The issue with Taylor Swift's LGBT+ video is its passivity: In a queer-hating world, we don't 'need to calm down'
The problem with Taylor Swift's 'You Need To Calm Down' is not in the allegation that it milks the Pride Month but that it does not champion queer rights aggressively.
In sifting through my memories of growing up in the Bangalore of the '90s, I see that I was not as isolated from pop culture as I had imagined. I was queer pretty early on, and since I have never been very good at hiding it, I have been teased, taunted and thrashed for it. Boy George, WHAM!, Falguni Pathak, Dilruba from Shriman Shrimati, and every Bollywood hero’s stylish sidekick allowed me to even imagine that there was space for me in the world.
Over time, I understood that these men and women traced their lineages to other leading ladies. In discovering these influences, I began to identify more with the women in the movies and music. There was something about the way they played between the action and the actual acting out of an emotion. It was like these women were showing me that they were always in on the game. This shifting between the authentic and the fake is a major preoccupation of the queer experience. Female pop stars and their queer audiences have had a long history of feeding off of each other. We have come to see their music as sites for the slippage between these two states of being. When we hear Celine Dion belting out 'It’s All Coming Back To Me Now' or Mariah Carey crooning 'Honey' or Aretha Franklin throwing down 'Respect', we understand that the queer experience – inferior, ignored, imprisoned on the daily – is being recognised, recharged, and rejoiced. We – the queer audiences – of these female pop stars have come to expect them to honour this contract.
I am not a Taylor Swift fan. I am not one of the Swifties. But some of my people are, and so I have listened to all of her albums and gone down the rabbit hole of her videos. So a couple of days ago, when she dropped the video for her latest single, “You Need To Calm Down”, I decided to check it out. I had read somewhere that some of the contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race were making cameos and I was excited to see them. Cameos have such heft.
I must have been 11 years old when I saw Madonna’s video for Vogue on the two hours of MTV that would come on DD Metro. I did not understand it but I knew those were my people in the video. Watching their hands slice through the air, the flick in their wrist, the turn in the step – I knew she was showing me a place where these things in my body and my imagination would be celebrated, not censored. I did not know it was a gay scene. I did not know any of these terms. I just knew I would have to get there someday. I see Taylor Swift’s 'You Need To Calm Down' video having the same effect on some kid out there. And in that sense, this video is contemporary and quite woke. It seems to check all the boxes and represent every hue from the queer colour wheel. And well, that is commendable. And I am sure some young queer person will point at any of the other cameos of LGBTQ celebs and exclaim, “That’s me!”.
Popular backlash to this video from the LGBTQ community has been fatigue and frustration at yet another attempt at pandering to the queers’ spending power during this Pride Month. Another has been the simplistic reading of the aggressors as ‘rednecks’ or ‘white trash’ because homophobia and its resulting violence is not simple, it is systemic. There is the opinion that Swift just used the razzle-dazzle of her LGBTQ friends in video to actually draw attention to her burying the hatchet with Katy Perry, since everyone had forgotten they had even had a feud. Some people have shrugged and said she needs the queer community to even stay relevant.
I think the last one is a bit harsh but I do not have a real problem with the rest. The queer community has become a viable market for corporations now. It might be our responsibility to demand that they do not pander but push their services to address all of our community. In painting the enemy, we are all to blame for being reductive – we put all of the wrong in people who we fear or fear us. (See: Straight people’s ongoing violence on queer bodies.) Since we expect better from her, we should also expect better from ourselves. And well, the last time Perry was relevant was the lipsync-for-your-life between the drag queens Kennedy Davenport and Katya. So it makes perfect sense that drag queens and queers would signal her return to relevance as well.
So, what is my problem with this video? It is the messaging of the song. It is the passivity of it. Swift had previously asked us to “Shake It Off” 'cause the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. The thing is being a queer person, I have learned quite the hard way that the haters also want to hit, hurt and harm you. Being a queer person, one is not just faced with bullies, who we learn to navigate early on, it is knowing that our dreams might not have doors. In equating her trolling on the internet to the queer experience, she seems to miss the point. While she might be able to say from the safety of her privileges to her trolls, you need to calm down. Queer people in public spaces do not have that luxury. In fact, pride and its celebration comes from rioting by activists like Marsha P Johnson and others, and not from being calmed down.
Swift seems to have missed the entire point of pride celebrations. We – the queer community – are losing the point of pride celebrations. The only way to take on the systemic violence against our queer bodies is not to take it calmly. It is to get up, stand up and fight for it. My problem with Swift and this video: she seems to be breaking that longstanding contract between female pop star and queer audiences. She is not pushing us forward but pulling us back.
In Solange’s album A Seat At The Table, there is this song; there are three lines that particularly honoured the anger burning in my chest at all times: ‘You got the right to be mad’, ‘I got a lot to be mad about’ and ‘But I’m not really allowed to be mad’. I am mad all the time. That is the queer experience of being in this world. Yes, it is tiring. It also gives joy, and fosters families, friendships and love. And I do not need anyone – not even an ally – telling me to calm down. Thank you very much.
All images from YouTube.
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