Folks, I have some unfortunate news. Taylor is back on her bullshit. Now possibly more than ever.
BUT, in a classic case of people latching on to the tangible surface details, online critics seem to be missing some of the deeper reasons why the song doesn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong, as a piece of pop culture, “Look What You Made Me Do” is a misstep as well. It sounds like someone forgot that songs like “Blank Space” were supposed to be tongue-in-cheek reactions to tabloids portraying her as some kind of of floozy breaking men’s hearts and sleeping around.
The internet has already chewed up and spit out the already-infamous “Why? Oh, cuz she’s dead!” spoken interlude for good reason—and that’s not even to mention the gossip about the song being about her and Kanye’s feud and her commodification of feminism despite being silent in the wake of the many recent crises of equality… and so on.
I will leave those spicy meatballs to the many other people online that are way smarter than me and can articulate more about this song’s context in the larger culture.
A subject I can talk about is how “Look What You Made Me Do” fails as a song. Sure, the “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now” part sounds like it came straight from the damaged mouth of Jared Leto’s Joker, but there’s still a lot to be gleaned from it as a piece of music.
Because, let’s be honest, people would be happy to not give a shit about the try-hard badassness of this song if it wasn’t so disappointing on a musical level. Remember “Shake it Off”? That has some pretty silly stuff in it too but we all were happy to sing and dance along because it worked.
What we’re really talking about when we talk about “Look What You Made Me Do” is a failing of structure.
Let’s break it down real quick. I’m going to be comparing this song to “Out of the Woods” a lot because they both seem to be trying to accomplish a similar songwriting feat, just with vastly different results. When you simplify it down to its main sections, here is what “Out of the Woods” (and a shitload of other pop songs) looks like:
You might not be consciously aware of it, but this structure is imprinted on your DNA at this point. Sure, other songs have experimented with the formula to great success, if a pop song wants to immediately grab someone, having a verse/chorus structure is the way to do it. I’m all for experimenting with format, but the truth is, having a basic, well-known structure allows the performer, production, lyrics, and—most important in pop songwriting—the melody to shine.
Now let’s look at the main structure of “Look What You Made Me Do”:
See anything weird in there? In case it’s tough I put the weird thing in all caps and in red font. I’ll give you a second to find it. Take your time, feel have fun and click around on my web blog if you need a second to relax and think it through.
OK, so yeah. The song completely breaks up its flow with a strange spoken interlude where Swift raps about “drama, drama”. And then the song just breezes right on by. This portion doesn’t happen again, there isn’t a 3rd verse where there’s another interlude, someone just decided to completely disrupt the verse/prechorus flow that was set up at the start. Why is that there?
Not only does it interrupt the momentum and heightening of the verse and prechorus relationship, it makes the whole rest of the song chaotic and confusing. It’s like floating out in space without a tether. Reaching out trying to find something to hold onto, some sort of stability as you listen. Thinking, OK, this is a strong melody, is THIS the chorus? No, it’s the bridge. Was the prechorus actually the chorus the whole time? Is this an experimental pop song structure? Who am I? What is this place? Why am I spending so much time and effort writing on a blog no one reads?
There are no clear answers to any of these questions. Even after listening a handful of times to the song, I still had difficulty parsing the structure until I finally mapped it out above.
That interlude absolutely contributes to the song feeling disjointed and weird—and why the infamous “old Taylor’s dead” phone call feels so out of place. At that point there’s little indication of what the song is going to do next. You’re already on the second part of an extended bridge, desperately for something to latch onto when you’re hit with Taylor’s edgy declaration, and BLAMMO that’s the thing that defines the song for everyone that hears it.
But to dig even deeper (yeah why not, this is my blog I get to type as much as I want), the bizarre “drama, drama” interlude isn’t the only issue with the song’s structure.
Let’s take a look at “Out of the Woods” again. The structure of each section is the same as any pop song you might come across on the radio, but the way it progresses is fairly unique.
Rather than have laying it all out there the first time you hear the chorus, the song progresses and builds with each iteration of its parts. It’s a pretty bold move, because honestly, as we all know, a pop song lives and dies by its hook, and it’s not like you’re gonna be humming “Are we out of the woods yet / Are we out of the woods yet / Are we out of the woods yet” all day after hearing that first chorus. Most songs on the radio are gonna serve you up a big loud pop hook with a catchy melody as soon as possible. But not here. Yet.
