In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, it didn’t take much for a song to become a gay anthem: Take a powerful diva, lyrics about struggle or heartbreak (or boys) and a relevant issue the community was dealing with, and voila, a club hit to sing loud and proud. At the start of the gay rights movement, the LGBTQ community had to adopt mainstream songs and make them our own, from straight, cisgender classics like “I Will Survive,” “Dancing Queen” and “It’s Raining Men” to LGBTQ-minded songs that most didn’t realize came from LGBTQ artists, like “In the Navy” by the Village People and “I Want to Break Free” by Queen.
Then came the songs that directly spoke to LGBTQ experiences but were still left implicit for mass consumption, like Madonna’s “Vogue” and Janet Jackson’s “Together Again.” Finally, in more recent years, pop stars starting making explicitly gay songs (Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Macklemore’s “Same Love”). The latest in this line of intentional LGBTQ anthems is Taylor Swift’s newest single, “You Need to Calm Down,” a well-intentioned and seemingly pure bid for more equality and less hate. The more visibility we have, the better, of course, but I think both the song and video come close, but miss the mark in attaining relatable anthem status.
Let’s start with the song itself. The first verse begins with Swift talking about people taking shots at her on social media from the moment she wakes up, but how she’s not bothered by it. Then after the first chorus, she pivots to discussing LGBTQ people and our detractors. “You are somebody that we don’t know/But you’re comin’ at my friends like a missile/Why are you mad when could be GLAAD?” Yes, the official lyrics are spelled GLAAD, a nod to the nonprofit LGBTQ media-monitoring organization, although the intent here seems to be to just throw in another LGBTQ reference since the context of the lyric makes little sense if she’s actually talking about the organization.
But moving on, the lyric that really packs the punch after a reference to homophobic protestors is, “You just need to take several seats and then try to restore the peace/And control your urges to scream about all the people you hate/Cause shade never made anybody less gay.” Shade. Shade? Really? Did she mean hate? Or homophobia? Or prejudice? Shade seems like such an odd choice of words, like she’s letting the haters get off too easily. Shade is what LGBTQ friends and rivals throw at each other in the artform of reading that was perfected in the ball scene to prepare us to fight the real hate out in the real world. “Shade” is what Taylor Swift sees on social media from online trolls. Shade is not cyber bullying of an LGBTQ teen that leads them to committing suicide. Shade is not our own government banning trans soldiers from fighting in the military or siding with “religious freedom” over our equal rights.
After another chorus, the song then moves onto the bridge where Swift goes back to talking about her and her pop star friends, saying that they don’t need to be compared to each other because they all have crowns. And this here is my main issue with the song’s message. Is it a song about how people are mean to famous people on social media or about the struggles of the gay community? Since Swift discusses both together, it seems as if she’s equating the two when in reality they’re not comparable at all. If she’s trying to relate more to our struggles then I suppose that’s commendable, but really she signed up for the shade she gets thrown at her. That’s part of being in the public eye. On the other hand, the hate we experience as gay people is brought on whether we like it or not, because of the way we were born and who we love.
Yesterday, Swift released the video for the song, which she co-directed with Drew Kirsch and co-executive produced with LGBTQ entertainer Todrick Hall. The video features a who’s who of prominent LGBTQ figures: Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Lambert, RuPaul, seven queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race (plus one queen not from the show), Billy Porter, Laverne Cox, Chester Lockhart, the cast of Netflix’s Queer Eye, Hayley Kiyoko, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Adam Rippon, Dexter Mayfield and Hannah Hart. Then of course there are a few big LGBTQ allies doing LGBTQ actions, such as Ciara officiating a gay wedding and Ryan Reynolds painting a picture of New York City’s Stonewall Inn. She shows the anti-LGBTQ protestors and all the queer guest stars being unbothered by it, tanning in chaise lounge chairs.
I have to admit, the visuals of the video and the fact that Swift was able to gather so many queer icons together in one place is powerful and should be applauded. But similar to the song itself, Swift again chooses to make the video about her and her own struggles, which devalues some of these great messages in the clip. The drag queens are each dressed like one of today’s biggest female pop stars when RuPaul comes to coronate one of them before just throwing the crown in the air (side note, it would have been nice to acknowledge the female pop stars of the past who laid the groundwork for LGBTQ advocacy that these current pop stars are following, like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Janet Jackson). And then of course Swift, dressed as french fries, reunites with and embraces Katy Perry, dressed as a hamburger. The two had a famous rivalry, which most believe led to Swift’s “Bad Blood” song and Perry’s “Swish Swish” response.
I’m glad they’ve mended fences, but what exactly does this have to do with the LGBTQ community? The only thing it accomplishes is the creation of click-baiting headlines about their reconciliation, which overshadows the bigger message of LGBTQ acceptance. Again, if she wants to make a video about how online bullying is a real problem and pits females against each other, that’s fine (although if she does want to do it, she should maybe pick a phrase besides “you need to calm down,” which is a trigger for many females being patronized by men).
But when taking a rare political stand and being an advocate for the LGBTQ community (which honestly shouldn’t even be political but unfortunately is), then it’s best not to muddy the waters. Sure, there’s overlap in the Venn diagram when it comes to bullying, but the bullying Swift experiences online because of a career path she chose while perched in her mansion is different from the bullying that LGBTQ children or trans women of color experience. Many lose their lives because of it.
Ultimately, since Swift herself is just an ally and not a member of the community, I think she’s doing her best and the result is positive. I don’t think she’s explicitly gay-baiting, as some in the community have accused her of. I don’t think she’s doing this to make a profit, although LGBTQ fans are notoriously loyal, so setting herself up for her career to continue once she’s passed her prime wouldn’t be unheard of. The problem is that, like all her other songs, she can’t help herself from not making it about her.
The visibility provided by the song and video outshines the problems anyone in the LGBTQ community might have with them of course, and speaking out is really what it’s all about, so hopefully Swift will be receptive to both the celebration and critique here. The most effective part of the video is the message at the end, anyway, which reads, “Let’s show our pride by demanding that, on a national level, our laws truly treat all of our citizens equally. Please sign my petition for Senate support of the Equality Act on Change.org,” doubling down on her social media posts advocating for the same thing. I love that Swift is taking a political stand and trying to open people’s minds. Let’s not forget that Swift came from a country music background, so perhaps some of her Red State fans will be more open to embracing the LGBTQ community and helping us achieve true equality.