June is LGBTQ Pride month, and cities all over the country are covering themselves in rainbows for their annual Pride festivities and parades.
It is a uniquely marketable time of year to come out of the closet as an LGBTQ ally. Corporations use it as a branding opportunity, getting in on the chromatic action. Now, it appears the latest person to jump on the Pride ride is none other than pop superstar Taylor Swift.
Her newly released single, “You Need to Calm Down,” off her forthcoming album, “Lover,” has been dubbed a “Pride anthem,” and its accompanying music video released Monday features a slew of LGBTQ celebrities such as Laverne Cox, Ellen DeGeneres and the Fab Five of Netflix’s “Queer Eye.”
Initial reactions to the song were mixed.
Some fans were elated about the inclusion of lyrics like, “Why be mad? / When you could be GLAAD?,” a reference to the LGBTQ advocacy organization. On the one hand, it is great to shout out LGBTQ organizations as a means of raising awareness (admittedly, upon first hearing the song, I assumed she was trying to sell me plastic products). But on the other hand, lyrics like, “’Cause shade never made anybody less gay,” feels more like she’s vying for memeable content by taking language with roots in the LGBTQ community and commodifying it for a predominantly straight audience. “Shade never made anyone less gay” shirts are sure to go on sale within the next couple of weeks.
In the music video, Swift and her team fell in line with other businesses like Harry’s this Pride season, and appear to have heeded the too-long-ignored requests from the LGBTQ community for representation that extends beyond cisgender, white, gay men. In addition to the celebrity cameos, it also features people like Riley Knoxx, who’s a non-“RuPaul’s Drag Race” drag queen. That’s surprising, because as of late, it seems the only drag queens that get acknowledged are the ones from the show.
Beyond the A+ (or perhaps LGBTQ+ is more appropriate) representation in the video, it also ends with a call to action, asking that everyone sign her petition for Senate support of the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a follow-up to the letter she wrote to her senator on June 1, asking that he, too, support the Equality Act. So far, the petition has exceeded its initial goal of 300,000 signatures and is now looking for half a million.
Swift has also put her money where her mouth is, so to speak; she donated $113,000 to the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ advocacy organization in Tennessee. Additionally, GLAAD has reportedly received an influx of $13 donations. (Swift has said 13 is her lucky number.)
While her newfound political and financial support of the LGBTQ community is a little late from someone who could have been using her social and financial capital for much longer, I’ll take it. It is possible to appreciate Swift’s altruism while being simultaneously disappointed with the fact that her recent outspokenness doesn’t account for over a decade of silence.
Her allyship doesn’t mean that queer people can’t be disappointed with the fact that the climax of Swift’s music video was her reconciliation with Katy Perry: nothing to do with Pride and everything to do with her personal life. When at least four trans women of color have been murdered or found dead this Pride month, Swift and Perry hugging in hamburger and french fry costumes feels particularly tone deaf. It also doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed in the video’s positioning of the homophobic “enemy” as trailer-park rednecks, when in reality the focus should be on white folks in her own tax bracket who are using their monetary and political power to continue to oppress the LGBTQ community.
It’s not difficult to see Swift’s sudden allyship as self-serving. Considering the fanatical loyalty of her well-established fan base, Swift has nothing to lose and everything to gain from extending even a menial olive branch to the LGBTQ community — especially when you take into account the buying power of the LGBT market.
She also still hasn’t addressed problematic lyrics from her past. In her 2006 song “Picture to Burn,” Swift sings, “So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy / That’s fine / I’ll tell mine / You’re gay.” Instead of owning up and apologizing, she has simply contented herself with changing the lyrics in question for both live performances and subsequent releases, and relied on her fan base to simply glaze over it, which, of course, they did.
Some of her devoted fans, or “Swifties,” also make it clear that her “Pride” lyrics aren’t necessarily making a true impact.
After voicing criticism of Swift’s decision to uplift her own voice rather than elevate the voices of actual queer people, Out Magazine’s deputy editor, Fransquisco Tirado, began receiving homophobic tweets from Swifties.
Similarly, “Saturday Night Live” writer and podcast host Bowen Yang was the subject of harassing tweets from Swifties after he joined in on a joke about the pandering nature of Swift’s new LGBTQ-friendly aesthetic. (For what it’s worth, the joke originated with Yang’s co-host Matt Rogers, and the parody lyrics are absolutely worth a listen.)
How are we to trust a pop star to change the minds of people who oppose LGBTQ people’s right to exist when her own fans don’t grasp the alleged messages of her lyrics?
This is not the first time Swift has been criticized for pandering or appropriating. It’s frustrating to continually watch someone with unlimited resources, positing herself as the ultimate ally, with every opportunity to get it right, to continue to get it wrong.
What we want is to be able to write and perform our own anthems. Taylor Swift is not making space for queer people in the industry, she is taking up space that would be better occupied by LGBTQ voices.