On Monday, Taylor Swift, the artist formerly (slightly) known as country, released the video for “Shake It Off,” the first single from her forthcoming pop (!) album, “1989.” The backlash was instantaneous.
The video features Swift “dancing” alongside professional dancers from a number of genres. She stands at the barre with a group of Swan Lake ballerinas, jumps up and down among breakdancers, emotes in the middle of contemporary dancers and, at one point, crawls underneath a line of Daisy Dukes-wearing twerkers.
Rapper Earl Sweatshirt tweeted that the video was “inherently offensive and ultimately harmful” for its portrayals of black stereotypes — though Mr. Sweatshirt admitted that he hadn’t actually, you know, seen the video, which spawned a thousand think pieces wondering if the its inclusion of twerking was racist, innocent but misguided, or something else entirely.
As cubemates, the authors of this post have been debating the video irl over the past few days. Beth, an unabashed Taylor fan, takes issue with the video’s twerking scenes; Jess, an unabashed dance fan and Taylor tolerator, does not.
In an attempt to determine which of us is right (and to allow us to finally move on to a new topic of conversation, like, say, when and where Taylor Swift discovered the joy of horn sections), we’ve decided to finish the debate here:
Beth: Let me start by saying I don’t think there’s anything racist about the video. I don’t mind the hip-hop scene, which fits with Swift’s late-’80s theme. I’m also of the mindset that Taylor Swift rapping is kind of adorable (and as the Huffington Post points out, it’s nothing new). But I do find it shocking that apparently no one in Swift’s camp thought the twerking scenes were a bad idea.
There’s been an ongoing and interesting debate about white pop stars (Miley, Lily, Katy, Iggy et. al) and whether they’ve misappropriated black culture in their music videos or overall marketing strategies.
I think it comes off as pretty tone-deaf that Swift — probably the last person you’d expect to have a twerking scene in their music video — would resort to something that feels so cheap and overdone. At this point in the narrative, spinning it as satirical or ironic just feels lazy.
Jess: I had spent an entire morning playing the video on repeat and deciding that maybe I was going to become a Taylor Swift fan after all, so I was caught off-guard when you pointed out to me that it might be offensive. I agree that there’s been a lot of insensitivity going around when it comes to how black culture is portrayed in music videos, but to me, this video was a celebration of dance in all its forms, including twerking, which is a very popular form of dance at the moment.
She doesn’t just have twerkers — there are also ballerinas and contemporary dancers and some incredible waving and finger-tutting. I actually gasped out loud at the moment where the waver is doing his thing on screen. It’s highlighting the talent of all these amazing dancers (and also saying it’s okay if you can’t do any of that).
Beth: And I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought of it that way until you pointed it out — the dancers in the video are pretty incredible. But couldn’t she have illustrated the beauty of dance — and also the song’s relevant message that you should “do you” without worrying what the “haters” think — without putting in such charged images?
Jess: That is a really good question, and sort of the fundamental one that people have been trying to sort out over the past few days. Is what’s happening in Swift’s video a different use of this imagery than, for example, Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance?
For me, the answer is yes. It’s a difference between using the twerking as a stand-in for black culture in general, with the dancers used as props to that end, and including it because it is a real skill to be appreciated.
Beth:I agree with you from a general standpoint — I do think that Miley’s use of twerking is particularly cringe-worthy. But Swift’s video went too far for me when she crawled through the legs of twerking dancers, looking like a bewildered Alice in Wonderland.
Jess: Going through the world’s worst rabbit hole. I’m with you on that being a bit of a cringe-worthy moment. Mostly because it takes what’s otherwise an incredibly innocent video and makes it a little sexual. Speaking of which, we can’t ignore the other video that’s come out this week that features some extremely sexualized twerking — Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” How did that video sit with you?
Beth: So, I’m not the biggest Nicki Minaj fan, though I do admire her voice acting. But I think we got exactly what we expected out of that “Anaconda” video — booty and bass and lots of it.
Jess: No kidding. The lyrics aren’t exactly subtle. (Although the lyric video for it included a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” reference that warmed my heart.) Minaj can absolutely carry off a video like this, where almost anyone else would have us up in arms about presenting an oversexualized image of women. At the same time, there were moments where the dancers literally were being used as props. The one where Minaj slaps at a dancer’s butt comes to mind.
And I liked this piece from Vulture, which focused on what writer Lindsay Zoladz referred to as the video’s “hallucinatory all-female universe” (Drake, notwithstanding). The video was very Nicki Minaj.
Jess: So Minaj’s twerking is really a girl power thing? I can get behind that.
Beth: Behind that, eh?
Jess: Nice. So, have we solved anything here? I’m not giving up my love for the “Shake It Off” video, but I do see where it could have been more aware of how the imagery it was incorporating would be perceived. And I’m happy to let Minaj do her thing, although I’m glad I’m not one of her backup dancers.
Beth: And I’ll download the song (which I think is a good one) and stay away from the video. But I think our healthy debate illustrates that there’s more than one way to look at a complicated issue like this.
Jess: And that, whatever your race or background, if you are given the option of crawling underneath a line of twerking women, you might want to think twice?
Beth: No crawling under twerkers. Like ever.
[End of debate. Cue the horn section.]