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My secret love affair with Taylor Swift’s songs began with Fearless. While visiting my parents in the suburbs, I decided to cure my late night boredom by going to the only place I knew of that was open past midnight: the 24-hour Walmart. As I drove, Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” seemed to play on every station as I scanned my FM radio.
Listening to Swift sing, I felt my pretentious heart beginning to melt. I hummed along, drumming my fingers against the curve of the steering wheel. I turned into the Walmart parking lot, and sat in my car until the end of the song. When it finished, I went inside and purchased Swift’s album for $9.99 plus tax.
After Fearless, I became a casual fan. As she gained more fame, my interaction with her music was limited to singing along to her singles whenever they played on the radio or blasting “I Knew You Were Trouble” on repeat during morning commutes via my cell. Her songs were sincere, catchy, and relatable. I couldn’t deny it. I liked them and even though I was nowhere close to being a die-hard fan girl, I still knew all the words to most of her songs. It wasn’t really something that I advertised but it wasn’t something that I ever denied.
Last year as the blogosphere buzzed about 1989, I actively anticipated its release. The day that the video for “Shake It Off” dropped, my feelings for Swift changed.
The song itself, like the rest of her discography, was infectiously catchy. The backbeat and the lyrics were memorable. In terms of what makes a pop song perfect, “Shake It Off” comes closer than most tracks. Watching Swift re-imagine herself in the song’s video debut was entertaining up until she tried to channel her inner MC.
I felt nothing but frustration and anger watching Swift’s quirky twerk and even more anger as I watched her crawl on her knees beneath a line of twerking bodies. The coy look on her face as she stared at the bodies above her made me sick. It wasn’t just problematic. It was racist.
“Shake It Off” added Swift to the long list of pop stars guilty of cultural appropriation and racist antics. Along with Iggy “Igloo” Azalea, Katy Perry, and Lily Allen (aka “Sheezus”), Swift’s twerk routine was more than theatrics. It was yet another example of the mainstream’s bad habit of perpetuating and mimicking racial stereotypes.
The blogosphere confirmed that I was not alone in my misgivings about Swift’s video. Yet as time passed, so did the dialogue about her offensive behavior. Gifs from the video reappeared on Tumblr, while my Facebook feed was cluttered with links to listicles arguing why Swift is the greatest. “Shake It Off” continued to top the Billboard charts, 1989 went platinum, and the album’s hit single became the personal mantra of millions while I struggled to permanently erase the racist images of her video from my memory. For a lack of a better term, I couldn’t shake it off.
bell hooks, the esteemed feminist scholar, articulates what I could not as I tried to make sense of my inability to get over the implication of Swift’s video. In Killing Rage: Ending Racism, hooks writes, “Mass media [is] neither neutral nor innocent when it comes to spreading the message of white supremacy.” In this instance, neither is Swift. Blame it on her producers, her choreographers, or the video’s director. Wherever you point your finger, she is still guilty. She is a part of the problem.
Despite the seemingly endless praise that the public bestows on Swift, despite her philanthropic gestures, and genuine likability, “Shake It Off” perpetuates the same racist imagery employed by former it girls like Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel and Judy Garland in Everybody Sing (spoiler alert: they perform in blackface). It’s not as blatant, but it's just as damaging to women of color and their cultural identities.
As a Black woman, it is difficult to watch and re-watch Swift’s mimicry. It makes me cringe. I have found it nearly impossible to bite my tongue, often exhausting the patience of friends, relatives, and even strangers in my endless attempts to validate my feelings about Swift’s twerk routine, always anxious to find out whether or not they agree.
I long to hear someone else say it: “Shake It Off” is racist.
A few weeks ago, I got my wish via a status update. There it was, waiting for me on my Facebook feed. I blinked hard as I read and re-read each word: “So glad 'Shake It Off' isn’t racist anymore cuz that beat is undeniable.” Below someone commented, “It was racist?” Their question puzzled me. I felt the compulsion to answer their question with a lengthy paragraph explaining why. Instead I commented with a gif of Swift’s awkward crawl beneath her twerk team, hoping that the looping image would prove the reasons why her video isn’t merely artistic expression or an unintentional offense.
After posting the gif, I re-watched the video. Just like always, I felt my eyes roll hard and a sigh exit my mouth at a little past the 1:29 mark, and again at 2:01. 1989’s release date was literally last year. Bloggers, critics, and even fellow feminists have moved on. They’re over it. “Shake It Off” is old news. And yet, here I am, still pained by the way Swift exploits the culture of women of color while simultaneously objectifying their bodies.
Cultural appropriation might be a current hot topic for bloggers and those who consider themselves to be allies of women of color, but for women of color like me, it’s another reminder of all the ways in which my identity is constantly being devalued, mocked, and trivialized by the media and its stars. It's more than a just a video, it's more than just a song. It is a successor in our nation’s exhaustingly long legacy of racism.
It’s a reminder of how things haven’t changed.