There’s an old trick, in horror fiction, for revealing a vampire’s true nature. It’s derived directly from the wellspring of the genre, Bram Stoker’sDracula: We’re introduced to a gentleman who’s, yes, a little creepy, a bit of a night owl, perhaps somewhat paler than is strictly normal. But there’s no reason to suspect anything supernatural. Until, one fateful night — in Stoker’s novel, the moment comes when his non-vampiric hero Jonathan is shaving — someone looks into a mirror.
“There could be no error,” Jonathan memorably freaks, “for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!”
Ever since, creatures of the night have been carelessly wandering past reflective surfaces. It’s a metaphor that stuck: If you want to separate the truth from the trick, don’t look at the object itself. Look for its reflection.
The question of reflection dogged Taylor Swift this week, when she released the video for her widely panned new single, “Shake It Off.”
Swift, of course, is no monster. Whatever you think of her music, she’s a canny businesswoman with a proven knack for crafting a strong media narrative. No one is better than Taylor Swift at conveying a version of her life that rallies public sympathy. She may not be a poet, but she’d make a great politician.
Yet “Shake It Off” — dubbed a “cringe-worthy mess” by Jezebel within hours of its release, and “inherently offensive” by Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt (who, given his group’s output, is probably a hard guy to offend) — has backfired in a way that’s unprecedented. Swift, a public-relations genius, has rarely seemed this incapable spinning or dictating the public’s reaction to her work. The cracks are showing in Swift’s Everygirl persona.
Partly, it was about timing. Swift shot the video in June, and had been teasing an August 18 release date for new material for weeks. Yet, when August 18 arrived, the news was dominated by the fact that Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, had been murdered by a police officer, and that protests of his killing had been met with full-scale police warfare against the protesters. Tensions were escalating in Iraq; on August 19, the terrorist group ISIS beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley. Even soft news and entertainment sections were dominated by death and pain, as seemingly everyone even vaguely related to the entertainment industry reacted to the unexpected suicide of Robin Williams. Several outlets published corresponding public-service pieces about self-harm and depression. The outcry over the abuses in Ferguson, in particular, had become so urgent that President Obama left his vacation to give a live-streamed speech about both Ferguson and the US military involvement in Iraq.
It was during this speech that Taylor Swift chose to treat us to the sight of herself twerking.
Even if she’d known how tone-deaf it would seem, she probably couldn’t have backed out of her release date. But, on that day, the public was focused on war, racism, hatred, abuse of power, personal despair and public injustice. Into this moment came Taylor Swift, with a supremely incongruous message about ignoring your troubles. In the mirror of the American consciousness, “Shake It Off” cast no reflection.
Or maybe Swift was the mirror, reflecting all the wrong things about that moment: Careless use of power, political complacency, a clumsy if not hostile privileging of whiteness
The video’s problems have been extensively parsed. It shows Swift navigating between several groups of dancers from different disciplines (ballerinas, modern dancers, etcetera), in each case proving how “different” she is from her co-stars.
What stands out are the scenes of Taylor amongst breakdancers and twerking women. The shots of these women are pervasively dehumanizing: shot almost invariably from the back, faceless, reduced to a set of body parts. (Sometimes literally: The video’s most infamous shot portrays Swift crawling through their disembodied asses and legs.) By contrast, the all-white ballerinas are shot from the front, often from close range, with lots of attention paid to their faces.
Defenders have argued that the joke is on Taylor, that the video shows her “not fitting in” no matter where she goes, but watch how she moves: Among groups coded “white,” like the ballerinas, she gets the dance steps hugely wrong. With the twerkers, she more or less copies their moves, yet we’re still supposed to sense that Taylor is “different.” Swift is dressed in cultural drag, as a broad caricature of a breakdancer or a hip-hop dancer. Which is to say, in the ballet scenes, the joke is that Taylor’s not a ballerina; in the twerking scenes, the joke is that Taylor’s not black. The “self-deprecation” does little more than to Other the people of color in those scenes, and to cast them as lesser than the white woman in their midst, who is, after all, the star of the show.
