Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need To Calm Down’: an effective but messy gesture of LGBT+ allyship

Visibility is power, and by using her enormous platform to support the LGBT+ community, Swift is doing important work. That said, calming down doesn't feel like an adequate solution.

Released in the middle of Pride month, Taylor Swift’s cameo-crammed video for ‘You Need To Calm Down’ comes straight from her new record’s bright-hued universe. As with her previous single ‘ME!’ this is a fantastical, colourful celebration of shaking off the snakes and being yourself regardless; this next video focuses on the LGBT+ community.

In the visual for ‘You Need To Calm Down’ the pop star prances around a sort of rainbow-blasted gay utopia where it appears to be a legal obligation to dress like a character from a John Waters film. In this magical and glittering clutch of gaudy caravans, Swifty sips tea with the Queer Eye boys, resplendent in their neckerchiefs. A mesh-shirted Chester Lockhart swoons as Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox waters a fake-turf garden crammed with plastic flamingos. A troupe of drag queens – depicting everyone from Cardi B and Beyonce, to Taylor Swift herself – compete in a Pop Queen Pageant, before RuPaul awards them all with a jewelled crown by tossing it democratically into the air. The Olympic athlete Adam Rippon hands out snow-cones with a grin, and Ciara officiates a wedding between Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his IRL husband, the actor and producer Justin Mikita. The only way the whole thing could be gayer is if Cher rocked up and started warbling ‘Believe’ while riding a unicorn; and lo and behold, the video even starts with her famous quote: “Mom, I am a rich man.”

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In the past, Taylor Swift has attracted criticism for remaining silent on political issues – but in the run-up to her forthcoming album ‘Lover’, that’s no longer something that sticks. Last year, Swift broke from past tradition and posted online in support of two Democratic candidates, and shortly after she encouraged her fans to vote, the US voter registration service experienced a notable spike in numbers. Meanwhile, the visual for ‘You Need To Calm Down’ ends with a message urging viewers to sign a petition – begun by Swift – to support the Equality Act, which would outlaw discrimination against queer people worldwide. The song also name-checks the LGBT+ media monitoring non-profit GLAAD, and it’s no coincidence that, following the release of the video, that same organisation received thousands of $13 donations. As Swifties will well know, 13 is the star’s favourite number.

All of this serves as evidence that Swift’s voice is a powerful one. And besides the hard cash raised so far, visibility is a source of power. When I was a teenager, we begrudgingly made do with Madonna and Britney Spears making out at the VMAs in 2003 (in front of a salivating Justin Timberlake, no less) and the gimmicky school uniform schtick of Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. High-profile LGBT+ allies in music were out there, certainly, but could also be counted on two hands. If a young Taylor Swift fan watches this video, and suddenly feels seen, then a shift is taking place. if a queer teenager flicks through YouTube and hears one of the biggest pop stars on the planet speaking up and supporting people from their own community, ‘You Need To Calm Down’ has achieved exactly what it set out to do.

That said, it’s possible to appreciate the basic necessity of a song like this, and to simultaneously critique the clumsier moments of its execution. Swift’s casting of homophobes as stereotypical rural types with unkempt hair, missing teeth and misspelt signs (“homasekualty is sin!” reads one slogan) – feels to be missing the point. Besides the sign-waving antics of the Westboro Baptist Church, this is not what homophobia usually looks like. As we’ve been reminded in recent months, you can’t spot a homophobe on sight (though that’d certainly make avoiding them a lot easier). A homophobe can take the form of a group of teenage boys who attack two women on a London bus when they refuse to kiss each other, just as it can take the shape of Theresa May wishing everyone a happy Pride through gritted teeth, while simultaneously signing off the deportation of LGBT+ people to countries where they face the death sentence

Painting homophobia as the preserve of ignorant, uneducated farmers overlooks the fact that bigotry runs far deeper; not to mention the fact that it patronises plenty of countryside-dwellers who are either queer themselves, or care strongly about ending discrimination. Hatred of queer people is not something that belongs to the “dark ages” – it’s a feature of everyday life. And besides misusing the word “shade” in the first place – the expression was coined by black and latino drag queens on the ballroom scene in New York City; throwing shade has historic links with LGBT+ culture – it’s also used in a confusing way, here. The truth is that “shade” (in the way that Swift means, at least) might not make “anybody less gay”, but open hatred of LGBT+ people can certainly contribute to a lifetime of shame, confusion, and repression. In some cases, it can prove fatal.

‘You Need To Calm Down’s cast of homophobes

Aspects of ‘You Need To Calm Down’s narrative also feel clunky. Conflating her own battle against keyboard-warrior ‘haters’ with the pervasive discrimination faced by the LGBT+ community is an unbalanced comparison. By the time Katy Perry appears in her Met Gala burger costume (presumably a hat-doff to the event’s theme, Notes on Camp Fashion) at a gay wedding cake fight, and the pair don’t kiss, but make up, the whole thing is a complete head-scratcher. What is she even trying to say here? That pitting women in pop against each other is stupid? I mean, sure it is, but what does that have to do with Pride? That, because she’s managed to reunite with Perry off the back of their lame non-beef, society should be able to overcome homophobia? Not as sold on that one.

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The real issue with ‘You Need To Calm Down’ is not the song itself, but rather, the implication that everyone with a negative opinion to share just needs to “calm down”. It’s a messy idea to stack up next to such a pointed gesture of allyship, and it has helped to complicate the response. Since the song was released, scores of fans have replied to fair critiques of ‘You Need To Calm Down’ by quoting its lead message – rejecting any kind of balanced discussion around the execution. Put simply, this is just not how being an ally works. Criticism is not always an attack; often, it’s a way of listening, learning, and doing better next time.

Make no mistake, Taylor Swift’s vocal support of the LGBT+ community can only ever be an overwhelmingly positive thing, and besides that ‘You Need To Calm Down’ is a really fun, infectious pop song. It’s here to be enjoyed. On a sliding scale of ‘things to get angry or pissed off about’, this song barely ranks.

That said, it’s also worth noting that calming down does not feel like an adequate solution in 2019. When trans people’s very existence is being ‘debated’ on primetime telly, when protests are taking place outside our schools because parents don’t think it’s ‘appropriate’ for their beloved children to learn about the reality of gay people, when people are being beaten up for holding hands with their boyfriend, calming down just won’t cut it.

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