Thursday, August 21, 2014

In Defense of Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" Video

I'm officially over the whole "cultural appropriation" thing, especially now that it's giving a superstar like Taylor Swift free publicity that she doesn't really need. In just two days of circulation, her new "Shake It Off" video, with its tongue-in-cheek references to twerking and hip hop, inspired enough controversy to catapult 1989, Swift's upcoming fifth album and her first full-on foray into mainstream pop, into the public's consciousness more than two months before its October 27 release.

The charges of racism in the video's fleeting depictions of black culture somehow have overshadowed the song itself as well as Swift's new musical direction. Few critics seem to be troubling themselves with the more pressing shortcomings of "Shake It Off": It's banal pop hackdom from the Max Martin assembly line that probably would have been deemed too blah for Britney Spears' last flop album. Meanwhile, its originality is sorely lacking. "Critics be damned" has been done to death, and Mariah Carey already used that title on her No. 2 2005 single.

The video's theme: All she (Swift) wants to do is dance. And in showing the world that she can't, Swift's bad moves aren't all that's getting slammed. It's one thing for her to turn private drama with her exes into hit singles. That could be considered payback and good marketing. But, according to her latest detractors, how dare she send up, among other non-color-specific things, hip-hop (and by extension, black) culture -- and to make matters worse, include black people while making the joke?!

When I look at Swift's "Shake It Off" video, I don't think, Racist! I think, Taylor, Shania Twain you are not! So she includes black people in the twerking sequences. Would it have been better if she had made the video 100 percent white? Would that have been less racist? Or should she just have left twerking out of it completely because that's a black thing. How could she possibly understand? (Full disclosure: I'm a black man, and I'm still not completely sure what twerking even is.)

It's not as if Swift has never embraced hip-hop culture before. In interviews she has spoken at length about her love for rap music, and a few years ago when Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" was scaling Billboard's Hot 100, Swift was one of its biggest champions. I even recall watching a video in which Swift rapped along to Minaj's hit. She shouldn't give up her day job, that's for sure, but it was good to see her branching out.

Of course, artistic evolution/revolution is always bound to ruffle some feathers. Coloring outside of your own established lines, especially when it comes to color, is as good as wearing a target on your forehead. A rapper I've never heard of named Earl Sweatshirt quickly took aim at Swift on Twitter to complain about the "Shake It Off" video in a series of tweets.

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

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

While Earl makes an interesting point about "white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture" (I think that argument also would apply to white boys like Justin Bieber), I'm not sure this is the place to make it. There's no evidence that Taylor Swift is afraid of black people, or even harbors any racially charged negative feelings. She may have seemed a little startled when Kanye West interrupted her Best Female Video acceptance speech for "You Belong with Me" at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to declare that Beyoncé should have received the prize for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," but who wouldn't have been? She held her own. She hardly appeared to be afraid of him.

By admitting that he hasn't even bothered to watch the video, Earl undermined his argument before he began it. Does a white artist have to show the entire spectrum of black existence every time he or she depicts one element of supposed black culture? Does Swift really have to cram all of that into a four-minute video? Is it not enough that she includes black people doing things other than twerking, or that not all of the black people in the video are good dancers? The clip is appropriately multi-cultural in its casting scope, ballerina sequences aside. (And it's not like the masses were complaining about the lack of black people surrounding Natalie Portman in the Oscar-winning 2010 film Black Swan.) Of course, Earl would know that if he watched the video.

I won't get into the whole cultural appropriation argument because I've stated my case before (here). But this hyper-sensitivity, this "Hands off my culture!" routine, is becoming increasingly boring and troubling. I will never be OK with white people using the N word in any of its forms. But we've got to draw the line somewhere and ease up on white people. (Frankly, I'm more concerned when I read articles written by white people who automatically describe singers like Chris Brown and Trey Songz as "rappers," as if that's all any black male recording artist who has a rap sheet or one they've never heard of could possibly do.)

White people are not all out to get us. In the '90s, they were banned from saying "black people," thus giving birth (unfortunately) to "African-American." Now we're saying they can't twerk in public? What's next? Will they be prohibited from covering songs like "Strange Fruit" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" or singing soulfully because that should be the sole province of black people?

Swift's new album is named after the year of her birth, and she says the music on it was inspired by the music of that era. I wonder if that includes late-'80s/early '90s R&B. Although Swift probably will never have to worry about being accused of appropriating soulfulness, perhaps she should have used this opportunity to make a Britney-esque statement (circa 2004) and covered the second No. 1 single of 1989: Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative," new jack beats and all. Going there should be her prerogative, too. Of course, being white might now mean that's no longer true.

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