Then there’s the song itself, written by Max Martin and Shellback with Swift. Its chorus hinges on the arguably appropriated truism “players gonna play, haters gonna hate.” Which, granted, has become a matter of common usage. Still, it sticks out, especially considering that the song — both musically and lyrically — is a washed-out third-generation copy of Janelle Monae’s breakthrough single “Tightrope,” complete with hand-clap percussion and horn-section hook. Both songs are anti-hater anthems about the power of dance: Where Monae tells us to “dance up on them haters, keep getting funky on the scene,” Swift instructs us that “haters gonna hate … shake, shake, shake it off.” And there’s little else that can match the cringe factor of Taylor Swift quasi-rapping the phrase “this sick beat.”
This comes after a long succession of controversies in which white pop stars — most notably Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, though Gwen Stefani is the grand foremother of this debate — have been widely criticized for appropriating the aesthetics of women of color while, in the same performance, objectifying actual women of color. Swift witnessed Cyrus’ scandalous VMA performance firsthand and had every reason to know her video would cause an uproar. As a businesswoman, however, she probably also knows that Cyrus’ controversy saved her flagging album sales: Miley’s post-twerk album Bangerz sold 270,000 copies in its first week, whereas Can’t Be Tamed, her previous effort, sold only 350,000 copies in three years. The harshest thing one can say about “Shake It Off” is not that it’s racist — it’s that it uses racism as a marketing ploy.
Yet, for this long-term Swift critic, the sudden disapproval aimed at Swift is surprising, given that none of this is new ground. She’s worn cultures as costumes before: To celebrate her Asian tour in 2011, she Tweeted a photo of herself and her bandmates done up in full geisha regalia. The incident went largely unremarked upon in the mainstream media.
Nor is her objectification of other women unfamiliar. Swift’s positioning of herself as a relatable, likable Everygirl has always involved shaming other women, whether it’s the humorless, short-skirt-clad cheer captain in “You Belong With Me” or the evil romantic rival in Swift’s slut-shaming nadir “Better Than Revenge,” who’s “an actress better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” Swift has always marketed herself as “different” than other pop stars: less sexual, more innocent, sweeter, cleaner, more “normal.” This is a woman who openly aspires to be a role model, who didn’t take a drink until she was 21 because of “all the moms and little girls who would have thought less of me,” who publicly repudiates casual sex — “Where’s the romance? …I’m just not that girl” — and says things like “I love cleaning.” (Do your chores, kids! Just like Taylor Swift!) It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could get away with claiming that she “smells like innocence.” But that implicitly requires her to contrast herself with what “that girl” is, to be “good” by pointing out who’s “bad:” the sluts, the popular girls, the dirty girls. By utilizing hyper-sexualized caricatures of black women to point up her own “innocence,” she’s added an ugly flavor of racial fetishization and stereotyping to her good-girl shtick, which makes it both more visible and more offensive. But it’s not a departure from her previous choices; it’s an extension.
Tellingly, it’s that “good girl” persona that has drawn the most contempt in the critical reaction to “Shake It Off.” The Jezebel write-up snarks at the idea that “SHE IS JUST LIKE US,” casting it as corny and disingenuous. In a roundtable at Wondering Sound, John Greene notes that Swift has always been a “condescending sort of ‘relatable,’” and Maud Deitch calls out how Swift plays up the idea that she’s being bad by doing this dirty-girl dancing: “In this case, ‘bad’ being sexual, ‘bad’ being black.” Again, in Swift’s world “bad” has always been “sexual.” But “black” feels new, simply because, to be blunt, this is one of the few times Swift has ever acknowledged race in her work. Because of the moment we’re in, we’re able to notice, perhaps for the first time, how disconnected from the world Swift’s songwriting is, and what a small, privileged segment of reality she reflects.