Swift and her team had the confidence to start out with something subdued and allow the song to grow, until you get to the final iteration of the chorus, which has the soaring vocals and power that you’d expect in a big pop hook. It’s a bit of delayed gratification that may have not immediately grab a person scrubbing through radio stations listening to only a few seconds of a song at a time, but if you give it the full 4 minutes it requires, it’s an incredibly satisfying experience. It provides those same pop song structure we know, but approaches it in a different way with its more linear build, as opposed to the quiet/loud/quiet/loud progression most pop follows. We’d be here all day if I really went into it, but this progression follows the themes of the song as well, leading to a strong piece of art whose different components all support the same emotional content.
Check out “Turn to Stone” by the Electric Light Orchestra for an example of the linear build approach (found in “Out of the Woods”) being used to create a pop classic.
Every song on 1989 is able to do something similar. Not quite to the same extent, but if you listen to each song, some element is added at the end to make the final chorus climactic, usually Swift ad-libbing on top. A song, like a novel or movie or any other extended piece of art you might want to use, is only as good as its ending. And 1989 is full of songs with consistently satisfying endings.
On the flipside, despite having some strong parts, it’s hard not to walk away from “Look What You Made Me Do” remembering the cringe-worthy phone call portion and not the anti-climactic chorus.
A lot like how the people involved seem to not quite understand what made “Blank Space” interesting lyrically, “Look What You Made Made Me Do” sounds like someone saw that “Out of the Woods” was successful and missed what actually made it memorable—that linear progression. Not the sparse, repetitive chorus.
“Look What You Made Me Do” has a similar approach to most pop at the start, a verse and prechorus that build and ramp up effectively—notice how the vocals in the verse are more spaced out (quarter notes, then into 8th notes), then they progress into rapid fire 16th notes. The verse to prechorus transition underscored by the song introducing a handclap snare for the first time in the prechorus. Before that, the only percussion we hear is some syncopated bass drum in the verse. It’s all an effective build that increases tension beautifully. It put in all that work to grab our attention and get us to anticipate the next section… only to drop into a low-energy, repetitive chorus devoid of any melody (“Look what you made me do / Look what you made me do”). There’s no release. The simple 8th note vocals and 4-on-the-floor beat bring the song to a grinding halt.
But hold up, it might fall flat at first, but that could be OK! As we’ve seen from “Out of the Woods”, Swift has used a low-key chorus as a jumping off point. The problem is, there’s no progression. The climax never comes. With the exception of some percussion and a synth bass line in the final few repetitions, the first chorus just as listless as the last. Even worse, the song devotes a quarter of its run time to a long-ass bridge that has the same effect as the verse, it builds and then fails to provide a release when the chorus hits.
For a song that’s supposed to be about lashing out and getting revenge, the chorus in “Look What You Made Me Do” is sorely lacking in any intensity or propulsion.
So instead of the song unfolding and building on itself into a cathartic ending like “Out of the Woods”, we’re just subjected to more of a chorus that wasn’t satisfying, catchy or very interesting in the first place. The theatricality and propulsion found in the verse and prechorus is sorely missing here. It causes the emotion of the song to be lost, and all of the bitter lyrical content to feel hollow and phony.
I have to commend the bold move of creating a chorus with no melody, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. There are infinite ways to add intensity or complexity to a piece of music beyond melody—something memorable that mirror’s the song’s themes. Something that’s not the musical equivalent of having to sneeze but never quite getting it out.
As evidenced by the way it’s being covered online, the most interesting parts of the song are its subject matter and the way it awkwardly fits into the context of Taylor Swift’s image and public persona. That’s fine for some initial internet buzz, but it’s not going to lead to a song that’s still interesting after some other celebrity news takes over our timeline.
What’s especially confusing about this shift is that this songwriting stumble is a new development. Despite working with countless producers and songwriters over the years, Swift’s songs (especially on 1989) retained solid pop composition. It was easy to assume that since she was credited as a co-writer, her contributions were what was keeping the music reliably interesting, even when jumping genres from country to dance-pop.
“Look What You Made Me Do” is no different. It’s got a team of writers including Swift, but it stands apart in just how much of it falls flat musically.
We can only speculate why. Maybe she’s got other things on her mind, or maybe she fell into the same trap as everyone else, focusing on the surface details of the song like the attitude and the subject matter, rather than going down deep and making analyzing how the song comes together as a piece of music.
Well that’s it, THANKS for reading all of these words. I hope you feel like it was worth your time. Guess what, if you did think that somehow, there’s lots more where that came from. I have so much animal clip art and musical analysis it’s gonna make you wanna hurl. Or feel free to click around elsewhere on my page and enjoy all the other junk I do.