This week, Taylor “I single-handedly brought back red lipstick” Swift released a new single this week, “Shake it Off,” which she accompanied with a video. The song is off of Swift’s first pop album, 1989, so named for Swift’s birth year, and is inspired by 80s music and dance. Let’s be real, though: Swift was born on December 13, so the likelihood that she remembers anything from the 80s is pretty slim—but I’ll give it to her.
The song, “Shake it Off,” has made a few people mad, but not for her suspect claim over the year 1989 (or, perhaps more justifiably, her penchant for releasing songs that infect your brain like a virus). Rather, they are upset because they think her video is offensive, racist, and/or appropriative.
If you haven’t seen the video (and I suggest that you don’t unless you want to play it 10,000 more times today…), it features Swift goofily dancing and failing to dance around groups of talented dancers of various kinds: ballet, popping, breaking, finger-tutting, interpretive, ribbon (?), cheerleading, and—le gasp!—twerking. The video concludes with Swift singing in front of a band and backup singers and jumping around with a group of her fans.
Perhaps the most well known critics of Swift’s video is Earl Sweatshirt from Odd Future, who wrote on Twitter that he didn’t need to see the video to know it was bad:
Uh, well. Alright then. I suppose there’s a way that could be true. But I’m not sure what he could have known about the video without watching it other than there were black people in it, and there may have been some twerking involved. And maybe that’s all there needs to be for it to be inherently offensive and harmful. I don’t buy it, though, and I have yet to see an argument that even comes close to convincing me that Swift’s video “perpetuates black stereotypes in the worst possible way,” not after Miley Cyrus’ problematic VMA performance
or Lily Allen’s response YouTube video
or even Nicki Minaj’s latest video, which takes “accessorizing with black women’s bodies” to a whole new level:
Nor am I convinced that her video is appropriating black culture—at least no more than pop music did in the 80s and early 90s, and I don’t think it makes sense to lampoon Swift for what has happened in that past.
Don’t get me wrong. I think cultural appropriation is both a real thing and a real problem. A white person can appropriate something from a subordinate culture and make much more from that than the subordinate culture did, even though that person may not even be properly doing or performing it correctly and outside of its proper context. At the same time, or preceding the appropriation, the subordinate culture is reviled and ridiculed for those selfsame expressions—until the dominant group does it.
But what Swift’s video shows, more than anything, is that black people (and white people and Hispanic people) are skilled dancers—and that she is not. Note that every group of dancers, with the possible exception of the ballet dancers, has a mix of people of different races there. Note that, unlike Cyrus, Allen, and others, Swift interacts with the dancers. They are no more props than backup dancers in any pop music video are. Note that the musicians, backup singers, and goofy people at the end of the video all include people of color. It’s not as if Swift only used people of color for break dancing and twerking and white people for everything else. Nor is it the case that Swift only used white people for the people with whom she related in the video.
Is there twerking in it? Sure! But that signals to me more that Swift considers twerking a style of dancing on par with the other forms she shows, rather than something she wanted to use for sex appeal without understanding the context. Nor does she herself twerk (despite what others have been saying), unless any gyration of the hips looks like twerking to white people who don’t know any better. Some might complain that we only see the backs of the twerking women, reducing them to their asses and legs as Swift crawls through them. To that I would say, well, I’m not sure if you noticed, but twerking is a dancing style focused pretty exclusively on the ass. And many of the twerking dancers appear full frame in other parts of the video.
Is the video perfect? Of course not. Are appropriation, stereotyping, and tone-deaf-ness serious problems in pop music? Absolutely. But it’s important to not be so tuned-in to a problem that we begin to see it where it doesn’t really exist. White people have damaged and stolen a lot of things from other cultures, but Swift’s video is not an example of that.