Taylor Swift’s new song “Shake It Off” is a catchy pop tune with more than a few sly references to how she copes with her critics. The video features Swift in multiple genres from ballet to a hip-hop setting being a slightly adorkable young woman who has fun with what she’s doing, but doesn’t quite fit in.
Artist Earl Sweatshirt raised the accusation on Twitter that Swift is indulging racist tropes, especially toward the end when she crawls underneath a line of women of color twerking and stares up at them.
“Haven’t watched the taylor swift video and I don’t need to watch it to tell you that it’s inherently offensive and ultimately harmful,” tweeted the rapper Earl Sweatshirt, a few hours after the video was posted. “[It is] perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture. For instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it’s ok for you to be trill or twerk or say nigga.”
Video director, Mark Romanek, responded to the criticism with swift denials of racism. And promptly introduced a specific racist truth to the entire discussion.
“Rejecting Earl Sweatshirt’s tweeted criticisms, Mark Romanek claimed the clip has a “humanistic and utterly colour-blind message”. If you look at it carefully, it’s a massively inclusive piece,” Romanek told Vulture. “It’s very, very innocently and positively intentioned. And — let’s remember — it’s a satirical piece. It’s playing with a whole range of music-video tropes and clichés and stereotypes.”
Romanek’s ignorance is summed up in the word colour-blind, a dismissive term often used to describe a la-la-la world in which people disregard ethnic truths, historical oppression and cultural appropriation. It is a very big red flag that the next few sentences will be ridiculous and likely offensive. No one is colour-blind (or color-blind) and suggesting otherwise is foolish and contributes to the larger problem.
Romanek claims the video is “very, very innocently and positively intentioned.” Innocence is not intentional. The video is not innocent. It is a commercial endeavor with some clever moments. That’s not innocent. No music video is innocent. Then he delivers the swing – “it’s a satirical piece” – how is something innocent and positively intentioned, yet satirical? The point of satire is to expose and critique other people. It isn’t remotely innocent. I think some of what they are sending up is the impression that Swift is an innocent country girl, but that’s certainly not innocent.
The director’s wordy defense of his art serves to prove Earl Sweatshirt’s point – the video does lift up black culture while hiding prejudice. Claiming it is color-blind is the key to me. I watched the video several times and noticed a distinct lack of “color blindness” in the casting. None of the ballet performers are people of color and the final scenes are mostly white folks. That struck me right away. It doesn’t have to be inherently racist casting, but an attentive director focused on themes of stereotypes might have caught that. How do you send up tropes about ballet by casting all white women to highlight Swift’s lack of grace? Wouldn’t a “color-blind” approach by nature cast each scene with a diverse group of performers – isn’t that his point? Wouldn’t he intentionally mix things up by perhaps having an all-black ballet group?
But I’m falling down the rabbithole. I’m not going to tell a man of color or other people who analyzed the video that it is not racist. I see their point – it does tiptoe around that little fantasy land of being “color-blind” that buffers young people from the realities of racism in our society. The video is not about Swift leaping from her innocent “Fifteen” stage to a hypersexualized adult performer. The song is clearly designed to be a “clean-cut” pop hit and the spoofing of Taylor’s travails in love and life doesn’t interfere with the innocent intent.
It just isn’t innocent. It is an intentional way for Swift to step gracefully into adult character while retaining her “adorkable” manic pixie girl sheen. And that’s fine, but it also taps into larger issues of why so many millions of people have suddenly become fierce warriors for ALS and turned a blind eye to Ferguson. The good done for people living with ALS does not offset the blind eye part. The money won’t bring Mike Brown back to life or buffer other young men of color from their future encounters with law enforcement. They can’t shake it off. They have to live with it. And die with it, too.
Swift herself demonstrated this same naive damage when she was denying being a feminist because her parents raised her to see girls and guys as the same. She has since grown-up (I refuse to say evolved here) due to her friendship with other feminists like Lena Dunham. Even a very rich white cis gender heterosexual woman is bound to smack into the wall of sexism in her field. There is a difference between guys and girls, refusing to acknowledge that reality doesn’t make us a post-feminist society. It just creates more opportunity for sexism to flourish unchallenged.
She can’t live forever in a world where she can dismiss all criticism as “haters gonna hate.” Well, actually she probably can because she’s awash in almost total privilege. But the criticism won’t stop and at some point, Swift might actually realize that “positively intentioned” actions don’t absolve you from the need to reflect on the consequences of your choices.
The song is catchy and good for her in turning criticism into what’s bound to be a huge musical hit. The video is cute, but people pay a price when we wield satire without critical thinking skills. Pulling back the curtain to help her fans grapple with being criticized would have made for a good video. Keeping the wool pulled firmly over their eyes about living in a “color-blind” society does not.
Truth be told, the still shot on the video says it all.
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