When I did my master's research on adult playfulness and leisure skill development, I spent, like, forever trying to recruit 60 people to participate in a study. Then I entered the startup world and learned about CRM (customer relationship management) software, marketing automation -- and even just A/B testing (sometimes called split testing), which is when you compare two versions of a web page (or marketing email, or whatever) to see which one performs better. This allows you to maximize your reach and chances of success by making data-driven decisions.
And this is exactly what Taylor Swift has done with her new single, Look What You Made Me Do.
For those who haven't seen/heard it:
People who don't understand music have already started writing dumb reviews about the song. Vox calls it "dark and petty as hell." Bustle says it "shows [Taylor] hasn't learned a damn thing."
To which I say: your review is childish and shows a total major disunderstanding of how music is made. Like... is it a rule that songs have to be literal? (Answer: no. And it's really awkward when people think so.) Is it a rule that you have to "take accountability for your mistakes" in your lyrics? Do you honestly believe that one three-minute song is enough to reveal an entire year (or two, or three) of self-reflection? Just because a song is self-righteous, doesn't mean the person who wrote it is. Bustle's whole little hypothesis is that "Taylor hasn't learned a thing" -- based that on a single creative work that may or may not be based on an experience, and may or may not be generalized to appeal to a larger audience.
(Mark LeMon, president of West Coast Songwriters, once told me that it can backfire to tell your audience what your song is about: "They want to be able to feel like it's about them.")
Also... wouldn't it be kind of dumb for Taylor to play anything other than the victim?
She's made a FORTUNE and set countless records and won awards by doing that. To quote her Wikipedia page:
Swift has received many awards and honors, including 10 Grammy Awards, 19 American Music Awards, 21 Billboard Music Awards (the most wins by an act), 11 Country Music Association Awards, 8 Academy of Country Music Awards, one Brit Award, and one Emmy Award. As a songwriter, she has been honored by the Nashville Songwriters Association and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Not to mention, in 2016, Taylor made more money than Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Jay Z combined. And she hadn't even released an album since 2014.
How did she do it? Other than being an extremely savvy businesswoman, she's demonstrated that she can "play the victim" better than anyone else in the world.
Let's revisit some of her greatest hits, shall we?
There's Wildest Dreams, one of the most beautiful music videos ever made -- all the proceeds of which were donated to wild animal conservation efforts through the African Parks Foundation of America.
It charted in the United States, Canada, and Australia on the strength of digital downloads. After its release as a single, it reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the fifth consecutive top-10 song from 1989 and Swift's 19th top-10 single on the chart.
What made this song impressive, musically? Using proven and tested methods to craft an irresistible and passionate song.
Sputnikmusic wrote that, "all it really proves is that Swift is capable of taking the contemporary influences around her and molding them into something impressively original." PopMatters wrote that it "features Swift doing more or less a literal Lana Del Rey impression and managing it with a ventriloquist's mastery to conjure Del Rey's moody, sultry atmospherics."
Then there's Blank Space, an incredibly catchy, incredibly pointed, fuck-the-media's-sexist-double-standards (or, to the less enlightened, "playing the victim") song.
Blank Space reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 -- following Shake It Off. Swift became the first woman in the Hot 100's 56-year history to succeed herself at the top spot. It was also included in numerous year-end critics' lists and topped charts in Canada, South Africa and Australia.
Here's Shake It Off:
According to Billboard, it is Swift's biggest Hot 100 hit to date, staying on the chart for 50 consecutive weeks. It debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming Swift's second number-one single in the United States and the 22nd song to debut at number one in the chart's history.
It won Favorite Song at the 2015 People's Choice Awards, and also received nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
Another hit from 1989 is Bad Blood, which is rumored to be about Swift's infamous falling-out with Katy Perry. (Let's just take a moment to appreciate, again, how much money Taylor has made from breaking up with boyfriends and fighting with girlfriends.)
Honestly, I thought the song was meh and the video was kind of stupid... but other people loved it. An empowering, rise-from-the-ashes, female companionship, anthem-y bla bla bla.
It reached number one in Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States -- the third song from 1989 to do so. The video held the 24-Hour Vevo Record with 20.1 million views, before being surpassed by Adele's "Hello". It won Video of the Year and Best Collaboration at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, as well as Best Music Video at the 58th Grammy Awards.
But let's look back a little further. From You Belong With Me
And, one of my personal favorites, Mean
Taylor Swift has always centered her most popular songs around "playing the victim."
So to do anything other than that in her new music would be like investing a ton of time and effort on A/B testing... and then completely ignoring the results.
But the "data-driven"-ness of Look What You Made Me Do doesn't stop with the theme. There are many elements that are clearly borrowed from her and other contemporary hits.
For example, the entire chorus of Look What You Made Me Do is reminiscent of the cheerleader-y bridge of Shake It Off -- her most popular song ever. Go back and listen! Compare the "Oh, look what you made me do, look what you made me do, look what you just made me do just made me do" (1:00) to her famous, "My ex man brought his new girlfriend, she's like, Oh My God!..." (2:30).
There's another part of Look What You Just Made Me Do that sounds like it was influenced by Shake It Off: the spoken little interlude.
Look What features a silly little phone call: "I'm sorry, but the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now... Why? Oh, because she's dead." (2:50)
It's not dissimilar from Shake It Off's: "Hey hey hey, just think while you've been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world, you could have getting down to this sick beat." (2:18)
Let's face it: Look What You Made Me Do is Shake It Off... but different.
Which makes sense. As Blake Snyder wrote in his amazing book, Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, "Give me the same thing... only different!"
Not to mention how Swift "appropriates" other successful cultural influences, like the gated reverb -- a sharp, punchy, and unnatural drum sound that cuts through the track starting at the beginning of the second verse (0:30).
It's basically the first sound you hear in Bruce Springstein's hit, Born in the USA:
That sound was a hallmark of the 1980s... but it's recently regained popularity. For example, Lorde's The Louvre (it comes in at 0:35):
And Blood Orange's You're Not Good Enough:
Pair this with all the crazy hype in the days leading up to the release of her single -- deleting everything from all of her social media accounts, only to replace the content with weird snake gifs; rumors that she'll be making a surprise appearance at the VMAs this weekend (especially dramatic, because her "rival" Katy Perry is hosting), and the press surrounding her sexual assault case against pervert David Mueller, to name a few -- and you'll see why Look What You Made Me Do... is smart.
Which isn't to say I dig the song. I kind of don't. I love Taylor Swift, and I've previously written that she's a bomb-ass feminist who has been an inspiration to me in my own songwriting.
I love her wholesomeness. I love how beautiful she is, and how beautifully she sings. I love her girl power and assertiveness. And I love most of her music.
I love her dignity and self-respect. I love how she doesn't do weird sex stuff to walls and floors and other dancers (hi, MileyKatyNicki).
But, so far, I don't love this song. I can see how it would be catchy to a generation with little musical talent compared to past generations, and with little appreciation for musicality or subtlety.
I can see how it would appeal to a generation who needs the song to be simple and repetitive, because they're texting and doing their homework and taking a selfie while listening, and will literally miss the point if the bridge isn't repeated, word-for-word, three times.
But it's not really for me.
What do you do with it? Sing it? Play it on your guitar? Exercise to it? Listen to it for the complex aural experience?
I get what she was trying to do, and it's something she's done well in the past. Time will tell if she did it successfully this time.
But I definitely hope the rest of her new album, Reputation, is more interesting than this.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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