Taylor Swift released the second single from her just-announced forthcoming album Lover on Thursday, and the gist of it is classic Swift: “You Need to Calm Down” tells Swift’s haters that their mission to diminish her brilliance is doomed, that she’ll always prevail over petty insults, and that she and her friends are having much more fun than their detractors. This “haters don’t get to me” message is so central to Swift’s modern oeuvre, I’m starting to suspect she doth protest too much.
But “You Need to Calm Down” stands out from the other Swift tracks in this vein for its muddled references to LGBTQ culture and politics. In the second verse, Swift calls out the jerks who are “coming at [her] friends,” asking them, “why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?” (The lyric video for the single confirms that the line doesn’t say “glad”—it’s a nod to the major LGBTQ nonprofit.) She scolds counterprotesters at Pride celebrations—“Sunshine on the street at the parade/ But you would rather be in the dark ages/ Making that sign/ Must’ve taken all night”—and tells them their efforts are pointless because “shade never made anybody less gay.” Then, in the chorus, she asks homophobes, “Can you just not step on his gown?”
With all the wishful theories that Swift is secretly queer floating about, a cursory listen might suggest that she’s slowly making her way toward the closet door. But on their face, the lyrics above are pretty explicitly about her “friends,” not herself. This puts gay people who like Swift’s pop, like me, in bit of a pickle, because it seems like Swift has been queer-baiting fans. Her current aesthetic motif—in her YouTube icon, her Instagram posts, the lyrics to her first Lover single “ME!”, the “ME!” video, and the costumes she’s worn in live performances—is rainbow. She hinted that she’d be making an announcement in an interview with lesbian news anchor Robin Roberts, then released the first single from Lover on Lesbian Visibility Day. She’s dedicated a song some fans interpret as a love song to her best friend/secret lover Karlie Kloss to the pioneering lesbian dancer Loie Fuller. The uncharitable explanation for all this queer-signaling is that Swift is trying to profit off the intrigue around her sexuality by giving queer fans just enough material to keep them interested while never actually coming out—either because she doesn’t want to hurt her career or because, you know, she’s straight.
But by the law of Occam’s razor, the less speculation you have to do to get to any given explanation, the more likely it is to be true. So I’m going to assume Swift is simply trying to signal her allyship to LGBTQ people, who make up a not-insignificant swath of her fan base. On that front, “You Need to Calm Down” is … fine, I guess? Swift is clearly coming out in support of gays, which is much better than being against gays, and considering her roots in the South and the country-music community, her message is less likely to reverberate within a friendly echo chamber than that of some other pop stars.
But wow, are there a lot of annoying things about this song! First of all, invoking GLAAD in a line that sounds like it belongs on Sesame Street (“why are you mad when you could be GLAAD”???) makes absolutely no sense. Why hate on gays when you could be … a nonprofit that tracks how queers are represented in media? This is the lyric of someone who has learned the names of exactly three LGBTQ advocacy groups and thought she was the first one to get the pun. The reference to a man in a gown is confusing—is she talking about drag queens? Gender-nonconforming men? Worst of all is her faulty conflation of the queer term shade, which refers to the art of subtle yet unmistakable contempt, with attacks on LGBTQ people’s rights, dignity, and self-expression.
To be fair, Swift’s lyrical laziness and bad arguments about bullying are equal-opportunity in “You Need to Calm Down.” In the first verse, about herself, she recalls her haters “taking shots at [her] like it’s Patrón,” which makes about as much sense as the GLAAD line. And the whole song is ostensibly just a bout of tone-policing, taking greater issue with the form of the slights against her and her friends—their volume, their timing, their hysteria—than their substance. It’s an earworm for sure, but it’s a bad song for straights and gays alike.
Still, even though Swift has advocated for the Equality Act and put her money where her lyrics are with a donation to GLAAD, gays have reason to take particular affront to this careless pat on the head. It is not a particularly radical stance for a celebrity to be anti-homophobe in 2019, yet Swift is promoting “You Need to Calm Down” like it’s going to be the straw that breaks homophobia’s back. Eight years after Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” which came from an artist who was out as a bisexual woman at a time when the gay rights movement had far less mainstream traction than it does now, “You Need to Calm Down” looks even more pathetic. Witnessing a relative newcomer to LGBTQ allyship have this daft single marketed on Apple Music as a “Pride-ready” anthem with a “protest message” doused in “synths, glitter, and sass” is like watching a straight bachelorette party go nuts at a drag show. Straight people will interpret it as supportive and affirming, but for many queer people celebrating Pride Month, it feels hopelessly, insultingly out of place.