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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?

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia