The MTV Video Music Awards have long been a touchstone of Taylor Swift’s career, and indeed a hotbed of tension in the bubblegum pop world. It’s been a full decade since Kanye West interrupted her winning speech for “You Belong With Me,” which became one of pop culture’s most infamous moments of the late aughts. She followed up by performing her Kanye-inspired “Innocent” one year later, prefaced by footage of the event. It’s been nearly half a decade since Swift picked an online fight with Nicki Minaj then “squashed” the “beef” by performing a duet. Taylor’s presence at the VMAs is a sure sign of spectacle, a clash of politics, and many, many GIFs.
I grew into my young adulthood with Swift. In particular, her second album Fearless played a pivotal role in my life. I identified with the sense of optimism in her lyrics, the claim that in my life I’d “do things greater than date the boy on the football team.” In her essay “On Loving Taylor Swift While Being Brown,” Vrinda Jagoda writes:
My friends and I weren’t passively consuming Swift’s experiences — we were using them as a springboard to understand and create our own senses of self. Together, we extracted lines that weren’t about girls like us and recontextualized them with the specifics of our lives.
I, too, formed friendships with other girls of color based on our shared love of Swift. I danced along to her album Speak Now and swooned at her CMAs performance of “Red” with Allison Krauss. I counted the days until she released 1989. Frankly, I’ve spent the better part of a decade listening to her albums, my personal opinion of her waxing and waning with time.
Swift’s reign over the VMAs continued with her performance of “You Need to Calm Down” at the 36th annual ceremony on Aug. 26, at the Prudential Center in Newark:
The same song’s video won the coveted Video of the Year. In it, Swift is surrounded by some of the most world’s most powerful queer entertainers — Ellen Degeneres, Laverne Cox, and Billy Porter, flanked by the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Hayley Kiyoko and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. They’re all confronted with an angry white mob holding misspelled anti-queer signs. Inexplicably, Ryan Reynolds is also there, but not as part of the mob: Is he a part of the queer community? Neither is Swift, sporting pink faux fur and a colorful wig, nor is Katy Perry, who once sang the gay-bait-y “I Kissed a Girl,” here sporting a burger costume and hugging once-nemesis Swift. The song also contains the befuddling line “shade never made anybody less gay.” There’s something about the video that puts me on edge, makes me uneasy, and it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly bothers me.
In her Video of the Year acceptance speech, Swift brought many members of the video’s cast up with her, a collection of drag stars and Internet-famous queer icons. She claimed that “several points were made” in the video about “equal rights under the law.” And she spoke about the petition she created on Change.org for the Equality act, noting that it had “half a million signatures, which is five times the amount that it would need to warrant a response from the White House.” And then, ever the showman, she checked her Versace sleeve for an imaginary watch.
All of this follows a pattern: Swift frequently calls out “bullies” in her VMA performances and speeches, dating back more than half a decade. She’s done it with West, an unnamed music critic, and other targets in the past. And frequently her targets have responded. She has also never directly disavowed the legions of online white supremacists who cling to her fair-skinned, blonde-haired beauty as a symbol of Aryan power. Indeed, she came under fire for her lackadaisical approach to the 2016 election, when she remained silent. As with many artists, it seems that Swift only speaks now when it might benefit her financially.
After the VMAs, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway responded to Swift’s speech, first saying “I love the song!” and then, in fact, singing the first two lines on Fox News. She went on to remark, as the White House has done in the past, that the proposed Equality Act contains “poison pills.” When correspondent Martha McCallum asked for clarification on what those might be, Conway pointedly did not address the question.
Battles like this feel like losing ground. Battles like this feel like non-progress. Hearing Conway’s voice sing along to Swift’s song, then claim it’s “like Washington in a nutshell,” feels like a backslide into a hellish, primordian nightmare. I find Swift’s allyship shallow when Conway can claim Swift’s lyrics as representative of her Trumpian world. I find Swift’s allyship shallow when, as Jagoda writes in her essay, “Swift could have shaken off every last white supremacist admirer with one single tweet.”
Upon multiple viewings, I think my grievance with “You Need to Calm Down” is the core message of the song, mirrored by Swift’s actions in her video and at the VMAs. When confronted with the video’s fictitious hatemongers, Swift’s vowel-heavy refrain encourages her opponent to merely “calm down,” to simply “just stop.” This in a year when the White House has rolled back protections for our trans siblings multiple times. When the legal rights of the queer community were in question, Swift requested we sign a petition. This at a time of three national news stories of violence upon trans women. Swift’s continual upbeat, neon plea for calm in the face of unwarranted, violent hate seems altogether too much and not enough at the same time.
I don’t know how to coach Swift into the type of allyship I want to see. But I do hope I never hear Conway sing again.