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Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” wants to be a queer anthem. It also wants to sell you something.

Her latest video is a complicated example of Pride Month’s commodification.

Taylor Swift in the video for “You Need to Calm Down.”
Taylor Swift and UMG
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

For the better part of her career, Taylor Swift has faced vehement criticism that she hasn’t done enough to speak out for political causes. It was not so long ago that 4chan users were worshipping her as an “Aryan goddess” who was covertly redpilling America, claiming her as a secret white supremacist. Most thinking people didn’t believe this to be true, but Swift’s silence on issues that her fellow pop stars had no problem discussing didn’t help to quell those rumors (and the Swift PR machine didn’t address them, either).

It wasn’t until Swift announced that she was endorsing two Tennessee Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections that neo-Nazis finally gave up on her. Since then, Swift has said that her future music will contain more “political undertones.” She recently wrote in an essay for Elle that the shift took so long because she was still “finding her voice in terms of politics,” and that “only as someone approaching 30 did I feel informed enough to speak about it.”

With the release of her latest single, “You Need to Calm Down,” which contains the lyric “Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?” it is now clear what political causes Swift wants to align herself with. The music video, released Monday, takes place in a trailer park of pastel rainbows and, in typical Swift fashion, includes a lengthy lineup of celebrity cameos. But this time, they’re queer icons: Everyone from the Fab 5 to Adam Rippon, Haley Kiyoko, RuPaul, Billy Porter, Ellen DeGeneres, and Laverne Cox is here, living their lives in the face of a group of toothless, anti-gay protesters coded as hillbillies who wear American flag tank tops and hold signs that say familiar homophobic slogans like “Adam + Eve, Not Adam + Steve.”

The video ends with a message that directs viewers to Swift’s petition to the US Senate to support the Equality Act, which would outlaw LGBTQ discrimination nationwide. Swift herself made a “generous” donation earlier this month to GLAAD, an advocacy group that focuses on LGBTQ representation in media. She hasn’t announced that proceeds from “You Need to Calm Down” will benefit any particular cause, but TMZ reported that the single’s release led to a spike in donations to the organization. This is Swift being a good queer ally: Not only is she showcasing LGBTQ celebrities in her video, but she’s using her enormous influence to support a tangible political cause that impacts the lives of millions of marginalized Americans.

This is understandably quite moving to many. Lorenzo Marquez, of the fashion blog Tom & Lorenzo, tweeted that the video made him cry, acknowledging that he “didn’t have that type of support growing up.” For LGBTQ youth or those living in parts of the world without visible queer communities, it’s easy to embrace Swift’s video as a powerful example of allyship.

But when a major celebrity like Swift decides to take on social causes, she is also able to monetize them. This isn’t a coincidence; Swift is our most business-driven pop star. She took an artistic risk by going edgy for her last album, Reputation, but immediately returned to her hyperfeminine princess aesthetic when that failed to translate into early sold-out stadiums or match her previous blockbuster record sales; she does not do anything that is unlikely to turn a profit. And right now, during Pride Month in the year 2019, is a very good time to make money by aligning oneself with queer causes.

Queer writers have tackled the commodification of Pride for years; many believe the event, which exists as a remembrance of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, has become less about protests than about parties. “It’s hard to shake the feeling that this commercialized mass appeal has helped further dampen Pride Month’s fiery political roots, and helped obfuscate the less pleasant, less talked-about issues that matter for many people in the LGBTQ community,” writes Alex Abad-Santos in an explainer for Vox.

Over the past decade, NYC Pride has grown dramatically; in 2016 the Financial Times estimated that the total cost of the event was $2.4 million, and the percentage that comes from sponsorships increased tenfold between 2009 and 2016. Ticket prices for Pride events worldwide have also skyrocketed; this year, Manchester Pride came under fire for selling tickets for 70 pounds for an event that’s supposedly about inclusivity.

Every June, more and more brands do the familiar dance of debuting a rainbow version of their logo or selling capsule collections that gesture to ideas of love and equality. This year, we have collections from H&M, Marc Jacobs, and Rag & Bone, none of which pledge to give more than 20 percent of sales to LGBTQ causes; Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, of course, all have their own special Pride filters. Many of the brands most willing to adopt queer aesthetics for Pride Month have the worst track record with actual queer people — YouTube, for instance, was quick to give itself rainbow branding yet continues to allow anti-LGBTQ harassment on its site, while Victoria’s Secret tweeted a Pride message while refusing to hire transgender models.

