Do We Need To Calm Down? Charting Taylor Swift's public politics in far too much depth


Last week, Taylor Swift released the second single from her upcoming seventh album Lover, a thumping pop song called You Need To Calm Down. It is a genuine banger, and might actually be Taylor's first legit summer smash. But the timing of this summer smash - along with some questionable lyrical content - has caused a different kind of controversy than she might have been expecting.

Swift's previous album campaigns have been autumnal, with each of her LPs released in late October or early November. By contrast, Lover will be arriving in August. For reasons that will become clear, You Need To Calm Down has been released in June, the queerest month of all. Yes, Taylor Alison Swift has released an anthem for Pride. Of course, LGBTQ+ artists don't have ownership of the entire month of June, but in almost every aspect, from the colour palate to the lyrics to the music video featuring no fewer than 29 cameos from mostly LBGTQ+ figures including Adams Lambert and Rippon, RuPaul, Ellen, Laverne Cox, and no less than the entire cast of Queer Eye, this song is Making A Point.

The opening is business as usual for Swift as she sings about people being mean to her on the internet: "You are somebody that I don't know / But you're takin' shots at me like it's Patrón / And I'm just like, damn, it's 7 AM". This song is a spiritual successor to 2010's Mean, in which an unnamed person was called out for having "words like knives" which "knocked [her] off [her] feet". Over the last nine years Swift has grown a thicker skin. She sings later, "snakes and stones never broke my bones". It turns out the old Taylor might be dead after all.



The second verse is where things get interesting.

     "You just need to take several seats
      And then try to restore the peace
      And control your urges to scream
      About all the people you hate
      'Cause shade never made anybody less gay"

The music video, with its many diverse LGBTQ+ stars, ends with a call to action, asking people to sign a change.org petition in support of the Equality Act, which would defend civil rights in the United States. On 1st June, GLAAD announced that Swift had made a 'generous' donation, and encouraged others to do the same. There are reports that the video has coincided with a large influx of donations of $13 - her lucky number.

In keeping with pretty much everything she has done in her career, Swift is trying really hard. But not everyone is convinced she's getting it right.

There are already dozens of thinkpieces available (I've included some links at the bottom) which spell out why it's problematic to lump homophobia in the same box as 'people being mean to a pop star on the internet', to suggest its genuine danger can be covered by the lighthearted idea of 'shade', and indeed to claim that it never made anybody less gay.

Lyrics aside, the other more fundamental concern for many is that it's tone-deaf for a straight ally (which, despite much fevered online speculation, does seem to be how Swift identifies) to insert herself into Pride month. Even if it were the most #woke, on-point, tonally-sensitive song ever, it's just not necessary, especially at this time of year. My favourite take on the whole thing can be boiled down to Dave Holmes' comment in Esquire: "When there are perfectly capable queer artists out there, sitting down as a straight person and setting out to write a gay anthem is very much like trying to give yourself a nickname", as well as my friend Ellie's comment in our private messages (side note, read her fantastic piece - no Taylor, but lots of bisexual happiness):
"She may have done this with the best will in the world but the thing is, if this is a Pride month thing? Pride is OUR month to be loud and the best way to be an ally during Pride is to listen and amplify."
I am not about to sit here as a straight cis white woman and say that my opinion on any kind of homophobia or discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender is interesting or required. I am, however, confident in my position as an armchair expert on Taylor Swift. I've been following her career for over a decade, and let me tell you: we are wading into uncharted waters at this point.

As recently as last summer, I wrote, "[Swift] may not represent everyone's idea of a perfect pop star, and she has on occasions done things I'd rather she hadn't (and not done things I wish she had)". This was in reference to the fact that in her whole career up to that point, she had been relentlessly, notoriously silent on all things political. Even in the run-up to the 2016 election, when a celebrity coming out as anti-Trump was as uncontroversial as saying they were fans of a cold glass of water on a hot day, she said nothing at all. The closest she ever got to politics was - in March of last year, in the wake of the Parkland shooting - being against children getting shot at school. And even that hot take made headlines across the globe.

Her total silence left everything open to interpretation. It allowed people like me, on the more liberal end of the spectrum, to assume what I wanted, and enjoy her music without putting too much thought into it, telling ourselves, "she's young, she's living in New York, she's got lots of cool friends, of course she's going to be chill." But at the same time, it allowed everyone else to project what they wanted onto her too. And they did. For a time, she was - apparently - a darling of the alt-right: they saw her as their 'Aryan Goddess', a 'secret Nazi' biding her time before 'marrying a Trump son and becoming American royalty'. It doesn't matter that it sounds ludicrous. In the absence of any actual evidence either way, who was to say which was right?

It was tempting to make excuses for her, to try to read between the lines of her rare comments on the subject and draw flattering conclusions. In a 2012 interview with TIME she (then 22 years old) said, "I don't talk about politics because it might influence other people. And I don't think that I know enough yet in life to be telling people who to vote for." And okay, politics is complicated and important; it sounded sensible to make sure that any public statements on the subject were given the thought and consideration they deserve.

Research has shown that an inclination towards gaining absolute clarity before speaking out is - like so much in life - highly gendered. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote in their seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic 'The Confidence Gap',
"Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do." 
In a reality where the President of the United States has made over 10,000 false claims (so far) and the presumed next Prime Minister of the UK drove around the country in a bus with a giant £350million lie emblazoned on the side, it can feel like being well-informed and factually-accurate is passé . But in boardrooms and classrooms around the world, women and girls are still being held back by the higher standard society holds them to.

