Stop Meme-ing Taylor Swift


At this point, thinking sober thoughts about a new Taylor Swift song is painfully predictable. It's a here we go again exercise that think-piece writers and social media pundits have come to dread and celebrate in equal measure. Yet, no matter how formulaic the Swift responses are, the internet must be fed. Luckily for all involved, her latest single, "You Need to Calm Down," is irresistible hot-take fodder: It's been hailed as revolutionary, slammed as queerbait, praised as inclusive, and condemned as intolerant. The lyrics and music video nod to Swift's many celebrity feuds, but also include a GLAAD endorsement and a petition to ratify the Equality Act. There is homophobia, and also a food fight. It's a Tayfecta of Swiftian contradiction, and if there's one thing no one is feeling about it, it's calm.

Related Stories

Now, genuine reasons to celebrate or scorn "You Need to Calm Down" do exist. Many are celebrating the video because it approaches something like allyship, especially for a pop song. It's packed with queer celebrities of many racial, sexual, and gender identities; it highlights real activism and the Equality Act, and, because of Swift's platform, makes news stories of them both. (Donations to GLAAD have spiked since the song's release.) Swift and erstwhile nemesis Katy Perry buck tradition and do not literally kiss to make up. Some of its lines—like "shade never made anybody less gay"—are already being printed on T-shirts, and will be belted all Pride month long, as they are clearly meant to be.

The candy-colored bits of progress are not without tonal issues, though. Critics point out that homophobia isn't shade. That putting Swift's struggles with online haters and the LGBTQ+ community’s struggles with systemic bigotry under the same lyrical umbrella is reductive. That the video's homophobic protesters are unkempt, cowboy-hatted, blue-collar stereotypes, which is both classist and ignores prejudice's pervasiveness at every level of American society. Some read Swift's blue-purple-pink wig as a nod to the bisexual flag and hence as queerbait. Other people think it's unfair that Swift is only telling the protesters, and not the LGBTQ+ community, to calm down. (Those people are wrong. My patience for folks who think a glittery parade is tantamount to hate speech can't come to the phone right now. It's dead.)

The song has spawned more opinions than it has words. A still of Swift, dressed in a french fry costume, embracing Perry, who is dressed as a hamburger, is on its way to becoming a submeme of its own. Depending on who you are, it could be a cutesy symbol of happiness and buried hatchets, of Swift and Perry's vapidity, of straight white women centering themselves in a social movement that isn't theirs, or the bizarro world of performative celebrity relationships calibrated for maximum engagement. Just like the song as a whole. That's a lot of weight for a three-and-a-half minute pop song to carry, and putting that kind of burden on it does a, well, queer thing: It proves Swift right.

If there's anything to say about "You Need to Calm Down," it's that the song is more evidence that Taylor Swift is extremely good at her job: being the pop star people deserve, if not the one they say they want. People claimed to despise Swift's lack of politics, and now she is overtly political and they still hate it. People claimed to dislike her petty feuding, but then spent thousands of hours treating her lyrics, tweets, and Instagram photos like a scandal scavenger hunt. "You Need to Calm Down" continues to sate internet sleuths with its references to snakes (an obvious allusion to her beef with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian) and gowns (allegedly a nod to a dustup with Aretha Franklin). She even managed to iterate on a strategy that proved successful with "Look What You Made Me Do" and even "Shake It Off": blaming the listener, placing the controversy at the feet of the "haters," and accepting little culpability. No matter what you're feeling about "You Need to Calm Down," your hot take is still playing directly into Swift's hands.

Given the circumstances, there is only one solution: Stop meme-ing Taylor Swift. Not because she's scarily capable of manipulating the internet, not because her spotty feminism and allyship means she should be canceled, and certainly not because talking about her is boring. Do it because everyone's energy can be better spent. Sometimes a pop song is just a pop song. If you disagree, maybe you need to calm down.

More Great WIRED Stories