Music

Taylor Swift, You Need To Calm Down, Because Pride Isn’t About Straight People

Her new song is the equivalent of a straight bachelorette party taking up too much room at a gay club -- and then charging entry at the door.

Taylor Swift's 'You Need To Calm Down' and gay pandering

Judging by the first two singles’ cotton candy sound and imagery, Taylor Swift’s impending album, Lover, is a determined, pointed turn into a new era — a 180 degree shift away from Reputation‘s snakes and sci-fi antagonism. And what’s more colourful than a pride flag?

Far flung from a few years ago when she declined to make comment either way on Donald Trump or call herself a feminist, Swift is now much more comfortable, in her own words, “using my voice to help”. Not only has she since spoken out against many Republican policies, but a few months back, she threw her money behind LGBTIQ advocacy by donating US $113,000 to the Tennessee Equality Project, which is fighting a “slate of hate” state bills.

Her latest single, ‘You Need To Calm Down’, takes things a step further, infusing her ‘new bop’ into ‘purposeful pop’, the term Katy Perry used while promoting her 2017 album Witness. As one much-discussed line spells out in Swift’s new song, these anti-LGBTIQ conservatives simply need to “control your urges to scream about all the people you hate/‘Cause shade never made anybody less gay”.

The music video, which dropped today, spells things out further. Haters — both Swift’s and those against the LGBTIQ community — simply need to stop and spread love, with dirty Westboro-esque protestors holding hateful signs in Swift’s colourful trailer park while every queer celebrity she could contact continues to get their life, honey.

And while Swift’s pro-LGBTIQ single is a lot clearer in political messaging than Perry’s ‘Chained To The Rhythm’, which could have been the soundtrack to Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad, many queers aren’t buying into its messaging.

While well-intended, the song and video are utterly tone-deaf — the equivalent of a straight woman’s bachelorette party taking up far too much space at a gay club — and then turning around and charging for entry.

Wait, Why Are People Mad?

Swift teased the song first by teasing the Instagram Live announcement of the song, and fans — who have long theorised the singer is bisexual — speculated it might be a coming out to coincide with US Pride month.

Unlike the likes of Nick Jonas or even Ariana Grande in her ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored’ video, Swift has never actively queer-baited audiences. The rumours are more or less just stan conjecture.

Then the song arrived; its cover art had pride flags in the background, there was the aforementioned line featuring the words ‘shade’ and ‘gay’, and the fact the lyric video spelt ‘glad’ with an extra ‘a’, like the US LGBTIQ foundation. That last one’s an easter egg, the kind fans love; a reference, like the song’s lines about snakes, which seems to mean something but merely points towards itself.

That’s more or less the vibe of ‘You Need To Calm Down’, a song that Pitchfork equated to “one of those fancy unicorn cupcakes, an impossibly cute confection designed to distract you from the fact that it’s a mediocre dessert”.

With reputation, Swift referenced bad blood, vague feuds and snakes so much that it was thematically an orouborus — a deep-dive into her own persona, it lost much of the songwriting flare found on Fearless, Red and 1989.

Where she once wrote incisive, often emotionally complex songs, reputation feels like it was written with branding in mind first, which, admittedly, is understandable when you’re being hounded by paparazzi.

Lover, from what we’ve heard, seems to be a white flag — a way to remove herself from the narrative. Which is why ‘You Need To Calm Down’ feels so hollow, as it equates her own ‘haters’ — trolls, Katy Perry, music journalists — with anti-LGBTIQ conservatives, as though the ‘hate’ is equivalent.

Spending verse one talking about Tweets and trolls “takin’ shots at me like it’s Patrón”, and then verse two about anti-LGBTIQ protesters from the “dark ages” isn’t just an unequal comparison. Considering that queer people, particularly trans women of colour, are literally shot at and killed at incredibly disproportionate rates in the US and the world, it’s not just off the mark. It links the two as one and the same, as if spreading equality is as easy as streaming her new single. The two ideas should have been separate songs.

Add to that a garbled line that calls hate speech ‘shade’, and you’ve got a song that doesn’t only scream ‘Gay Rights!’ but also misappropriates queer language in the process. ‘Shade’ isn’t anti-LGBTIQ laws; it’s a read between frenemies — it’s as if Swift’s queer buddies told her to watch Paris Is Burning and she Googled, ‘notre dame fire YouTube’.

This isn’t to say Swift isn’t coming into this with good intentions, and putting her money where her single is suggests she genuinely cares/wants to make a difference in the world. But even the amount of money points towards the issue — she donated $113,000, another easter egg that winks to her love of the number 13.

Just like how her impromptu performance at Stonewall this weekend was followed up by a music video in which Ryan Reynolds is seen painting the Stonewall hotel, it’s all just a little too carefully considered. Branding always comes first.

Taylor Swift Can’t Say Faggot (Even If Lots Of Straight Pop Stars Can)

Of course, pop stars have a long history of writing gay anthems, and of having particular ties to their LGBTIQ fans — particularly gay men. Pop stars often embody a theatrical, unashamed embrace of femininity or frivolity. Singing , lip syncing or dancing along, whether on a nightclub or bedroom, is a release.

With that, pop stars often pay ‘tribute’ to their queer fans in some way. Some, like Harry Styles, wear pride flags on stage; others, like Madonna, included an educational slip about HIV and AIDS in the CD for Like A Prayer. Both have legitimate value, especially for younger fans — as does Swift making a clear definitive statement on anti-LGBTIQ rhetoric.

But queer people can also smell the bullshit. Take Rita Ora’s shameless single ‘Pride’ from last year (produced in partnership with Absolut vodka), or Iggy Azeala’s reliance on Drag Race cameos in her recent comeback singles — it’s obvious they’re chasing the pink dollar, because the pink dollar is reliable. It’s up to the individual whether they take the bait; a bop’s a bop, and some are happy with the transaction.

With that transaction, queer audiences can also demand too much. Occasionally, queer men stan and worship to a point where our ‘divas’ become products, rather than people. The relationship goes two ways: pop stars can pander to queer bases, and profit off the connection.

There’s an important distinction here. The question’s not whether Taylor Swift is a gay ally, but what it means to have a song shoved down our throats as a community, and feeling a mandate to say thank you.

Given the song’s timing around pride season, the video’s guest stars and the limp lyrics, the song is so transparently marketing first, message second — the sonic equivalent of Listerine releasing a rainbow mouth gargle for pride month.

In her music video, Taylor Swift is one of few straight people in a colourful ‘John Waters, but make it PG’ trailer park.

First, there’s the ‘gay haters’ with their misspelled signs and dirty clothes, feeding into a narrative that bigots are merely uneducated poor southerners, and just need a Driving Miss Faggot experience to change their mind. Plenty of smart and wealthy people are bigots; their hatred isn’t founded on a lack of intelligence, but a worldview in which the other is the enemy.

They come off as dull and silly compared to the bright, happy gays of the trailer park — a who’s who of queers, including RuPaul’s Drag Race queens, the new Queer Eye fab 5, Adam Rippon, Laverne Cox, Billy Porter and a whole heap more. Swift’s always been a fan of success and happiness being the best revenge, and that’s pretty clear as the gang keeps on partying and spilling tea.

But the video ends with an unannounced cameo — Katy Perry, with whom Swift has had a long standing feud. In burger and french fry costumes, the two hug and make-up. Among the queer utopia, these two straight women have sorted out their differences about backup dancers or whatever: if only the bigots could just calm down.


Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and would like to remind Taylor Swift stans that having an opinion is neither throwing shade or bullying.