The controversy behind Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need To Calm Down,’ explained

The pop superstar’s latest single made a splash, and ruffled some feathers.

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2019 Billboard Music Awards - Arrivals

Taylor Swift at the Billboard Music Awards.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Who would have thought that a sunny-sounding, outwardly LGBTQ-friendly single, released during Pride month with a video featuring many of pop culture’s favorite queer faces, would make so many people hopping mad.

But the controversy swirling around “You Need to Calm Down,” Taylor Swift’s newest single, extends beyond the normal splitting-of-hairs that accompanies everything Swift does.

In the week since the official release of “You Need to Calm Down,” voices around the internet have spoken out about the pop star using gay rights as a fashion statement and equating the online hate she’s received to the violence that the LGBTQ community has historically faced. And since the music video’s release on Monday, a scene depicting anti-gay protesters as country bumpkins has ignited new waves of criticism.

This isn’t the first time Swift has been hit with claims of cultural appropriation, from her twerking background dancers in her “Shake it Off” video to, more recently, Beyonce fans pointing out the similarities between her 2019 Billboard Music Awards performance and Bey’s 2018 Coachella headlining sets.

But with “You Need to Calm Down,” critics aren’t just responding to a scene or two of thoughtless imagery.Swift’s intent with her new single seemed to be to align herself with LGBTQ fans – filling her music video with queer stars, showing up at New York’s historic Stonewall Inn to perform and sharing a call to action for listeners to sign a petition supporting the Equality Act. It’s her most deliberate act of support of the LGBTQ community, following past donations to the Stonewall Inn and the Tennessee Equality Project, her 2017 performance with Haley Kiyoko at the Ally Coalition concert, and more recent public criticisms of Tennessee senators Marsha Blackburn and Lamar Alexander. 

And many fans have cheered her spotlighting of the legislation, with GLAAD reporting a spike in donations tied to the video’s release, other cultural critics and members of the LGBT community met her efforts with a “No, thanks.”

Read on for many of the complaints being lodged against Swift by the song and video’s loudest critics.

She’s using Pride as a fashion statement or marketing ploy

Swift has spent the past few years slowly revealing her political views after receiving widespread criticism for staying silent during the 2016 election, and with her ”You Need To Calm Down” release, she’s unquestionably using her platform for good, to preach unity and raise money for LGBTQ-supporting organizations.

And yet, many critics wondered why it took so long for Swift to speak up about gay rights. “When it comes to making public statements in support of these issues, Taylor waited a relatively long time: until after Katy Perry, after Lady Gaga, after Kacey Musgraves,” Jon Caramanica wrote for the New York Times, pointing out that her celebrity-filled video “is a worthy celebration, but it is also plausible cover” for her years of silence. 

Instead of sharing her views earlier in her career, at a time when LGBTQ issues were less mainstream, why did she wait until 2019, when polls have shown that more Americans than ever are supportive of the community’s advancement? And considering the single’s function in the rollout of her new album “Lover,” the song’s opponents also have wondered whether Swift is trotting out her support as a conveniently-timed promotional tactic.

“Eight years after Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way,’ which came from an artist who was out as a bisexual woman at a time when the gay rights movement had far less mainstream traction than it does now, “You Need to Calm Down” looks even more pathetic,” Christina Cauterucci wrote for Slate. 

She’s queer-baiting fans

In a Tumblr post, Swift strongly denied that she had any intention of queer-baiting her fans ⁠— or disingenuously teasing her sexuality ⁠— during her “You Need to Calm Down” rollout, specifically responding to an internet rumor that she and Katy Perry had planned to kiss at the end of the video. 

“To be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting,” she wrote. “Anyone trying to twist this positivity into something it isn’t needs to calm down.”

That being said, certain aspects of Swift’s “Lover” album cycle raised suspicions among some fans that she was leaning into the long-simmering public speculation that she is bisexual. First, Swift raised eyebrows by teasing an announcement timed to Lesbian Visibility Day on April 26, which was later revealed to be her previous single “Me.” Adding to the questionable optics, some viewers pointed out that one of Swift’s wigs in the “You Need to Calm Down” was dyed in the blue/purple/pink colors and pattern of the bisexual flag. 

She’s distracting from the video’s point with her Katy Perry scene

Critics also pointed to the video’s headline-grabbing final scene, in which Swift and her former frenemy Katy Perry hug and make up, as a distraction from the video’s entire LGBTQ-centric point.

“The video closes with a reconciliation between Swift and longtime rival Katy Perry—two straight women—detracting from the pro-gay-rights theme,” Jordan Julian commented on the Daily Beast.

“katy perry and taylor swift became friends just in time to exploit pride month that’s a funny coincidence,” a Twitter user commented. 

And, as Wesley Morris wrote for the Times, ”There’s something risible about the idea of these two straight, well-intended, politically hapless women providing the dismount for a plea for equal rights while actual gay people have just been throwing gay-wedding cake all over each other.”

She’s comparing online harassment to anti-LGBTQ hate crimes

“You are somebody that I don’t know / But you’re taking shots at me like it’s Patrón” Swift begins ”You Need to Calm Down,” going on to sing about tweets and internet lurkers in lyrics that seem to focus on the online harassment she’s experienced throughout her career.

And then, in between, the song pivots to criticizing harassment of LGBTQ people, with the line ”shade never made anybody less gay” and further references to parades and gowns. To remove any doubt who she’s singing about, the song’s lyric video re-stylizes the line “Why are you mad when you could be glad” to read “GLAAD,” referencing the leading LGBTQ advocacy organization.

But some fans saw “You Need to Calm Down” as guilty of conflating Swift’s internet haterade with the perils the LGBTQ community has faced on the road to mainstream acceptance.

“Its breathtaking argument: that famous people are persecuted in a way meaningfully comparable to queer people,” Spencer Kornhaber wrote about the song for the Atlantic, pointing out that, while a snarky online comment may constitute Swift’s aforementioned ”shade,” that’s much different than “a parent who disowns a trans kid, or a lawmaker who tries to nullify same-sex marriages, or a church member who crashes a gay soldier’s funeral.”

She’s mistakenly depicting anti-LGBTQ protesters as hillbillies

Beyond the song’s lyrics, the depiction of anti-LGBTQ protesters in the ”You Need to Calm Down” video also bothered some viewers, in which a dusty-looking mob, distinctly coded as blue-collar, yells at Swift and her fabulous cohort, holding signs reading “Adam + Eve, not Adam + Steve.”

For Esquire, Dave Holmes criticized Swift’s approach, joking, ”If there’s one thing that has been shown to get through to homophobes, it is casting them as ugly and poorly-educated. They take it to heart and it works every single time and it is a shame more people don’t do this.”

Criticizing the video’s scene turned out to be a uniting factor for critics on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, who echoed the common argument that Swift’s depiction of anti-gay protesters as rednecks was an unfortunate misstep.

“I think it’s especially disappointing though because Swift started her career creating music that appeals to the demographic she is now maligning as bigots,” the Daily Caller’s Amber Athey tweeted about the scene. ”You hate to see stars turn on their fan base, and she should know better than to promote this stereotype.”

Meanwhile, writing for the Independent, Nathan Ma argued that, instead of spoofing the rural working class in her video, Swift could have directed her criticism at a more powerful group -- politicians that support anti-LGBTQ legislation. 

“It’s not hard to imagine an easier target for Swift’s flying of the rainbow flag than low-income rural communities,” he wrote. “Where is Mike Pence, who voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, which would have banned acts of workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation? Or the president himself, who has repeatedly demonized transgender people and limited their access to the resources they need?”


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