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Look What You Made Me Do: Taylor Swift's reinvention game falls flat

The lyrics proclaim that Swift is now independent. The derivative tune tells a different story.

If Taylor Swift and her management hoped comeback single “Look What You Made Me Do” would give life to a new era of Swift dominance, they will already be disappointed.

Swift’s last album, 1989, was a remarkable pop feat, first and foremost for its insistence to shout “’Cause we’re young and we’re reckless / We’ll take this way too far” from rooftops with a group of best friends. Through all the trials and tribulations of losing love and moving to new places, on 1989 Swift has company. On “Look What You Made Me Do”, the first single from the upcoming sixth album Reputation, there is no “we”. Swift is all alone.

The charm of the 1989 era was fuelled by the all-star cast of Swift’s gang, or #squad, if we’re going to be 2014 about this. Every other (since deleted) photo posted to the Nashville-born singer’s Instagram account showed her with an ace girl gang of a-list celebs – Cara Delevingne, Karlie Kloss, Ruby Rose, Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid – and her social media manager made sure everyone knew about it.

There was never any doubt about the (lack of) sincerity of this campaign: of course the squeaky-clean image was artificial, but that was half the fun. Swift’s sugar-coated persona was all part of her act, and, in reality, it’s ok to believe the artist of the song you’re jumping along to on a night out is the nicest person in the world when the song only lasts three and a half minutes. The pop world is about acting, and for a time, Swift was drama queen. Her people were very good at keeping up the ploy, but now that’s all over. None of the #squad have written anything online about the new single since its release on Thursday evening. So much for #girlpower.

Now, in 2017, after very public feuds with Katy Perry and Kanye West, it is unsurprising that Swift would think it a wise move to turn the tables and mark herself as the star of a revenge plot. It fits that she’s grown out of her pop princess days, and has seized the chance to get riled up. But while Swift is a smart businesswoman with a team who knows how to play the media, the song’s features don’t all add up.

The cover art features a gothic newspaper script of Swift’s name written over and over again, as if in the headlines – of course she is all too aware that she will be written about. The writing team side-stepped any criticism by giving Right Said Fred credit for using the cadence from 90s hit “I’m Too Sexy” – as if cautiously pre-empting a legal threat. There is even humour – the first teaser video featured a snake, and a diamond serpent covers Swift’s ring finger in promotional material. Wisened Twitter users will know that this symbol – in its green emoji form – is posted by detractors underneath the singer’s posts. By referencing it, Swift shows she has tuned in to the holes that were beginning to show in her otherwise perfect character. So far, so good.

But she’s also got so many things wrong. If Swift is being billed as a powerful solo force, why does “Look What You Made Me Do” lean so heavily on other people’s music? Alongside the Right Said Fred interpolation, there is the Lorde-like pre-chorus whisper, the borrowed beat from Peaches’ 2003 “Operate”, and the title lyric’s similarity, when sung, to the Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 rap “My Humps”. There is little musical originality for the track to stand on. A creative reliance on others is no way to host a brazen revenge.

Lyrically, too, Swift and co-writer Jack Antonoff have missed the point. “Look What You Made Me Do” and “the role you made me play”, are admittances of passivity. When she refers to “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”, Swift is the first person ever to make losing her group of best friends sound like a brag. She is wholly alone, yet totally out of control.

Swift doesn’t have to be a ‘good girl’ to make favourable music, or even to be liked. As the great swathes of Mean Girls memes being shared on Twitter show, being mean is kind of cool, so long as you have a gang to back you up.

But by shrugging off her group of female friends – who once set out to empower fans – in favour of returning fired-up and edgy, Swift has isolated herself. The biggest irony of all is that Swift has one of the biggest teams in pop working behind her to pursue her brand. But these are not the people with whom she will be posing in a bikini for Instagram.

With “Look What You Made Me Do”, it looks like Taylor Swift has lost her girl gang for good. Now where’s the fun in that?

The Depths of Hell
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Review: “Self-Portrait as Hairless Dog”, Alex Jones, 2018

Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

The self-portrait as self-abasement has a long history in art: Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of Goliath being held aloft by the young sword-wielding David; Stanley Spencer once depicted his sunken haunches, grey skin and squashed genitalia (alongside his wife’s sagging body) next to a carefully depicted leg of mutton; Michelangelo meanwhile showed himself as an empty flayed skin in The Last Judgement  in the Sistine Chapel.

What to make, then, of the mocked-up photograph currently scarring Twitter’s collective eyeballs which the radio host, conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones posted, portraying him as a hairless dog lying on a kitchen hob?

This strange, Hieronymus Bosch monster, stares expressionless at the viewer anticipating a moue of distaste. The Jones-hound is unapologetic, fleshily pink in a pose that carries uncomfortable references to Renaissance nudes.

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino shows a voluptuously sensual woman: the thoughts she is meant to evoke can only be carnal. But it is harder to see the Jones image, however coquettish, as drawing the panting male gaze. Is his nakedness a reminder that we are all born of original sin and creatures of shame, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is his canine persona an acknowledgement that we nothing but animals?

The kitchen hob on which this squidgy hybrid lounges clearly alludes to the flames of hell. Rogier van der Weyden showed the flames licking at terrified sinners in his Last Judgement of 1450: this, he says, is what happens to those who err from the ways of the Bible. Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

It is hard not to interpret the Caravaggio, Spencer and Michelangelo depictions other than as as expressions of self-loathing, of a disgust so profound it came to the fore almost despite themselves. Jones, though, looks complacent, even contented. Medieval bestiaries are full of such fanciful creatures; often they are emblems of evil, the Devil’s playthings that are beyond redemption and settled in their fallen state. This, perhaps, is closer to the truth.

However, the cleverness of the image ultimately lies in something it doesn’t show. The animal’s plump tail covers, almost coyly, its genitals and what Jones’s expression says is: don’t worry, if you are looking for bollocks, well, that’s me.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.