At the New York Times last week, Jon Caramanica, Wesley Morris and Caryn Ganz had a conversation about “You Need to Calm Down,” Taylor Swift’s new pro-LGBTQ+ song/video, and the mixed reception it’s received so far: “was Swift’s sudden intense embrace [of Pride] a matter of principle, or of expediency?”
“There’s something either tired, tardy or tidily opportunistic about this video,” said Morris. And he wasn’t alone in his discomfort. The video is “problematic” (The Independent), “angered everyone” (USA Today), and “Hijacks Queerness” (The Atlantic). “Taylor Swift Inspires Teen To Come Out As Straight Woman Needing To Be At Center Of Gay Rights Narrative,” said The Onion.
Critics far and wide professed themselves confused and upset. On the other hand, loads of people think that Swift is coming out in this video! Maybe she is, why not? There’s all this conjecture about butterfly wings. But amid all the brouhaha, a crucial cultural observation is missing.
The video centers on a fantasy gay trailer park and its fabulous residents, somewhat reminiscent in style of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, all saturated colors and mad bouffants. A world of pure fun in which Swift wakes up in her own toybox-like trailer, prepares herself a delicious breakfast cocktail of pink champagne and cotton candy, and accidentally sets the trailer on fire with her sparkly phone. Oh well! Off she goes to join a huge posse of LGBTQ+ notables (among them Billy Porter, Laverne Cox, Adam Rippon, the stars of Queer Eye, Ellen DeGeneres, and RuPaul), who celebrate with sno-cones, a drag show and a cake fight—while intermittently, throughout the video, a mob of hideous, dirty, badly-coiffed anti-gay protestors rage and march and yell.
Nowhere in the Times were these hillbilly homophobes mentioned. It’s so perplexing! One of them is carrying a version of the famous right-wing sign: “Get a Brain, Morans.” These protestors are the most striking thing in the film; when does deliberate ugliness ever appear in a pop video? These anti-gay rubes are worse than primitive, they’re literally filthy, ignorant, missing teeth, made to look as repulsive as possible, and dressed in dull, cheap rags that clash real hard with the sweetly zany, colorful and luxurious getups and immaculate makeup and hair of the cavorting LGBTQ+ celebs.
It’s entirely beyond me how these Times commenters and so many other reviewers of this video could have failed to note, in discussing this video that literally hundreds of millions of people are going to watch, that until last October—when she finally broke her long political silence, and endorsed two Tennessee Democrats—Swift was a queen of the alt-right: a “Nazi idol,” even, according to Andrew Anglin, editor of The Daily Stormer. Though she never endorsed the affiliation, so far as I can tell she’s never openly denounced the far right, either, until now. Seen through a political lens, the video’s key message is clear; it represents a deliberate and definitive break with the right-wing Republican homophobes who’ve worshipped her for so long. This is Taylor Swift, at long last, explicitly choosing a political side.
But while the denunciation of bigots in this video may be welcome to most, the form of it is profoundly unsettling. The ugliness of these hillbilly fascists is absolute, with no glint of even the Diane Arbus kind of amusement, let alone the John Waters kind, to alleviate the sense of revulsion; it’s not fun or silly, like everything in the rest of the video. There’s no immediate threat of violence or even the slightest interaction with the gross hate-yokels—the fun, beautiful gay people just ignore them effortlessly, as they sunbathe in their sunglasses and adorable togs. Those lowlife can scream all they want! They will forever be entirely beneath the notice of the Beautiful People.
Still, though, the song’s lyrics are pretty clearly directed at them.
Why are you mad?
When you could be GLAAD? (You could be GLAAD)
Sunshine on the street at the parade
But you would rather be in the dark age
Just makin’ that sign must’ve taken all night
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
So the Beautiful People are aggrieved, we gather, at the hate? But turn the sound off and what you’ll see is the people who have everything, all the beauty and all the fun, all the cake, all the colors even, and their total contempt for those who have nothing, not even teeth. Talk about ugly. It’s an amazing statement, particularly so because Taylor Swift’s teeth are so spectacularly perfect, beautiful.
I mean this reaction to poverty is not even mocking, or laughing. The have-nots hate the haves just for being themselves, glorious, glossy and rich; thus the haves needn’t, and won’t, even acknowledge that the have-nots exist, those gap-toothed ignorant peasants in their gross marabou-free clothes. They need to shut up, control themselves. Calm down.
The song has apparently already raised a lot of money for GLAAD, because the organization’s name appears in the lyrics;* since 13 is apparently Swift’s favorite number, GLAAD received an enormous number of $13 donations, and who can be anything but GLAAD about that? It is great.
But what are we as viewers meant to make of the sad homophobic mob? Who are they, and what do they want? What is going to become of them?
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that there is a solicitation at the end of the video for GLAAD. The solicitation at the end of the video is for Swift’s change.org petition in support of the Equality Act, not for GLAAD. We regret the error.