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Fame and celebrity

Taylor Swift’s new single Look What You Made Me Do signals she’ll be on the attack on upcoming album Reputation

Swift is back and she’s packing a punch that might leave those who’ve scorned her begging to be ‘excluded from the narrative’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 1:27pm

In professional wrestling the “heel turn” is the moment when the hero turns their gaze to the dark side; when they embrace their worst impulses and plunge into total villainy.

It is an opportunity for former saints to engage in sneaky moves and give scorched earth speeches. Even more importantly, it is a chance for the audience to indulge in their impulses towards white-hot fury, which at times can seem exponentially more powerful than adulation.

Taylor Swift’s new single, Look What You Made Me Do, could mark her heel turn. Since her arrival in 2006, she has been positioned as one of pop’s biggest names. Her shift from country to country-pop to straight pop has been accompanied by albums full of songs that paint her as a hopeless romantic who bruises easily.

During the campaign for her previous album, 2014’s plush pop blockbuster 1989, she also positioned herself as the queen bee of a “squad” that contained as many women as she could bring into her orbit – from superfans who she welcomed into her home for a listening party to her ever-shifting inner circle of celebrity friends who popped up on her Instagram feed and at her annual Fourth of July blowout.

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She was the all-American pop star with relatable lyrics, who sang of offering shoulders to cry on and being star-struck by New York.

On the other hand, Swift is a savvy businesswoman who knows which way the wind is blowing, and how simply drawn narratives can often seem more important than artists’ actual bodies of work. She’s also very aware of how the perception of her has shifted since the calendar flipped to 2016.

The Kanye West-Taylor Swift feud that has been percolating since West interrupted her Video Music Awards acceptance speech in 2009 took multiple turns last year. West released Famous, which included the line “I made that bitch famous!”, referring to Swift, who is mentioned in the previous line as a potential sex partner.

Swift then retorted during her victory speech for 1989’s album of the year win at the Grammys. Kim Kardashian West then “exposed” Swift’s approval of the line via Snapchat, before Swift asked to be “excluded from this narrative” via Instagram. There were smaller, more subtle twists that happened along the way, but that’s the basic story.

It’s ridiculous in a lot of ways, high school gossip amplified to feed the public’s hunger for drama. It’s also why her next album Reputation, which comes out on November 10, seems to represent a heel turn for Swift, or at least a lean towards the dark side.

This week Swift wiped all of her social media, snapping the blinds on her past life. She later teased something via a series of videos showing a snake glittering in low light. Reputation’s cover shows Swift posing defiantly, her constant press threatening to overtake her, the album title in a font normally reserved for metal bands.

Produced by Jack Antonoff, the album’s lead single is a skeletal slice of electro-pop that borrows its beat from the provocateur Peaches’ 2003 banger Operate and places Swift’s tremulous voice front and centre. That’s a welcome development in the wake of I Don’t Want to Live Forever, the 50 Shades Darker tie-in track from earlier this year that rendered her nearly unrecognisable as she traded sighs with Zayn Malik. It’s also a bold move in a pop market that seems averse to women who possess any sort of unique vocal personality.

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On Look What You Made Me Do, Swift’s lyrics are visceral and almost sloppy, with her rhyming “time” and “time” on the Lorde-channelling pre-chorus, and melodramatically declaring that “the old Taylor” is “dead!”. The chorus borrows its cadence from Right Said Fred’s 1992 body-shaker I’m Too Sexy, a ridiculous touch that at least cuts the acid a bit. There’s also a callback to Britney Spears’ 2007 track Piece of Me, which made references to the tabloid-chronicled problems that had plagued her earlier that year.

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on Aug 25, 2017 at 4:54am PDT

The songs Swift is borrowing from are superior to Look What You Made Me Do, although its potential for pop catharsis is off the charts. How will this track fit into the album’s greater narrative? Is it a prelude to Swift releasing a bitchy album, one where each celebrity who’s peeved her – West, Kardashian West, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris, whoever was rude to her cats – gets a diss track of their own?

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One thing is for sure, with a handful of Swift’s most iconic characters from songs past featuring at the end of her latest music video, it seems that fans can look forward to seeing more sides to her personality. After all, a heel turn doesn’t work without there being a return to being good somewhere on the horizon.