Taylor Swift, bright clothes on stage
image: marcen27 / Flickr

Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need to Calm Down’ is not a gay anthem

In recent interviews promoting her new album Lover, Taylor Swift talked about how her upcoming work would have more political substance to it. This is following her posts about the 2018 American Midterm election, in which she came out in favour of democratic candidates on the basis of their stances on issues such as LGBT, civil, and women’s rights. It seemed that that action had an actual impact, with reported 65,000 people registering to vote within 24 hours of her comments, according to Vote.org.

Now, the conversation about whether artists with influence have an obligation to use their work to talk about more political and socials or not is an interesting one. Unfortunately, I’m not going to delve into that here. I’m interested in the first piece of music that she made with this new political element. I am not a massive fan of Taylor Swift’s music in general – although I’ll admit ‘22’ is brilliant. But when someone with the platform as big as Taylor’s does try and use it to talk about big issues, it can be worth taking note of it.

The result, however, ended up raising several questions, and possibly not in the way she meant. The song itself, ‘You Need to Calm Down’, was released on 14 June 2019, with a music video following two days later. The topic of the song was clearly supposed to be focused on the LGBT community, and homophobia that members of the community suffer. Commercially, the song has done quite well, reaching number 2 on the Billboard 100 and reaching a top 10 spot on several singles charts in the UK.

Critics have treated the single with considerable kindness, calling it a far better number than her previously released single ‘Me’ from the same album. The song’s overtly positive pro-gay style and apparent message has also garnered it a lot of praise. I’m sure that many LGBT+ Taylor Swift fans found a lot of pleasure and encouragement from a song like this. I do want to point this out and note that I’m sure this song came about with the best intentions and motivations, for which I give it credit. However, listening to the song myself, I couldn’t help but find issues with the track. 

Critics have treated the single with considerable kindness

First, to say the song is specifically about homophobia is perhaps an exaggeration. In truth, the song is about homophobia AND Taylor Swift’s relationship with her own experience with online harassment. The song opens up with Taylor, on her own, talking about how she sees vitriolic messages over twitter, and how she thinks these people need to ‘calm down’. 

It is only then that the song switches to being about anti-homophobia in the second verse of the song. There’s no key change, no melody change, no structural difference between the songs whatsoever. The effect of this is the song (inadvertently or not) equates the two forms of online abuse, putting them at the same level. This feels iffy at best. Equating someone’s personal experience with negative comments, especially someone like Taylor Swift, who is not Queer and has a huge amount of privilege, with the prejudice faced by an entire community is quite a strong false equivalence. The effect is that the song comes across as being self-centred rather than celebratory.

Swift already has several songs talking about her relationship with ‘haters’, and talking about the same topics in this song and those really downplays the effectiveness of this song being about LGBT rights. It doesn’t even stay focused on the topic of gay rights for the rest of the song, going back to Taylor Swift and her relationship with Katy Perry, who’s cameo is framed as the big finale moment. So in this big gay rights song, only about a third of the time is given to being about gay people. I’m no songwriter, nor mathematician, but that really doesn’t make it seem like it is about gay rights at all.

But that doesn’t stop Taylor Swift from still showcasing how much of a reach she still has, as the music video for this song is packed with cameos. Specifically cameos of trendy, mainstream LGBT people (and Ryan Reynolds for some reason). Laverne Cox, Ellen DeGeneres, Ru Paul, Hayley Kiyoko, the entirety of Queer Eye, and so many more LGBT famous people feature in the video for this song. Feature is the operative word, as none of them actually do anything in the video. They show up once or twice, pose for the camera, and then the video moves on to focus more on Swift. Yes, it’s her video and song, but having actual Queer people do so little in a video which is supposed to be empowering them turns the actual people who suffer the abuse you aim to denounce into little more than props and aesthetic pieces.

Taylor Swift showchases how much reach she still has, with the music video for this song packed with cameos

Just as in the video for ‘Bad Blood,’ all it showcases is that Taylor knows a lot of people and has a lot of influence. Taylor Swift drinking tea with Antoni, Tan, Karamo, Bobby, and Johnathan, is less a moment showcasing Queer talent or power, and more of Taylor making the whole thing about herself. Like a straight person in a gay bar demanding everyone pay attention to them. It’s cashing in on the prestige of the celebrities without giving them credit or actual purpose.

A part of me wonders what if, instead of celebrities, Swift had everyday non-famous LGBT individuals to feature in the video. At least then the video would have been about showcasing the rights and beauty of all of the LGBT community. She had the opportunity to feature people who don’t have the fame or resources that the celebrities do, but those who still suffer the prejudice Swift attempts to depict in the video. Instead, it just ends up being another rendition of Swift wanting to show how many famous people she can get in speed dial.

And speaking of depictions of prejudice, the depictions of homophobia that Swift uses feel very surface-level at best. On one hand, yes, using sign-waving, old, Westborough Baptist looking people is an easy immediate visual shorthand for homophobia. But on the other hand, showing them to be this group of run-down, out of touch rednecks from very southern states, feels like a very straw-man depiction of homophobes.

I’m not calling for positive depictions of homophobes here, and I will acknowledge that there still people out there who are like that. But using people like that to depict homophobia fails, to take into account the multiple systems and casual forms of homophobia that LGBT+ group suffer. Showing them to be the bad people isn’t exactly groundbreaking here, and so it feels like Taylor Swift is really doing the bare minimum here in terms of making any sort of political statement.

It is hardly the best way to properly celebrate and recognise the importance of pride month

There are videos online of gay people completely ignoring sign-carrying homophobes in marvellous and empowering ways, and Taylor Swift doing the same thing, except in a fictional setting, isn’t really adding anything to the narrative at all. 10 or 15 years ago, this may have been a big statement. But now, it’s nothing new, and nothing that demands a huge amount of praise. 

I feel like I’ve come across harsher on Taylor Swift than I intended in. So let me reiterate: I’m sure she did have the best intentions in making this song in this way. It is positive that one of the biggest stars in the world is coming out as being pro-gay rights. I am sure that there are many people who will find a lot of joy in this video and song. That does not mean, however, that no attention should be paid to the shortcomings of attempts like these. Particularly when there are actual LGBT musicians who are doing a lot more and getting a lot less attention just because they’re not as famous as Taylor Swift

So swooping in as an ally is something to be criticised rather than wholly praised. Enjoy ‘You Need to Calm Down’ if you will, but I cannot see this as any sort of gay anthem. Taylor Swift here is trying to march at the front of this parade. Taylor uses actual queer people as props and trying to put her own issues with ‘haters’ on the same level as actual violence and prejudice against a historically marginalised group. It is hardly the best way to properly celebrate and recognise the importance of pride month or the LGBT+ community. Sorry to step on your gown or crown there Taylor.

And seriously, why was Ryan Reynolds in this? Why was he painting? What’s he got to do with anything? Taylor, please explain.


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