Taylor Swift Has Done It Again
When I asked one of my dear friends over the weekend what they thought of Taylor Swift’s newest single, they replied with, “I appreciate what she’s trying to do, but as a gay person, I never want to hear that song again.”
A quick scroll though my Twitter feed confirms that this sentiment is shared by quite a few members of the LGBTQ+ community. You Need to Calm Down, which is already being both hailed and condemned as the newest gay anthem, and the accompanying music video has been streamed over 47 million times since then. Is it merely another piece of profit-fuelled pride month “wokeness”, or does it go a little deeper?
The song is a message to bullies and homophobes, who, she says, need to “take several seats” and reconsider their hateful rhetoric. The music video is filled with many notable LGBTQ+ celebrities making an appearance at what appears to be a gays-only caravan park, filled with food fights, beauty pageants, and Katy Perry.
The video starts innocuously enough with all the hallmarks of a viral music video, with some very insta-worthy set design and a catchy melody. The lyrics kick in, starting by addressing the online hate that Taylor has copped over the years. She burns down a caravan right before she launches into the chorus declaring: “snakes and stones never broke my bones.”
This is nothing new. In recent years, much of Taylor Swift’s branding has revolved around her rising above her haters, from Shake it Off to the more recent Look What You Made Me Do, as well as many other songs on her latest album, Reputation. So it makes sense that even though You Need to Calm Down is allegedly meant to focus on homophobia, these themes would present themselves once again.
There’s no problem with singing about personal experience, but comparing these experiences with homophobia and transphobia give rise to more than a few issues.
Online trolls who aim at Taylor Swift may be mean-spirited and are often soaked in misogyny, but she isn’t copping this hate because of her sexuality. A rich, straight, white woman at arguably the peak of her career would not be affected by nasty comments from strangers online in the same way that institutional and societal homophobia affects vulnerable LGBTQ+ people. And in a way, this trivialises our struggles.
Which brings me to arguably the most contentious line of the song: “Shade never made anybody less gay”. What exactly is this “shade” she’s talking about? Is it the vile and hateful words that myself and many of my friends have heard from both strangers and those we thought supported us? Is it that being gay is still illegal in 72 countries? Or perhaps it’s the shade thrown at trans people, especially trans women of colour, when they’re still being harassed, beaten, and murdered on our streets.
The ‘homophobes’ in this video are painted by Swift as an old, unattractive, hegemonic bunch. Paired with the couplet “Sunshine on the street at the parade / But you would rather be in the dark age”, it’s a shallow critique of the way hate and bigotry manifests, and it reeks of the ignorant sentiment that bigotry is a thing of the past, that it’s 2019 and everything is fine and dandy, apart from a few stragglers who wave signs half-assedly at pride parades every once in a while.
The truth is, it is 2019. Homophobia and transphobia present themselves in a variety of sinister ways, many of which lie just below the surface of a multitude of people and institutions. The “average homophobe” is no longer a country-dweller with misspelt signs and missing teeth. It’s the people who pushed for a marriage plebiscite, debating our right to exist on every available medium for months on end. It’s the two women who were beaten by kids for refusing to kiss each other for them. It’s the thousands of parents who kick their children out for being themselves.
Of course, this is a pop song. Commercial success is at the forefront of Taylor Swift’s mind, rather than societal change. And in a way, you can’t really blame her. It’s her job, after all.
But a celebrity with Swift’s reach and acclaim could have mobilised her fans to rally behind any cause she came out in support of. And while credit is due for her call to action at the end of the video to have viewers sign her petition in support of the Equality Act, it still falls a little flat. The video’s timing, production, and celebrity guests would have all been greenlit to gain one thing: money. And although there’s been an influx of donations to GLAAD after Swift name-dropped them in the song, this was just an extra perk that she didn’t explicitly intend.
The music video comes to a close with an admittedly glorious food fight, amongst which Taylor Swift and Katy Perry embrace each other. For those familiar with the years-long feud between the two, this could be a heartwarming gesture. But once again, in a video that aims to combat homophobia and bigotry, shifting the focus to some personal drama isn’t a good look. And to me, it reinforces the grave misunderstanding of systemic violence against our community that many straight people share, in which if we all just forgave each other and hugged it out, there will be nothing left to complain about.
But hey, maybe I need to calm down.