I don’t have any doubt that Taylor Swift meant well with the video for her latest single, “You Need to Calm Down.”
Last October, after being criticized for being apolitical, Swift wrote a lengthy post on Instagram in which she acknowledged being previously “reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions.” That stance changed “due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years” and resulted in the superstar endorsing two Democrats running in her native Tennessee and outlining some of her core beliefs — including a disavowal of systemic racism and the declaration that “any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG.”
(It was a bummer for the various 4chan users who worshipped her as an “Aryan goddess.")
Then in March, Swift told Elle magazine that she feels a "responsibility to use my influence" as the country heads toward another presidential election year. "I'm finding my voice in terms of politics," Swift said. "I took a lot of time educating myself on the political system and the branches of government that are signing off on bills that affect our day-to-day life. I saw so many issues that put our most vulnerable citizens at risk, and felt like I had to speak up to try and help make a change."
“You Need to Calm Down” comes across as a continuation of that promise, if not an upping of the ante by incorporating some of those beliefs into her art — theoretically anyway. But no matter how pure Swift’s intentions may be, the video illustrates that she does indeed have some learning to do.
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That is not to say the video is horrific or widely offensive; there are some things to appreciate about it. In terms of visibility, there are a bevy of famous members of the LGBTQ+ community who make cameos: Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Bobby Berk, Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness, Adam Lambert, RuPaul, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Adam Rippon, Todrick Hall, Hayley Kiyoko and many, many other celebrities who sit on some part of the rainbow. There are drag queens (several of whom were on "RuPaul's Drag Race") dressed as Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani and Adele. There are rainbows and glitter and lots of tea-sipping spread throughout the video.
And, look: Anytime we get to see queer and trans people have the opportunity to be themselves and exhibit joy on your screens, it’s a positive. Plus, the song itself is clearly trying to position itself as a pro-queer anthem. After all, it was released during Pride Month and contains lyrics like “Why are you mad, when you could be GLAAD?” It’s not everyday GLAAD gets a shoutout from one of the biggest pop stars on the planet on a single that will command repeated airplay for months to come. (Said shoutout has already led to an increase in donations to the organization.)
So, one can applaud the attempt to help offset the homophobia, transphobia, and queer antagonism still plaguing this country both in terms of rhetoric and policy. On the other hand, good intentions don’t excuse so-so execution. Nor do they blind us from optics.
“You Need to Calm Down” features Swift comparing the plight of the taunted celebrity to queer and trans persecution. Again, it’s well intentioned. She’s been picked on and we’ve been picked on, so let’s band together and dance to this “empowering anthem.”
Taylor: Girl, what?
As frustrating as it is to be trolled online, it’s not exactly the same as being called a “f*****” as you walk outside by people riding behind you in a car — or something far more dangerous and devastating. (I know, she’s learning. I must remind myself of this.)
Still, there’s something to be said of knowing how to move a conversation forward, especially if you’ve decided to finally start sharing with the world what you truly believe. When I saw those homophobic protesters in the video, I winced a bit at the triteness of the visual. Are we still doing that bit where homophobes are poorer bumpkins? There are plenty of wealthy and inherently friendly homophobes — they even have all of their teeth! Homophobia and transphobia are hardly limited to the poor or those without access to quality dental care; just witness the self-declared billionaire in the White House.
I also worry that the biggest takeaway from the video isn't necessarily LGBTQ acceptance: If online chatter and celebrity magazines are any indication, the sight of Swift and Katy Perry standing together instead of not-so-privately seething is what folks will remember most from the video. Swift knew better than to queer-bait with a kiss (unlike Miss Perry did once upon a time), but perhaps this wasn’t the best opportunity to center self and settle beef if the overall purpose was to uplift the most vulnerable among us.
Having said that, the video ends with a message for viewers to sign a petition calling for passage of the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity, which is great. (And fine, I’m glad Tay-Tay and Katy Kat are no longer beefing; that was boring.)
In the end, we all know that Swift has something to sell, which is why, no matter how catchy the song, I view the video the same way I look at all of these other major corporations shilling products my way under the pretense of "Pride." As Spencer Kornhaber noted at The Atlantic, “Big corporations such as Target and Bank of America see an upside in advertising that involves rainbows and same-sex kisses. Big pop stars do, too.”
I'm not trying to slam Swift; she's no worse than most and better than some. If anything, I feel a pop star like her who is trying to get better and had the money, management and friend circle to do so could have been a bit more evolved and, ultimately, given us better than what’s being offered here. It’s kind of corny compared to what past pop stars such as Madonna and Janet Jackson did decades ago and actually, the song and the video don’t even live up to Lily Allen’s “F*** You,” which is “You Need to Calm Down,” if it were 10 years younger and better.
Don’t worry, I don't need to calm down; I just hope that, as Swift learns more and grows in terms of her ideology, she conveys more of that growth and learning in her art. She could stand, like most newcomers to any cause, to calm down. Just a little.