There are people who hate hate hate hate hate Taylor Swift, and they will hate her more for this video and this song precisely because of the phrase “haters gonna hate.” It is class-A trolling, trolling the trollers. It's colorful, featuring people of color, using styles and tropes we've grown to hyperbolically love or hate, on a white background of shake-shake-shake. It's its own meme.
It also borders on dangerously upbeat and ill-timed. This month we're glued to our media, watching the ongoing hostilities in Ferguson, Mo., and bombarded with a much-needed conversation about race relations. There are costs to ignoring the scourge of racism, some of which play out in 140-characters, relatives' poorly worded Facebook posts, half-formed editorials and half-informed talking heads…
“Shake It Off” isn't about Ferguson, it just fell on the calendar where the context renders it seemingly tone-deaf.
Now, hang tight.
Swift is featured as the “lead” dancer in a series of skill-specific dances — hip-hop, ballet, cheerleading, modern, etc. The comedy here is — as if you didn't already know it, gosh dernit — Swift's skill set doesn't include the coordination to hold a candle to these athletes. She merely fumbles her way through choreography, but damn if she isn't having fun: here's Swift bunny hopping in a tutu. Here's Swift adorkably faking a break dance. Here she is, crawling under a bridge of twerking asses.
There are parts of pop star shelf life that require its participants — particularly women — to diverge into territory that isn't “them.” Pantomime romances; dress for the job they want and not the one they have; smile when they're frowning inside. Stars like Britney Spears take flack for faking dance skills when they've long gone. Christina Aguilera eats sh*t for “forsaking” her 20-something, pre-baby body. Madonna has tried and often failed for her varied stylistic appropriations.
The point is, in “Shake It Off's” video, that Swift can approximate a thing she is not, but she will never succeed in being what she isn't. Just as Miley Cyrus was not that thing, smacking the butts of black backup dancers as they turn around and praise her dance. Just as Katy Perry is not this thing (Japanese) or this thing (Egyptian) or this thing (a Marine).
Swift is trying on the visages of other pop stars all at the same time, and similarly calling it: “it” isn't working. Do the ballerinas not remind you of Kanye's “Runaway” short film and performances? How about the futuristic goggles and platinum blonde, of Lady Gaga's “The Fame?” Or the cheerleader chant of the (admittedly poor and weak and awful) bridge from Avril Lavigne's “Girlfriend” and her own taunting “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together?” Swift literally takes a line from Miley Cyrus' “Wrecking Ball” as she's Great Escaping the sexualized, bobbing butts of the dancers above.
So, yeah, in earnest, she's reinforcing her own precociousness, her ineptitude and yes, dammit, the joy she feels in performance. She comes into her own as a singer, leading a big band. She considers herself one of the Normies, just like the rest of us schlubs, when it comes to dancing, and specific adoptive styles. “Shake It Off” is cleansing, yet snarky, incurring haters' wrath and uncaring — because dammit, you can't please everybody.
It just may not be what people want right at this second. Check out the elemental presentation of what is “hip-hop,” with the oversized boombox and doofy color coordination, and of the bodies of the women of color during the twerk-off. Swift here isn't calling these “lesser” artforms, they're merely whittled down to a 2-D essence of Things I Can't Do And Things That I'm Not. Which doesn't add much to that race conversation above. African-American-founded art-forms (now co-own by the masses) and brown bodies (frequently co-opted by the masses) are deservedly under an analytical microscope now, and making caricature/commentary of them ought to do something earnest, or hopeful, or intellectual. In short, invulnerable, bulletproof. That's not the video she made. “Shake It Off” is a troll.
And one I happen to like, like, like, like, like. Like her video's characters, she's not gonna nail the landing, particularly in the current socio-political context. By it nature, this will be a tune impossible to avoid, just as it will be hard to avoid an analysis. Swift has made a certifiable hit that complicates and compliments her brand, her girl-next-door brand. I think it's a contagious melody, easy to listen to, fun, broad enough to apply to many but specific enough to reveal her as an artist. “Shake it off” is really credible advice and a decent message.
But was the video myopic in execution? Would the twerking or “this sick beat” or boom-box-on-a-shoulder read differently were it a black performer? Is that reading too sensitive — or isn't it time we be more sensitive?
“Shake It Off” is the first single from Taylor Swift's newly announced album “1989,” due Oct. 27. Check out the video and the album cover below.