In fact, Swift has steadily stripped any political charge from every genre she’s passed through. Country, her point of origin, is historically white and conservative, but it’s also an implicitly political genre about the concerns of the working poor. Merle Haggard sang about how “for years I’ve been busting my rear to make a living, but it ain’t made.” Loretta Lynn, a coal-miner’s daughter, sang about growing up in aching poverty, being married as an adolescent and having four children by the age of 20. She fulminated against cheating husbands, but she also sang a paean to birth control and a rant against slut-shaming. Swift, a stockbroker’s daughter, borrowed some tropes — Georgia, trucks, blue jeans — but stuck to complaining about cheerleaders. The underdog status conferred by “poor” was replaced by “unpopular.” Now, she’s moved to the more racially heterogenous genre of pop, but made sure to emphasize her continuing “goodness” and “normality.” She’s a pop star, but not like those bad pop stars. Not the ones who do all the sexy dancing. Or, you know. The ones who aren’t white.
It’s not new for entertainment companies to push apolitical, insistently white “youth” entertainment in times of change and struggle. People throw around Carly Simon comparisons – not inaccurately, I think – but the pop star Swift most closely resembles has always been Annette Funicello. In the early ‘60s, as the civil rights movement steadily grew among young people, Disney marketed the white and perky Funicello as their squeaky-clean “teenage sweetheart.” Despite not being a technically gifted singer, she was a huge draw, releasing 14 records in five years. She’s best known today for the “Beach Party” series of movie musicals, where she starred with Frankie Avalon. The movies existed in part to provide titillation — you went to get a good look at teenage girls in bikinis — but Annette, as the female lead, was required to be more or less asexual. She was barred from doing any “suggestive” scenes, and, in the early movies, from wearing swimsuits that revealed her navel. Then as now, the Everygirl focused on romance, not sex, and her virtue gleamed all the more brightly by virtue of being surrounded by “bad” girls in scandalous outfits.
Annette provided a square, white, reassuringly “normal” distraction from a changing world, a vision of reality in which young people focused on break-ups and dream-boys rather than war and oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech; Annette sang about how she’d lost Frankie to a new woman. 15,000 students marched on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam; Frankie and Annette fake-walked down a green-screen beach in evening wear, delivering gentle musical observations about the discord between the sexes. The Feminist Mystique came out in paperback; Annette found out about pajama parties.
And now, in our own times of trouble, we have Taylor Swift. Like Funicello, she provides us with a “normalcy” that shuts out any threatening or potentially radical developments. Taylor’s version of youth culture is focused exclusively on private life and white heterosexual romance. While Republicans work to outlaw the birth control Lynn celebrated, Taylor sings about snobs and disappointing dream-boys; while peaceful protesters are tear-gassed in the streets, Taylor tells us to shake, shake, shake those troubles away!
The current backlash is, on one level, depressingly predictable: Swift’s “downfall,” no matter how deserved, is only fulfilling an expected script for young women in entertainment, wherein America’s Teenage Sweetheart undergoes a few years of unassailable popularity, only to be reviled the second she’s old enough to drink. Like Cyrus and Britney Spears, the “good girl” role Swift created for herself may be what does her in. But, at the very least, we’re more willing to point out the dissonance between that script and reality. The Everygirl has never been every girl. In fact, she tends to only represent the most privileged and acceptable female identity of the moment: Not the girl you are, but the girl you should be. It’s more possible than ever to see how many people Swift’s version of “normal” shames, Others, or simply leaves out.
The Stoker scene, by the way, ends when Jonathan cuts himself shaving. (It’s not a vampire story if someone doesn’t accidentally spill blood all over the place.) The Count is, predictably, tantalized. Yet his parting words are pretty interesting: “Take care,” he tells the young man. “It is more dangerous than you think in this country.”
It is. It always has been. For those of us who’ve always been privileged, like Swift (and, to be fair, myself), who have always had easy access to the feminine “ideal” through our whiteness and free license to dismiss those outside of it, it’s easy to ignore the danger. But it’s real, and it’s terrifying. Rather than celebrating our “difference” and being carefree, it’s time to start thinking about how much of that danger our lack of care creates.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.