Last night, after a social media blackout that eerily coincided with the eclipse, then a bunch of cryptic posts of snakes, and finally, the unveiling of her “graphically designed” album cover, Taylor Swift released her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” It’s a song that is, almost entirely and exclusively, about her longstanding beef with Kanye West, full of not-particularly subtle allusions to the rapper and potshots at his stage design (“your tilted stage”) and fashion sense (the lyric video’s stutter shades), intended as a rebuttal to the year-old controversy over a line from Kanye’s “Famous.” (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous.”) You may recall that Swift’s condemnation of that lyric, followed by Kim Kardashian releasing a video in which Swift gives Kanye an enthusiastic, verbal okay, briefly ate up music and tabloid headlines for a large swath of 2016.
There was plenty more back-and-forth about this, but it’s okay if you stopped caring—it’s a petty, performative slap-fight, and that’s entirely the point. “Look What You Made Me Do” is pop music that is both about and specifically engineered for the content cycle, and, lo, it has already created another one. The single seems largely reviled on Twitter; Swift fans, meanwhile, have mobilized to inundate Kardashian’s Instagram to such a degree that she’s issued a firm “no snake emoji” policy on her page. (You can still post one, but it’ll be visible only to you.) Shrewdly, Swift has made sure it’s not just about Kanye: “Look What You Made Me Do” steps on the release of Katy Perry’s new single, “Swish Swish”—a track that is itself interpreted to be a diss aimed at Swift. Following pop music right now is a bit like reading through an endless batch of subtweets, trying to determine who is shading you. It’s created a sort of karmic cycle of retribution that can only be completed once Kanye releases a sick burn on Katy Perry, thus making the circle whole.
Swift has coyly turned her songs into sly winks at her personal life before; pretty much all of her love songs (read: most of her songs) are, whether subtly or explicitly, understood to be “about” one of her famous ex-boyfriends. This has always been part of the fun of listening to Taylor Swift—the sense that she’s dishing to you personally. On 1989's excellent “Blank Space,” she took a more meta turn, essentially singing about the memetic quality of all those tabloid stories: “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane.” This appears to have been foreshadowing for Reputation, which, if you can judge an album by its garish cover, seems to be quite literally all about the press. (Just what 2017 America needs; another public figure demonizing the press.) Swift is, if nothing else, a master of marketing and of using her music to perpetuate the “Who could she be talking about this time?” media cycle.
But while Swift has slowly come to adopt the darkness of pop-music-as-press-statement, Kanye was born there. He’s a man who responded to a bad breakup by reinventing R&B on 808s & Heartbreak. The backlash he received to his original Taylor Swift incident—rushing the stage at the VMAs way back in 2009—resulted in “Power,” still one of his most monstrous tracks, a fire-breathing statement of celebrity id that’s also sort of the urtext of 2010s content-cycle pop. Beef, of course, is inherent to hip-hop, in which cutthroat competitiveness is a core artistic merit; Swift deserves some respect for splicing this ethos into pop-country, a genre that has long been rich with personality, but that Swift has given hip-hop’s surplus of gossip, too.
But if “Look What You Made Me Do” is meant to fully enter that fray—and Reputation is slated to be released on the 10th anniversary of the death of Kanye’s mom, which, if intentional, should be considered a war crime—it’s kind of a weak shot. It’s a muddled “heel” turn that awkwardly attempts to maintain her hero image, at least to her snake-posting base (“I got smarter, I got harder”). The overwhelming message of “Look What You Made Me Do,” oozing out of even its title, is that she was drawn, against her will, into this morass—a victim of larger, more evil forces. But if you’re going to go heel, you need to relish in it, not insist upon your own innocence over a Right Said Fred sample. It’s good content, but a bad song, which is exactly the sort of gum-smacking media-industry cynicism she seems to be attacking.