The Poor-Shaming Vision of Pride in Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need to Calm Down’

The video for Swift’s LGBTQ+ anthem is erected on the stereotype of the redneck homophobe

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’
William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2 (1596–99)

In her latest, Pride-themed music video, ‘You Need to Calm Down’ (2019), Taylor Swift shares the load with her LGBTQ+ fans. Proclaiming, inclusively, ‘we all got crowns’, she illustrates the lyric with one of 29 celebrity cameos: RuPaul processes before a row of pop-queen aspirants – drag celebrity lookalikes including Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Swift herself – while balancing a jewelled crown on a velvet pillow. In a slow-motion gesture of queer liberation, he tosses the crown high in the air.

All this takes place in a trailer park surrounded by verdant, Appalachian-ish mountains. The scorned site of rural working-class life is stunningly reimagined as an arc of retro mobile homes drenched in rainbow colours, its brown-dirt thoroughfare humming with a carnival of diverse queer community life. Residents of this trailer park are out: dancing, promenading, flirting, sunbathing, gay-marrying. Their beauty, talent and sheer, rainbow-sequined fabulosity transform every marker of proletarian tackiness – lawn ornament, artificial grass, car-tyre border – into a thing of queer splendour.

Closing with a plug for the US Equality Act, the video heralds Swift’s new platform of LGBTQ+ allyhood. It has garnered massive attention since its 17 June release, racking up more than 40 million YouTube views in three days, most added track status on Top 40 and Hot Adult Contemporary radio, and commentaries in every major media venue: some positive, even euphoric, but many critical on various points.

Taylor Swift, ‘You Need to Calm Down’, 2019, music video, film still. Courtesy: Republic Records

Taylor Swift, ‘You Need to Calm Down’, 2019, music video, film still. Courtesy: Republic Records

Of course, Swift is no stranger to battling ‘haters’; she has built a career on it. And now, in her public embrace of LGBTQ+ people and politics, she takes aim at queer haters. ‘I’ve observed a lot of different people in our society who just put so much energy and effort into negativity,’ the singer explained. ‘It just made me feel like: you need to just calm down.’ Quoting this statement, a line-by-line exegesis of the song’s lyrics in Vulture magazine identified a central message: ‘Stop bullying.’

The message is one many queer (and other) people would embrace, myself included. Unfortunately, in framing haters for dramatic tension, the video itself turns to bullying when the quirky queer utopia is invaded by anti-LGBTQ+ protestors – haters conspicuous by their unwashed ugliness, bad fashion and apparent lack of education. Gone are the gorgeous colours and impeccable style, hair, skin, teeth. The protestors bring a dingy palette, including faded red-white-and-blue patriotic prints, uncoordinated ensembles rife with plaid flannel, bad hair, flawed (mostly white) complexions and poor dental hygiene – underscored by close-ups of one man’s toothless mouth. Their faces are contorted by rage. Their homophobic signs are misspelled.

‘You Need to Calm Down’ constructs its vision of LGBTQ+ Pride through poor-shaming. The tactic dishonours Pride’s origins in the Stonewall rebellion, waged half a century ago by poor and working-class queers. More specifically, even as it aligns itself with trailer-park authenticity, Swift’s video is erected on the stereotype of the redneck transphobe/homophobe – a figure that appears in countless cultural instances and is rendered lethal in movies such as Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Taylor Swift, ‘You Need to Calm Down’, 2019, music video, film still. Courtesy: Republic Records

Taylor Swift, ‘You Need to Calm Down’, 2019, music video, film still. Courtesy: Republic Records

Yet, poor and working-class people have never been queer enemy number one. In fact, for the first 100 years following medical and psychological experts’ invention of the ‘homosexual’ and the ‘gender invert’ (roughly, today’s LGB and T personas, respectively), the working classes were pathologized as primitive, immoral queer lovers. It is only since the 1970s, following the civil rights, women’s and gay-liberation movements, that the middle classes have defined themselves in relation to LGBTQ+ tolerance and pathologized the working classes, contrarily, as primitive, immoral queer haters.

In Sexual Inversion (1896), a volume that would shape 20th-century understanding of the queer, Havelock Ellis wrote: ‘In Europe today, a considerable lack of repugnance to homosexual practices may be found among the lower classes [...] In this matter […] the uncultured man of civilization is linked to the savage.’ The British sexologist and eugenicist’s words also remind us of the stigma of cultural and genetic othering shared amongst people marginalized by gender and sexuality, class and race – ‘deviants’ all under the lens of modern medical, legal, social and educational institutions.

History shows that poor and working-class queers, urban and rural, have been crucial in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. And Pride demands that we acknowledge our shared humanity across boundaries and categories. We all got crowns.

Main image: Taylor Swift, ‘You Need to Calm Down’, 2019, music video, film still. Courtesy: Republic Records

Nadine Hubbs is professor of women’s studies and music at the University of Michigan, USA, and the author, most recently, of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014).

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