The brand-friendliness of Pride has created a disparity between what it is and what many activists think it should be. “There’s a weird nostalgia for the early days of Pride and Stonewall,” British LGBTQ activist Shon Faye tells the site Them. “People like the idea of that authentic protest but won’t consider the reality of what’s actually going on now. … Anyone who’s LGBT and isn’t a cis white gay man still has plenty to protest. The wrong people are in charge of Pride if they think it should be a party, and maybe they should pass on their resources.”

That Taylor Swift, who, despite long-held hope from a certain corner of the internet that Kaylor is real, has not yet come out as anything but straight is a somewhat complicating factor in her place in queer culture. Swift has not been as closely associated with gay fandom as her straight female pop star peers Carly Rae Jepsen or Kacey Musgraves, the latter of whom was the subject of a piece in the Phoenix New Times by Tanner Stechnij, who argued that Musgraves’s status as queer icon is tenuous.

“If country radio and country fans were resistant to [Musgraves’s 2013 song ‘Follow Your Arrow’]’s queer encouragement, the general public wasn’t,” they write. “Ultimately, Musgrave’s least radio-friendly single became her most commercially successful. Whether accidental or not, the queer experience became a commodity for her.”

A similar critique could be aimed at Swift, who is speaking out in support of LGBTQ causes at a time that’s financially convenient, borrowing from subcultures that have already been proven to be lucrative (drag, for instance) and incorporating them into her brand (she also recently performed at the Stonewall Inn, which some compared to hosting straight bachelorette parties at gay bars).

These are questions that relate to the value of allyship in general — what purpose does it serve, exactly, for a pop star who has built a career on breathlessly romanticizing straight relationships to take on the mantle of gay rights? This isn’t so much about artists having to “stay in their lane” but about the fact that maybe there is a better way for Swift to support social causes instead of putting herself in the center of them. As Christina Cauterucci writes in Slate, “Straight people will interpret [the song] as supportive and affirming, but for many queer people celebrating Pride Month, it feels hopelessly, insultingly out of place.”

But these are dangerous critiques against a star with not only powerful friends but a legion of rabid fans on social media ready to pounce at any whisper of negativity. Like many celebrities, Taylor Swift has a complicated history of conflating the online hatred she receives with the suffering of marginalized people, and it’s essentially the driving narrative of “You Need to Calm Down.” I have no doubt that criticism hurts her feelings, but it is not the same thing as the systemic hate faced by LGBTQ people or anyone else whose identities American culture disdains.

This, however, is the connection between Swift and marginalized people that she chooses to exploit in her latest song, which bewilderingly also extends the themes of love and feminism to the ending of her beef with Katy Perry, who appears in the video in a burger costume. “We see you over there on the internet, comparing all the girls who are killing it,” Swift sings, at which point in the video we see a lineup of drag queens as the eight most successful pop stars in the world: Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Adele, Cardi B, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj. Of course, this is meant as a representation of the stars themselves, as if the act of making comparisons about successful women is equivalent to homophobic bullying. Lines like this in Swift’s music doesn’t make her appear sympathetic; instead, they undermine the message she wants to send.

As Vox’s Constance Grady writes of the song, “Swift is playing one of her worst games here: She’s linking criticism of her as a celebrity and as a musician with homophobic and anti-feminist bullying, and she’s suggesting that they’re all equally wrong.”

Ultimately, “You Need to Calm Down” is a lot like rainbow-branded Listerine for Pride Month or a feminist T-shirt: a well-intentioned item whose societal benefits are muddled by its status as a for-profit consumer good.

There will never be a world in which Taylor Swift, by virtue of being very famous, is not the subject of criticism, and it’s fair to argue that there are better things to criticize her for than performative work as an ally. But Taylor Swift, by virtue of being Taylor Swift, is always trying to sell you something, and there are better ways to spend your queer-supporting dollars and attention than on her.

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