Let it never be said that Taylor Swift doesn’t know how to market herself. The pop songstress has spent more than a decade in the spotlight honing and crafting her message, but, ironically, it’s her latest music video for “You Need to Calm Down” that could have used a lot less of Swift marketing herself.
On the surface, the video is a colorful bop taking aim at homophobia and haters, with a name-drop shout-out to GLAAD, a revolving door of celeb cameos and a plea at the end to support the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; it would provide civil rights protections in areas such as employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service.
Swift’s petition in support of the Equality Act has reached more than 350,000 signatures, and while it’s encouraging to see such support for civil rights, the singer’s new video just seems to hit all the wrong notes. Both the song and accompanying music video feel incredibly off-key and tone deaf. While the pop star’s intentions were for the release to be this huge LGBTQ anthem, the execution delivers a muddled mix that felt more opportunist than genuine activist — one that more often felt insulting and harmful to the very community she seeks to help.
Full disclosure: I say this as a former Swiftie, the name used to describe Swift’s legion of fans. There was a time when I’d listen to her albums on repeat and spend hours decoding her autobiographical lyrics; I appreciated and applauded her authenticity. But that authenticity never seemed to extend beyond her music. Over the years, unlike other musicians, Swift remained tight-lipped when it came to social issues. Only last year did she dip her toes in the political waters for the first time by breaking her silence during election season — it was a move that was met with criticism by some, who said it was too little, too late. Last fall, I wrote this blog post about her not speaking out when it came to political issues.
While Swift’s political silence was bad enough, it’s her statement with “You Need to Calm Down” that feels incredibly misguided and damaging. A Vulture headline asked the pointed question, “Where Is Taylor Swift Going With This?” and, well, that’s exactly what I’ve been wondering myself. Don’t get me wrong: We desperately need allies and activists. We need people like Swift using their platform to raise awareness and advocate for equal rights for LGBTQ people.
But for all of Swift’s desires to be that ally, the video shows us that Swift still has a lot to learn. For one, she seems to conflate her experience with criticism aimed at her as a celebrity and public figure with the long history of very real systematic hate, discrimination and violence that happens daily against the LGBTQ community. I get it. No one likes to be the subject of criticism — we all know I’ve been there many times. But the two are not the same and they never will be. It’s insulting and disrespectful to equate the two.
There’s also an incredibly danger in Swift centering herself in the video, like when she and longtime rival Katy Perry donned burger and fries costumes and hugged it out as a way to tell us they’ve put their feud behind them. All that seemed to just detract from the more important messages of the video. And, her seemingly using an entire community of people as a prop or a gimmick screams cultural appropriation at its finest; there’s advocating for a marginalized group and then there’s profiting off a marginalized group, and Swift’s video felt very much like the latter.
While I’m glad to see Swift (finally!) taking a stand, the optics of “You Need to Calm Down” wasn’t the way to go about it. As Vox’s Rebecca Jennings wrote…
These are questions that relate to the value of allyship in general — what purpose does it serve, exactly, for a pop star who has built a career on breathlessly romanticizing straight relationships to take on the mantle of gay rights? This isn’t so much about artists having to “stay in their lane” but about the fact that maybe there is a better way for Swift to support social causes instead of putting herself in the center of them.
It’s been 13 years since her first single — from singing about real-life experiences with heartfelt lyrics to co-opting cultures? I just can’t get behind this new Taylor Swift. She needs to check her privilege and her platform. In the end, I can’t help but notice the irony of the song title itself.
You need to calm down…
Maybe Taylor Swift should take her own advice.
What are your thoughts on the song and video, friends? Have you been a fan of Swift through the years? Do you think this new era of hers will create lasting change? Let’s chat… xoxo