Taylor Swift is hyper-aware of pop culture and pop music. She is herself a massive pop star. And have you ever seen her at a music awards show? She's the one (endearingly, I gotta say) singing along to every great and terrible song - pop, hip-hop, country, whatever.
So it follows that Taylor Swift is well aware of the heat white artists like Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, Iggy Azalea and, most recently, Katy Perry, have taken for appropriating black culture in their personae, performances and music videos. (It is worth noting that mostly women face this kind of criticism.) And here she is adding to the pile of think-pieces. On Monday, Swift dropped a music video for her new 100-per cent pop song, Shake It Off, featuring the singer in a series of vignettes. Two of them - one where she pretends to be a black male music video star, and one where she pretends to be a black female music video star - have stirred up considerable controversy.
The topic of cultural appropriation is a delicate one awash in shades of grey. The aforementioned examples of this murky moral ground range in a different order of offensiveness depending on who you ask. I have my own confused feelings about it. The Rolling Stone cover feature convinced me that, right or wrong, Miley Cyrus truly thinks herself part of the culture rather than an appropriator. I believe that Lily Allen's Hard Out Here video is incredibly offensive, but I understood she was making a stab at satire. I understand the discomfort with Iggy Azalea, but I believe that she loves hip-hop, desperately wanted to be a rapper and has worked really hard to become one.
But Taylor Swift's black skits aren't remotely based in reality or authenticity, and I believe she knows that.
So the most offensive thing about the Shake It Off video is not the appropriation of black culture in itself. It's not the singer crawling through a chorus line of mostly black twerking dancers facing away from the camera. It's not the singer posing as a hip-hop star and gesticulating the way she perceives a hip-hop star gesticulates. The most offensive thing is the belittling of a real, actual conversation we've been having, an issue we've been banging our heads against the wall trying in earnest to debate. It's Swift saying: "I've heard your complaints, forward-thinking, intellectual America! And they are not important to me." It's jumping on a bandwagon she has zero legitimate claim to, and exploiting it for publicity.
If I'm overthinking it, at least I'm making up for Swift's lack of contemplation. She might not be intelligent enough to understand that by using black backup dancers in such a way, she strips away any historical or cultural significance, and reduces them to farce. It's an all too familiar thing white people do: presenting black culture as "funny" and laughing it off. (See every old white NBA sideline reporter ever.)
Giving Swift the benefit of the doubt, she might not fully grasp that. But what she does fully get is that by doing so, she's gaining tons of attention that will generate many millions of dollars.
To cavalierly make a controversial video for no other reason than courting controversy, and to drop it the same week that race riots boil in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrates a blatant disregard for the ever-so-careful cultural discourse that allows people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to inch - inch! - toward mutual understanding. It's laissez-faire shit-stirring by someone with more influence and power than probably all the liberal, intellectual writers on the planet combined. And it's annoying. Here's thoughtful America over here, trying desperately to make a mark on lackadaisical American acceptance of institutional racism.
And here's Taylor Swift, with legions of young fans and a louder voice than any Vice or New Yorker of Gawker writer, pulling the strings and deciding which conversations we're going to have. So that today, instead of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, we are talking about Taylor Fucking Swift's music video.
Swift is a product of an America that has struggled for centuries with racial integration. A real struggle that I, as a white Canadian, am admittedly not a part of and am probably unqualified to comment on, but that as a human being I care deeply about. Swift is part of an America that's simultaneously succeeding and failing at that integration, understanding and equality.
She's part of an America that labours over and debates what "racist" means and how we can avoid being it, because that very labouring and debating keep society slowly, slowly evolving. And she's basically just shat on that debate.
I'm sure she's already braced herself for the backlash, leaving the rest of us to stew about the video's actual implications. Doesn't Kanye West's famous interruption seem prophetic now?