So, if you’re like me — always a day late on the pulse of what the kids are in to— no doubt you just stumbled into Taylor Swift’s newest earworm, “You Need To Calm Down”. Like all of her work… its cotton candy made audible. Lyrics, if you don’t pay attention to them, are superficial and trite as an eight grade girl trying to be edgy. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the song nauseatingly catchy.
But, as with most things in the post-millennial age, Swift’s single here is more than just audio saccharine for the summer. It’s also a companion music video that takes the lyrics to literal heart, and regurgitates the track as it’s clearly meant to be directed: a pride anthem for the LGBTQ community.
To her credit, the music video features a gaggle of gay friends enjoying the set design that sits somewhere between a low(er) rent B-52’s video and John Water’s wet dream. At the end of the video she also promotes a bit of activism; pushing fans to sign a Change.org petition to support the Equality Act. On the surface, this feels like a genuine celebration of a community well-deserved to be celebrated (who, in turn, should have legal rights in writing to assure their equality — as disgusting as it is that we live in a world where we need to spell something out like that for the folks that would disagree). But that’s just the problem. On the surface “You Need To Calm Down” is a welcome salvo that feels like the right thing. Held under a microscope though, the zeitgeist isn’t wholly necessarily buying-in full-tilt.
As detailed in articles like this in Slate, there is a seedy underbelly of cringe to the track that is souring the soup of Swift’s soft support. In short: those in the gay community are finding the lilting lyrics too vague and flaccid to necessarily drive change. This, in addition to Swift herself being accused of potentially “queer-baiting” the very community she’s aiming to honor — with several facts laid out in Christina Cauterucci’s aforementioned piece — all add up to a final product that’s starting to decompose under the thick shellac of record-company production polish. Cauterucci posits that the combination of idiotic doggerel with the lowest-common-denominator music video winds up polarizing pop culture. As she ends her piece: “Straight people will interpret it as supportive and affirming, but for many queer people celebrating Pride Month, it feels hopelessly, insultingly out of place.”
I admit my own complicated feelings on the matter as such: prior to the Slate piece? I applauded Taylor and her verve. The video points a lingering finger of blame directly on the stereotypes one sees on errant partisan news networks, and features so many queer celebrities that as a straight-white-cis pop music lover… I was lulled into believing that my enjoyment of the sycophantic synths and lazy auto-tune grooving was allowed. Because if that many queer folk were in the video, it must be delivering the message in an acceptable manner. But Cauterucci made me quickly second-guess myself. If folks in the gay community were off-put by this clear Pride cash-grab— because even blind to the issues, I certainly saw the video and song as being a signal to the LGBTQ kin to scoop up Swift tickets and merch like they were on fire— then my enjoyment may be in poor taste.
Which leads me to this gray ending of sorts. At the end of the day… I personally believe Taylor Swift’s heart is in the right place. I think her calling attention with activism is a huge continued step to get younger generations active in politics. I think the video itself is good fun and the song is still ringing in the back of my head. But I wholly respect and agree too with any folks who cannot accept this façade-as-forthright-faith. Swift’s a cog in a large corporate wheel. I doubt even an extra was paid in the filming of the video without a boardroom review and vote. Combine this with inexcusably dumb lyrics (“Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD”?) and it’s more than fair to assess this should act as no anthem to anyone but preteens in need of a fun song to play at the pool. I mean, my generation had songs that literally told us the procedure to masturbate… who am I to throw stones from behind my glass house?
Is there a “right” answer here? Is the song a positive hit, a cringe-worthy flop, or somehow equally both?
Perhaps I should just calm down…