Opinion: Is “You Need to Calm Down” Problematic?

Taylor Swift’s new song “You Need to Calm Down” is an anthem against critics and bigots alike. The music video is a celebration of gay culture, just in time for Pride month. It weaponizes a normally demeaning statement to people speaking out against inequality towards those who are perpetuating it.

It’s also an absolute bop, and the music video is pure fun.

But is this a great example of a straight star using her platform to celebrate the LGBT community, or is Taylor profiting off of gay culture without actually dealing with the repercussions of being a part of it?

She wouldn’t be the first straight popstar to benefit from being an icon for gay culture: Britney Spears and Lady Gaga have done so for years. But something about Swift feels different: is it because she’s become the poster child for White Feminism? Is it because she built a career singing about men in blatantly heterosexual songs? Or is it because of the time in which she so publicly announces her “ally-ship”: a time in which other popstars like Halsey and Hayley Kiyoko are so unapologetically queer? It’s certainly a very different time in pop music than when Swift first gained fame, crossing over from an even less queer-friendly genre: country.

Many have decried Taylor’s “activism” of not speaking out about political issues until far after the fact, such as her not announcing support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. By staying silent on most issues, she hasn’t had to risk alienating her fans. Then she can choose strategic moments to speak out where she’s sure it will actually help her image. Is that what’s happening here? Has Taylor waited for a time when being gay is more “cool” (AKA, profitable) than it was when she became a star to embrace it?

The timing – to use a word from the song – is certainly a bit shady. But overall, I think that Swift actually does a good job at supporting a group without exploiting them. Instead of positioning herself as a “gay savior” against a group of “haters”, her music video gives most of its screen time to actual gay activists, musicians, and tv stars. It also ends in a call to action to support the Equality Act. This goes along with recent efforts by Swift to be more political.

Is the timing suspect? Sure. Should Taylor have spoken out before? Absolutely. But she’s here now. I think we don’t give people enough credit to change in today’s cancel culture – if you were once problematic, you always will be. While it’s important to address people’s past mistakes, if we punish people even after they change, we’re alienating a huge section of the country whose minds we could change. Polarization is becoming an increasing problem in this country, and it’s making it impossible to make any actual strides forward when we all disagree so strongly. I think one of the ways to bridge this gap is to invest in education and actually try to bring people to change rather than “cancel” them. And though Taylor Swift is obviously in a huge position of privilege, we can’t discount her from this grace. Especially not when she has such a large opportunity to change even more peoples’ minds.

Swift is the biggest pop star of our generation. Not only that, but she’s built a lot of her fanbase in the south and midwest with her country roots and All-American appeal. She’s always been popular with families and children, unlike some more “controversial” fellow popular musicians. This puts her in a unique position to enact change; and she’s finally doing so in an authentic way, instead of building up a largely straight and white celebrity girl squad to parade around her feminism. By setting the music video in rural America and featuring anti-gay protestors, she’s also actively positioning herself against the Trump-voting Middle Americans that once might have been her fans. Fans that she’s made clear she’s okay with losing (like President Donald Trump himself, who likes her music less now).

Swift’s recent actions, including “You Need to Calm Down”, are overall good. That’s not the argument; the argument is whether or not she is trying to position herself as the Queen of Gay Rights, when that title should be going to some of the actual gay people featured in her video.

I don’t believe she is. I believe she learned that lesson with her Feminist Queen phase, and that’s why she’s actually encouraging real change instead of just making a fun song and video.

Whether or not you agree about Swift’s intentions, the fact remains: the video led to a boost in donations to GLAAD. Some good came out of it. And in today’s dumpster trash cycle of news about ever-growing hate, we need all the good we can get.

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