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Why Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need to Calm Down’ Video is Gay and Sexless
I’ve spent the last weekend in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the gayest, most charming little Cape Cod beach town in the world. (Think Cabot Cove from Murder, She Wrote, except everyone is Angela Lansbury.) On Saturday, the day after Taylor Swift released “You Need To Calm Down,” I bumped into Jeremy Blacklow, the Director of Entertainment Media at GLAAD, the media-monitoring organization she name-checks in the song. I asked how that experience had been for GLAAD, and Jeremy looked me right in the eyes and said, “AMAZING.” Taylor made a big donation just a few weeks ago in anticipation of “Calm Down,” and in the wake of the song’s lyric video, $13 donations to the non-profit—13 being Taylor Swift’s favorite number—have come pouring in.
As I said in my immediate assessment of the song, this is great and I am truly, truly grateful. More artists should be using their platform in this way, and I am so happy about it that I only have a tiny bit of room to be annoyed that this conversation centers around an adult human being who has a favorite number.
But praise with a delicious, creamy swirl of savagery has been a part of the gay experience for a much longer time than “yaaas kween.” Though it is at odds with the stan culture that has ruined Twitter, a jaundiced eye is part of the deal with the gays. There’s more to life on our side of the street than kikis and Queer Eye cameos; you can’t just take Adam Rippon and leave the rest. She wants in, and we are happy to have her, but a little shade is the cost of admission. The Taylor Swift superfans (Swiffers? Swiftians? Taylor’s Taters?) have been coming for me, but I stand by my criticism. And surely she can take it; as we all know, shade never made anybody less Tay.
I mention this because she dropped the video for “You Need to Calm Down” this morning, and I’m not sure I know what being gay even is anymore. I thought it was about sex and love, but apparently it’s about wearing bold colors and worshipping pop stars. You live and learn!
The whole thing takes place at a trailer-park community where every resident has the exact same Jonathan Adler aesthetic, and Swift is busy making the highly-Instagrammable theme cocktail that will absolutely be available as part of the VIP package on her upcoming tour. (I think it might just be Chambord and cotton candy.) And oh boy does the video deliver the cameos Taylor teased over the weekend: Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, all five Queer Eye guys, seven to nine hundred RuPaul’s Drag Race queens, RuPaul, a Bündeswehr tank top, Xavier Dolan, Jenny Shimizu, Michel Foucault, Tuesday Weld, your mom calling your boyfriend your roommate, season four of Sex and the City, and the absolutely furious voicemail that Ross Mathews’ agent woke up to this morning. The thing is busting at the design-challenge seams with celebrity cameos, and it seems like everyone is having a good time, just a-whipping their hair and a-sipping their tea. It is the insider’s view at gay life you used to only be able to get from following the “instagay” hashtag. Yes, of course someone does a death drop, thank you for asking.
But then the bigots show up to rain on Swift’s Pride parade. They arrive about a dozen strong, shaking their fists, threatening eternal damnation for the gays, and most distressingly, wearing earth tones. “Get A Brain, MORANS,” says one of the signs, in a reference to a meme that was popular back when Taylor was calling ex-boyfriends gay in her songs. This part is the best. If there’s one thing that has been shown to get through to homophobes, it is casting them as ugly and poorly-educated. They take it to heart and it works every single time and it is a shame more people don’t do this.
The video culminates in a food fight like literally every gay party I’ve ever been to, and the kicker is that Katy Perry herself is there in the giant burger she wore to the Met Gala afterparty because oh my God this has all been part of a long game, hasn’t it. Taylor is dressed as French fries, and their eyes meet and they embrace and at last we are at the end of the bitter feud between two wealthy pop stars who both absolutely still say “my gays.”
It is a strange thing to make something this gay and yet also this sexless. It is a version of gay life directly out of a children’s picture book, and while I’m sure it is likely some grownup’s first exposure to homosexuals, I am legitimately anxious about how that person is going to react when he finds out we have sex. I do not expect a shot-for-shot remake of Blue Is The Warmest Color from our Taylor, but one closed-mouth buss between Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Justin Mikita as they renew their vows in matching lavender suits feels a little infantilizing. Like, I haven’t seen the episode of Arthur from last month where the rat principal marries his aardvark boyfriend, but I bet it was more hardcore.
It all ends with a message urging viewers to go to change.org and sign Taylor’s petition supporting the Equality Act. This is the same change.org where right now there are multiple petitions to bring Iron Man back to life in the Marvel movies. So after three-and-a-half minutes of a music video that does the most, we are urged to do the very least.
If this video were a person, it would say adulting fifty times a day. If this video were a Queer Eye expert, its area would be exhausting you. If this video were the Democratic Party, it would urge you to text “BOY BYE” to 43367 to get the exclusive wallpaper.
Again, I kid because I love, and if that’s a cop-out, then so is “You Need To Calm Down.” The song and the video are a vague call for tolerance, conflating gayness with glitter and gowns, woven into a meditation on how Taylor Swift gets no respect, worded in such a way that if you—as the person whose culture is being co-opted for it—has a criticism, it is because you are being obsessive and hysterical. That’s quite a racket she’s got going there.
Absolutely, in a bedroom somewhere in the world, some young person is getting a desperately-needed window into a life that suits them, and I am legitimately thrilled for that kid. But at the same time, in another bedroom, some young person is seeing Taylor Swift and Katy Perry sweatily squashing their tiresome beef, and thinking to themselves for the very first time: “Jesus, you two; don’t you have anyone in your circle to say no, kween?” And to that kid, I say: stay strong. This world will test you and taunt you, but that skeptical eye will serve you well in adulthood. Keep your chin up, kid. We need you.
Also, for the love of God, don’t drink anything that has cotton candy in it.
Dave Holmes is Esquire.com’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.