

And as an interviewee, Swift has long demonstrated that she is far from too clueless to comprehend the context in which she's now operating. But if there had been a sense that she had been backed into a corner partially of her own making during her longer-than-usual gap between albums, the bared fangs of the snake are less a way for Swift to fight out of it than a defensive retreat further into it.

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