To say Taylor Swift is only just now being “political” is about as silly as saying she’s “only” been writing pop songs in the last few years. Swift may be more explicit with her politics (“politics”) now, but every public-facing choice she’s made in her come-up has been a political one, often shrewd and more often transparently strategic.
That subtext has now become hyper-text in the lead-up to her new album, her seventh, called Lover. Its second single, “You Need to Calm Down,” was released last Friday. The song—a sort of benign electro-pop number that would be otherwise unremarkable were it not a uh, Taylor Swift song—has been largely, if reservedly, praised for its pro-LGBTQ message (choice couplet of chainsaw subtlety: “Why are you mad? / When you could be GLAAD?”), and its star-studded music video made a big splash on Monday morning.
The video, where Swift is (I guess?) the resident ally in a trailer park exclusively populated by LGBTQ celebrities (and Katy Perry), serves as the clearest summation yet of her new explicitly, outwardly, and confusedly political era.
Co-directed by Swift with Drew Kirsch, the video finally gives us a visual rendering of the people she says (in the song at least) are “comin’ at my friends like a missile,” the homophobes raining her on her queer friends’ parades, the ones living in the “dark age” making signs that “must’ve taken all night”:
They’re backwater hicks! This is a staggeringly regressive (and classist) understanding of homophobia but entirely unsurprising given what we’ve been seeing of Swift’s blinkered politics.
She has (admirably) positioned herself as a proud supporter of the Equality Act, a big piece of LGBTQ legislation, calling on her fans to contact their representatives to get them on board (she even posted the letter she sent to one of her senators, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, on her Instagram), taking her most visible shot at Trump in the process. And the “You Need to Calm Down” video ends with a card asking people to sign her Change.org petition to support the Equality Act. In her Instagram post about her letter to Alexander (which also appears in part in her petition), she comes very close to getting it: “Politicians need votes to stay in office. Votes come from the people. Pressure from massive amounts of people is a major way to push politicians towards positive change.”
But when Swift gets her most high-profile opportunity yet to show who exactly is standing in way of that positive change, it’s not obstructionist Republicans in Congress, or on-the-record bigot Mike Pence, or bloodless multinational corporations splashing their logos in rainbows while openly funding anti-LGBTQ politicians and policy—it’s a cartoonish version of the Westboro Baptist Church. Which isn’t to say hate groups aren’t harmful to equality, but singling them out is missing the much larger picture (and missing the point).
Swift very clearly wants to be seen and understood as an ally to the LGBTQ community, but doesn’t seem to know (or care?) who to defend them from—including from people like her, with good, if maddeningly misguided, intentions.
The rollout for Lover is a marked change of pace and tone from how Swift promoted her last album, Reputation, which was notable for its relative lack of promotion: for about two years, Swift did no meaningful press. She’s back to her old ways now, mugging for the camera for softball interviews and performing on late night (we’re nearing 1989-level omnipresence here)—but this time with an added, and frequently embarrassing, political twist.
“Invoking racism and provoking fear through thinly veiled messaging is not what I want from our leaders, and I realized that it actually is my responsibility to use my influence against that disgusting rhetoric,” Swift wrote in an essay for Elle in March. “I’m going to do more to help. We have a big race coming up next year.”
This has been building for some time. Swift famously did not speak in either direction about the 2016 election; by the 2018 midterms, she was endorsing a Democrat for Senate in Tennessee and encouraging her followers to vote on Election Day. (Is there anything to read into her waiting to do this until the day after the North American leg of her monstrously successful Reputation stadium tour ended? That’s for another blog!) And as the Lover press cycle revved up this year, her Instagram and red carpet looks have been doused with queer imagery, bordering on obsessive. She has a lot to say, and she’s saying it to more and more outlets.
“I would look out into the audience and I’d see these amazing, thoughtful, caring, wonderful, empathetic people,” she told Entertainment Weekly in May for a rare cover story. “So often with our takedown culture, talking s— about a celebrity is basically the same as talking s— about the new iPhone. So when I go and I meet fans, I see that they actually see me as a flesh-and-blood human being. That—as contrived as it may sound—changed [me] completely, assigning humanity to my life.”
This is about as explicit a value statement as you can get from someone of Swift’s caliber of fame, and perhaps should have served as a larger warning for what was to come, a useful piece of foregrounding that “You Need to Calm Down” would later materialize from. Reading this, you can see how she would try to flatten the distance between her experience and her queer fans’ experience.
Part of the problem is the songwriting here, among the most sanded-down and opaque of her career: The song gauzily conflates the “hate” she endures from her detractors and the kind of hate her queer fans face, an insulting and indulgent view of what is actually happening in this country. (The night of the song’s release, she had a surprise performance at the Stonewall Inn. Happy Pride!)
This is all very ironic given that some of Swift’s best songs are purely adversarial: against Nashville gatekeepers; against men who have wronged her; against the tabloids. In “You Need to Calm Down,” she appears to draw no material distinction between the people who would dare speak a cross word about a multi-million-making, Grammy-winning, football-stadium sell-outing pop singer and people who would do anything to deny LGBTQ people human rights, or wish them death.
Her music has always been diaristic and made to be understood in relation to her (the first single from Lover is literally called “ME!”). But if Swift wants to be the ally she has spent quite a bit of time making herself out to be, and especially if she wants to make music about it, then perhaps for the first time in her life, it might be time to not make it about herself.