"Shake It Off"
Pity poor Taylor Swift.
Even when the superstar country-crooner-turned-pop-princess tries to lob fans a frothy ditty that self-consciously blows off all the haters—complete with a silly, I-can't-dance video—she inadvertently generates even more "hate" in the form of critics wondering whether her new song's video is … racist?
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"Shake It Off" is the lead single from Swift's fifth studio album, 1989 (named for the year she was born), which has, according to Taylor, shaken off the last vestiges of her country music roots to become her "first straight-up pop album." Co-written by producers Max Martin and Shellback, the bubblegum-meets-dance track quickly takes legions of lambasters to task, telling them they're doing no good 'cause, you guessed it, she's just going to "shake it off."
"I stay out too late," she sasses, "Got nothing in my brain/That's what people say/I go on too many dates/But I can't make 'em stay/At least that's what people say/But I keep cruising/Can't stop, won't stop moving/It's like I got this music in my mind/Singing, 'It's gonna be alright.'"
"Player gonna play," Swift shrugs, "haters gonna hate/ … Heartbreakers gonna break/ … Fakers gonna fake." So she's just going to, yep, "shake it off."
The much-gossiped-about Swift says she's grown a Teflon skin when it comes to the level of attention her every move is subjected to. "I've had every part of my life dissected—my choices, my actions, my words, my body, my style, my music. When you live your life under that kind of scrutiny, you can either let it break you, or you can get really good at dodging punches. And when one lands, you know how to deal with it. And I guess the way that I deal with it is to shake it off."
To the extent that that she's shaking off meanspirited and unfair personal attacks, her counsel here is wise beyond her years. To the extent that fans interpret her lighthearted shrugs and dismissals as license to push away legitimate conversation about bad choices or wayward personal behavior, however, it's an attitude that can be both insulating and self-obsessed.
So the trick is separating all that proverbial hate from substantive observations that have real merit.
This review, for example.
Because the question must be raised about whether it's "hateful" for me to call Swift out for using mild profanity and coy sexual innuendo in this song. Is that me being a thoughtful cultural critic or just a run-of-the-mill rabble-rouser?
Here's the lyric: "My ex-man brought his new girlfriend/She's like, oh my god!/I'm just gonna shake/And to the fellas over there with the h-lla good hair/Won't you come on over, baby? We can shake, shake, shake."
The same test, of course, should be applied to those letting loose accusations of racism when it comes to that aforementioned video. In it, Swift dances with deliberate awkwardness through a number of vignettes. She twirls lamely with ballerinas, poses 'n' pouts as a Lady Gaga-like diva, jumps and pumps with a cheerleading team, admires the flexibility of a breakdancing troupe and gives a troupe of twerking African-American women wearing short shorts an eye roll that suggests something like, "How do they move like that?"
It's that last sequence that's generated the controversy, with The Washington Post's Bethonie Butler, for instance, writing, "Swift's video went too far for me when she crawled through the legs of twerking dancers, looking like a bewildered Alice in Wonderland."
Listening to Swift talk about the video's concept, however, I suspect the idea that it might be construed as racist never crossed her mind. Instead, Swift's in full-on "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" mode here. About those twitchy twerkers, she told Rolling Stone, "We had twerking, which was so funny. Those girls were trying to teach me how, and it's just never gonna happen. I tried really hard. They were teaching me what they do, and there's like a science to it—they're like digging their heels into the floor without you seeing their legs move, but their butt's moving. It's mind-blowing to me. They were explaining it all to me, and it's so above my comprehension of how to understand your body."
She suggests that her "beautiful ugly duckling" goofiness throughout the video is a metaphor for the clumsy process of finding our place in life. "It takes a long time to figure out who you are and where you fit in in the world. I'm putting myself in all these awkward situations where the dancers are incredible, and I'm having fun with it, but not fitting in. They're doing the most beautiful things, and I'm being embarrassingly bad at it. It [tells] you to keep doing you, keep being you, keep trying to figure out where you fit in in the world, and eventually you will."
I can't hate on that message. And, in the right contexts, I also really like Taylor's counsel to shake off harmful comments from people who just want to poke at you and really don't care about you at all.
The short shorts, though? Not so crazy about them, no matter whose backside they're not quite covering.