Shake It Off

Current events locally, nationally, globally, geopolitically, and in my own personal life are a mess right now. “A mess” trivializes the realities of these situations (except in my personal life. My personal life is not a humanitarian crisis. It is just a mess.) But I don’t know how to talk about all of those things just yet. I’m still struggling through a lot of it and I’m not ready to do it publicly. So, today we’re going to talk about something I do know how to talk about: my girl Taylor Swift.

It’s all but impossible to have any conversation about Taylor Swift without somebody bringing up the Politics of Taylor Swift, which is always exhausting and almost always sexist. It seems like everyone wants to hate my girl Tay– which is what I’ve taken to calling her because all the baseless hatred has made me enormously protective—mainstream media says she’s spiteful and uses boys to get hit songs and feminist media has a habit of saying she’s an airhead who’s obsessed with boys and nothing else. Ugh, y’all. Ugh. I’m not spending much time on this today (check back for a full essay later) but I’ll reiterate what I always say: hating women hurts all women. Also, Taylor Swift is great. I love her. I write a blog called Angry Feminist Killjoy and I utterly, without an ounce of irony, adore Taylor Swift.

On Monday evening, there was this big livestream event where a bunch of information about Taylor’s (yeah, I’m first-naming it) new album was revealed. And of course I watched that live! My life is, as previously established, Not Great Bob, and I knew that Taylor Swift could fix it. She’s just that good. And she did! The livestream starts and she’s ON TOP of the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. So cool! Successful young women taking charge! My heart! And then pretty shortly she drops a brand new single and it’s so great. I just instantly love it and forget all my problems and can’t wait to get in on this new Taylor Swift Era of Good Times With Lady Friends! And then she announces her new album—which, you know, go ahead and clear my calendar for October 27. And then, because this livestream is wonderful, she’s like, PS: here’s my brand new video.

The video starts and is so great and fun and I instantly loved it just like I instantly loved the song. One of the many unfounded things Taylor Swift is constantly criticized for is her ~bad dancing~ and this video responds to that in the most fun, funny, and self-deprecating way. Here’s Taylor, bunny hopping around with professional ballerinas (an approach that probably would have made my years of ballet classes a lot more fun) and now she’s terrified in a crowd of modern dancers (which is so funny, genuinely humorous, I laughed out loud) and then she’s in this cute lil gold bob with super cool gold lips trying to be futuristic (I don’t even know what to call this kind of dance) and then she’s hanging out with this Vanilla Ice-esque group of dudes and it’s all great! It’s fun, it’s funny, it pokes fun at her own ~bad dancing~ and then…

I’m sure you know where this is going. Crashing down, is where. Crashing down horribly. All of a sudden, Taylor is facing the camera while a group of mostly black women twerk. And she’s dressed up in a really horrifying stereotypical outfit that honestly feels like it belongs in some kind of What Not To Do This Halloween List. And then, because it actually gets worse, my girl Tay crawls through a tunnel of twerking women. This is, unfortunately, the screencap for the video. The whole thing should go straight onto an Inappropriate Things For White People to Do list. The first time I watched this, I just kind of sunk into myself and deflated and thought, “Taylor, come on, no. No, no, no. Please don’t be doing this.”

I spent all night thinking about the video and sent my friends a 1000+ word email at about 7 am. Maybe we’ll end up talking about it and another post will end up here. But for now, I’m going to continue this stream-of-consciousness narrative babble. I’ve read scads of articles and opinion pieces and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to critically and fairly respond to this piece. I’ve had to dig through a lot of nonsense (but the Politics of Taylor Swift!!) to find legitimate criticism and, like all criticism should be, the conversation is nuanced. Is the twerking scene racist? Is it racist to presume that it’s racist? Is Taylor making a mockery of twerkers or is she making fun of herself for being unable to twerk? I’ve heard really compelling arguments on all sides of these questions!

Here’s where I’m at… you need to watch the video before you start talking about how much you hate it. Because, again, we’re all brainwashed into this insane Must Hate Taylor Swift zombie mode and consequentially a lot of the criticism of the video doesn’t make any sense, because the people yelling about it haven’t actually watched it. The big one here is the claim that the only PoC in the video are the faceless twerkers. That’s patently untrue. Which you would know if you watched the video.

One of my biggest problems with Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here was that she’s standing still, surrounding by twerking black women, while literally saying, “I don’t shake my ass because I have a brain.” So in that case, it’s clearly sending a message that the twerking black women around her don’t have brains. With Miley Cyrus, I’m constantly bothered by the way she attempts to claim black culture as her own. She wants to ‘celebrate’ it, but ends up appropriating it. I listen to Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus and I genuinely like both of them as musical artists. I’m not trying to say that they’re the real villains and Taylor Swift is exempt. She’s not. The makeup and costuming and tunnel… not okay. But I do think there is a marked difference in intentionality—not that intentionality matters most of the time. Ie: I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings, but that’s what I did so now I have to take responsibility for that. My point is, I think this case is a bit more complicated than some of the others we’ve seen.

I really think Taylor was trying to make fun of herself in the video, and I think it worked brilliantly right up until the twerking scene. I’m not mad about Taylor dressing up like a ballerina or a gymnast or any of the other personas she adopted in the video. I don’t see that as appropriative. Because poking fun at ballet and gymnastics and contemporary dance doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s fun and really funny to watch Taylor fumble around before the (totally stellar) finally scene where she (in that amazing all black ensemble) dances, footloose and fancy free with her fans. All of that is awesome! Because it doesn’t hurt anyone.

Twerking is a hot topic of the cultural moment, and the conversation usually involves white women pointing at black women and laughing. So, while Taylor was probably just trying to laugh at herself—these things, especially race things, don’t happen in a vacuum. We have to consider the cultural climate and context and how that effects a message’s reception, regardless of its intention. So, if one of you could get me Taylor Swift’s personal contact information, I’d really like to relay all of this information. Actually, no. As much as I would like to have Taylor Swift’s personal contact information, I am not the person who should be having this talk. Either white people need to stop making music videos or we need to hire a Don’t Be Racist consultant to review all music videos before they are produced. That person should get Taylor’s contact info. (And that person should not be me because I am so obviously not an expert on race.)

Finally, here’s where I’m leaving off tonight: I think this video has really harmful and upsetting elements. I wish it didn’t. I wish all our celebrities were required to take a seminar on race and gender theory. I’m really glad the lyrics aren’t problematic the way the video is. Thank god this isn’t a Blurred Lines (lol, rape!) or even a Hard Out Here (I’m too smart to twerk!) situation. That makes it a lot easier for me to accept the problematic elements of Shake It Off and still wholeheartedly love it. And I want to acknowledge that as a white woman who isn’t daily and constantly affected by racism, it’s a lot easier for me to say, “Yeah, this is shitty but ~I love it anyway!!~”

And that’s all for tonight. 1500 words later… I’m going to go continue having feelings about my girl Tay, and really work on trying to verbalize my feelings about everything that’s happening in Ferguson, Gaza, Syria, and even my own inconsequential life. I’d really like to continue to have nuanced conversations about this stuff, but please, for the love of god, don’t make me delete a thousand comments about how you hate Taylor Swift because you think she’s evil.

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