Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off caused a lot of controversy when it came out a few weeks ago.
Admittedly, I know almost nothing about Swift. I know that despite her job title, she’s not a great singer (and is basically just a less nasal Rihanna), and that Kanye West ruined her acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards five years ago.
There has been plenty of criticism directed toward Swift for having (mostly black) women twerk behind her in this video. I think this criticism is completely unfounded. If pictures or gifs women twerking behind her were taken out of context, then I can see how that (along with her in her “hip-hop” outfit) would seem offensive in the Iggy Azalea –Lily Allen– Miley Cyrus style of cultural appropriation. Out of context, it looks like Swift has reduced women of color to body types and props.
If you watch the entire video, it becomes clear that that’s not what she’s doing. The video features several types of dance: ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, breaking, finger tutting, locking, contemporary, and twerking. Unlike these other women who are displaying racist entitlement, Swift is treating twerking as a legitimate dance style. She also has diverse dancers in each of the different styles (not all the twerking girls are black, not all the hip-hop dancers are black, not all the contemporary dancers are white, etc.)
In this video, Swift is saying “I can’t pretend to be anything I’m not.” She’s just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, if you will.
Even though I’m not at all a Swift fan, the song is catchy, and the video is cute. (My favorite part is at the end where all the professional dancers are goofing off.)
I do have an issue with the way we never see any of the twerkers’ faces, except for a split second where we see one of the white girls’ faces; and the moment where she crawls through their legs is cringe-inducing. But this isn’t a criticism of her appropriating a dance style; it’s a criticism of reducing the dancers of this style to disembodied posteriors. And it’s relatively non-egregious in light of what other singers have been doing, and how much thought Swift or the directors apparently put into making the video (I’m inclined to believe that they had a diversity expert on hand).
Cultural appropriation is not good, to put it extremely simply. Cyrus and Allen’s tone deaf responses to the criticism of their videos shows that they have no interest in taking responsibility for having done something offensive. Cyrus seems to be saying “Hahahaha look at black people hahaha look I’m putting on my black costume!!” Allen decided to pull out the color-blind defense for what she claims is satire:
If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they’re wrong.
If anyone thinks that after asking the girls to audition, I was going to send any of them away because of the color of their skin, they’re wrong…
It has nothing to do with race, at all…
If I could dance like the ladies can, it would have been my arse on your screens…
I’m not going to apologize…
This is a pretty disappointing response for someone who claims to be a socially conscious artist. She also seems unable to comprehend that you’re not satirizing something if you do the thing that you say you’re criticizing. You’re just… doing it.
I agree with criticizing cultural appropriation when it happens. I agree with criticizing sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all forms of bigotry, provided that they’ve happened. In fact, it’s crucial to any kind of progressive social change. However, I think it makes the aims of social justice seem less credible when we sound the racism klaxon without paying attention to what’s actually going on. It’s like people just saw girls twerking behind Swift and decided it was racist after what Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, and Iggy Azealea, among others, have put us through. Swift doesn’t deserve the criticism that was thrown her way. Shake It Off is just a fun misfit anthem.