When, in early October 2018 in the run-up to the US midterm elections, Swift posted on Instagram about her support for her local Democratic candidates in Tennessee, it was a very specific type of message. She acknowledged her previous stance, writing, "in the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now."

The statement itself was not a generic press release copy-and-paste job. It was a thought-out, clearly-argued, 400-word piece on why she was voting for those particular individuals in that particular election. She wanted to make sure that her reasons were transparent and backed up by evidence. She wasn't even advocating for the Democrats in general, just for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives in Tennessee, relevant to only a tiny fraction of those who would see the post. There was a call-to-arms for participating the democratic process rather for than a certain outcome.
"Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values." 
The statement was belated, guarded, and unprecedented. It seems that the horrors of Trump's America had finally knocked down her wall.

The problem with giving Swift the benefit of the doubt and assuming that her silence had nothing to do with a fear of alienating her original country music-buying, red state fan base is that the ability to take an apolitical stance is a byproduct of immense privilege. Simply existing in the world as a person of colour, or a queer or disabled or trans or nonbinary person, or indeed anyone living their life at the cross-section of any number of intersecting 'othered' identities, is an inherently political act. Claiming a lack of sufficient knowledge or experience might sound reasonable enough, but it is privilege that allows people like Swift - people like me - to avoid the kind of education and life experiences that force you to take a stand.

So how and why did Taylor Swift go from 'not even willing to denounce people who think she's a Nazi' to out-and-proud Democrat and co-opting Pride in just a few months? The answer is probably very long and personal and interesting, and one day I'd love to read it in Taylor Swift: The Dirt. Whatever the truth is, it is clear that the story will feature the wonderful Todrick Hall.

Singer, songwriter, dancer, actor, YouTuber, the best thing about the ninth season of American Idol, and co-executive producer of the You Need To Calm Down video, Hall has become one of Swift's closest friends over the last couple of years.


Of all the reactions to Swift's public political statement back in October, his was one of the most telling: "When I met her I was a bit afraid to be my true self around her because I didn’t know where she stood on LGBTQ+ rights and I didn’t honestly know if I could explain to someone with blue eyes and blonde hair what it feels like to not only walk around our country, but her neighborhood specifically." He goes on to say, "We have talked for so many hours about these subjects and she has taken the time to actively listen to me, her queer friend who also happens to be a person of color ... I know that this was a scary step for you T, but my cheeks are hurting from grinning ... I can’t help but to feel like I played even the smallest of parts in helping you get to this point, and I’m just so dang happy that the world gave you time to learn (in your own way and at your own pace) how important it is for you to speak out and speak now."

Swift and Hall first met in 2015 after Hall released a viral mashup of a bunch of Taylor Swift songs, and their connection developed from there. Anyone who's been lucky enough to have a friendship that has changed them for the better knows the joy of finding people who broaden your horizons and open up new possibilities, big or small. Needless to say, it should be nobody's obligation to educate other people, even friends, about blind spots they might have. However, genuine fellowship, with open conversation and mutual emotional investment, is one of the most effective ways of changing hearts and minds. The very fact that it took three years of dialogue and growth to reach the point of speaking out makes the authenticity of this growth feel much more credible.

The tl;dr is this: as a long-term, sometimes reluctant Taylor Swift fan, I am satisfied that the message of You Need To Calm Down comes from a good place. I believe that she has chosen finally to use her substantial platform to advocate for what she believes in and I find it plausible that it took a while for her to feel ready to do so. The wording might be clunky, and the timing a little bit much, but if she's going to insist on doing this then the steps she has taken to listen to and include her LGBTQ+ friends, as well as bringing much-needed funding and attention to an important cause, are laudable. Would we rather hear from actual queer people during Pride? Or course. Isn't it problematic for a straight ally to take up so much of the limited space available this month? Indeed. Is You Need To Calm Down a stone cold banger? Undoubtedly.

So, as a Problematic Straight Ally myself, I've got a suggestion. Firstly, if you don't like the song, or the message, or the fact that it exists, you are free to skip ahead to donating to GLAAD, supporting the Equality Act and moving on. My proposal is a simple one. Don't see You Need To Calm Down as an anthem for Pride. As Dave Holmes points out in Esquire, there are more out queer artists than ever before, who are already creating their own anthems. Instead, see this white elephant of a song as an anthem for 'straights trying their best (and not quite nailing it)'. For giving things a go and being open to changing your mind. For making next year the year when we get things slightly less wrong. Or, again, and I can't reiterate this enough, just try to pretend the song doesn't exist.

I'm still going to listen to Brandi Carlile and Years & Years and Lizzo and Ben Platt - oh, so much Ben Platt - when I want to enjoy the power of queer stories being authentically told. And I'm still going to listen to Taylor Swift - like I have since I was 17 - when I want to enjoy the power of a young, privileged white woman working stuff out (#thestruggleisreal). It's just that these days it's in the knowledge that she loves the gays and she probably isn't a Nazi. Isn't that something worth celebrating!?


Get your thinkpieces here!

Finally, it's important to remember it could have been so, so much worse...

Comments

  1. This is so thorough! (Although I expected nothing less.) I think you've done a great job charting her evolution from political blank space and showing just how big a deal it is that she's come this far and I love that you included the research about how much women doubt themselves. And I appreciate the link 😉

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a really great article Jodie! I haven't listened to the new song, but I'll definitely give it a go sometime soon.

    ReplyDelete

Post a comment

Popular posts