The Queasy Double Message of Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need to Calm Down’

The singer’s pro-gay single strangely compares her struggles with fame to more dangerous kinds of persecution.

Taylor Swift, dressed as a french fry, makes up with her pop-star rival in the climax to a video supposedly about gay rights. (Universal Media Group)

Since it debuted Friday, Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” has bounced around in my head for exactly the reason a pop song should: the way it sounds. I like that the beat’s something a great beast might march to, slowly from one side to another, rumbling with each footfall. I like that the “oh-oh” swell of the chorus takes yummy harmonies, typically the key side dish in pop, and makes them the main course. I like the dry, silly way Swift drawls the strongest punch line of the track: “Like, damn … it’s 7 a.m.”

But I’ve also been fixated on—uncalmed by, and maybe even losing sleep over!—what the lyrics say. Shout along with this brain bender: “Shade never made anybody less gay!”

“You Need to Calm Down” is Swift’s grand LGBTQ-rights statement, released in the middle of Pride Month with all the precision of a bank’s new credit-card rollout. The song’s second verse takes on homophobic demonstrators: “Sunshine on the street at the parade / But you would rather be in the dark ages.” The video, released today, has a legion of queer celebs doing famously queer things such as sipping tea, performing in drag, and getting married in matching baby-blue tuxes. It closes with a plug to sign a petition for the passage of the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity.

For a star whose greatest political controversy used to be that she had no politics, a single that name-checks GLAAD is a real evolution, and it’s already reportedly having the concrete effect of boosting donations for gay rights. Yet fans seem equally fixated on the personal implications. Swift is the great champion of 2010s-era heterosexual romance: Football players and cheerleaders, princes and princesses, and James Deans and good girls have all paired up in her hits. But recent years have given rise to online speculation that she’s secretly canoodling with the model Karlie Kloss, leading to buzz that Swift might “come out” on her forthcoming album, Lover. Thus far, though, her only coming-out has been as an ally: a straight person who marches for her queer friends.

Fifty years since the Stonewall uprising, allyship has become a tricky subject. LGBTQ folks desiring legal protections, cultural inclusion, social services, and all the other items on the gay agenda rightly welcome the help of straight people. Queer people used to mostly stand alone in advocating for those things, and it wasn’t long ago that a video like the one for “You Need to Calm Down” would have been assumed to be a career-ender for a performer banking on wide popularity. But public sentiment, the marketplace, and the dynamics of online communication have given queerness a trendy mainstream component. Big corporations such as Target and Bank of America see an upside in advertising that involves rainbows and same-sex kisses. Big pop stars do, too.

The fear for many queer people is less that allies might profit off them than that allies might change and defang what queerness means. The A in terms such as LGBTQIA+ typically stands for “asexual/aromantic,” but it’s often mistaken for “ally,” which is a sign of the danger here: People with no personal stake, facing no germane struggle of their own, not only join the club but also begin to define it. If heterosexuals become overly important in the gay movement, then it becomes harder to talk, with precision, about what the movement is actually for. The cause becomes more vulnerable to criticisms of faddishness, or of style above substance—of ROYGBIV and sequins as empty aesthetics. Its colors, in a way, grow duller.

Swift has shown some awareness of the risk of over-centering herself. She’s consistently linked her recent Pride-themed performances—including at the Stonewall Inn—with real activist efforts: writing her senator, directing people to a petition, driving donations. After the “Calm Down” video premiered, she tweeted out that fans should support the video’s co-stars, many of whom are queer, including Ellen DeGeneres, the actor Laverne Cox, the YouTuber Hannah Hart, RuPaul, and a group of RuPaul’s drag disciples. When rumors emerged that Swift and Katy Perry would kiss in the video, Swift shut them down, writing on Tumblr that “to be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting.”

But the Perry flap hints at why queer folks have a right to feel queasy from the song. Just check out the discourse about the video on Twitter. It’s packed with people marveling, maybe more than anything else, at the climax: Swift and Perry, dressed, respectively, as french fries and a hamburger, hugging. The two onetime rivals didn’t do the classic stunt lesbian kiss, but they did splashily end one of the most epic celebrity feuds in recent memory. Thought this video was about gay rights? Nope, it’s primarily narrative management for superstars.

The entire song, indeed, subsumes queerness into Swift’s narratives. Its breathtaking argument: that famous people are persecuted in a way meaningfully comparable to queer people. The first verse aims at anonymous tweeters sending Swift rude notes, making for yet another catchy gripe about “haters” in the lineage of 2010’s “Mean,” 2014’s “Shake It Off,” and much of 2017’s Reputation. The second verse is the one about homophobic protesters. The bridge addresses sexist pop fans and critics who pit famous women against one another: “We figured you out / We all know now we all got crowns.” (In the video, that portion is accompanied by drag queens playing divas such as Swift, Perry, Cardi B, and Lady Gaga, and they look great.)

Online snarkers against superstars and in-person shouters at gay people—why are these two classes of people sharing a song? In Swift’s telling, they’re both, fundamentally, nasty. “I’ve observed a lot of different people in our society who just put so much energy and effort into negativity,” she said in an Apple Music video explaining the song. “This seems like it’s more about you than what you’re going off about. Like, just calm down.” This explains the headline-quotable line that “shade never made anybody less gay.”

In the video, an unwashed-looking mob holds signs saying “Adam + Eve, not Adam + Steve.” In real life, Pride counterprotests feature yet-uglier slogans, such as “God hates fags.” In either case, referring to such speech as “shade” is wild. The modern usage of throwing shade originated with queer folks of color in underground vogueing scenes, went popular through RuPaul’s Drag Race, and is now a ubiquitous term for petty insults. Throwing shade is a social act, a performance, and it can be done out of genuine spite or—as when on Drag Race it’s a reality-show challenge—in good fun. There are many ways to describe a parent who disowns a trans kid, or a lawmaker who tries to nullify same-sex marriages, or a church member who crashes a gay soldier’s funeral. Shady isn’t one.

Writing off bigotry as negativity—the word Swift used to describe what her song is attacking—probably isn’t helpful either. Homophobia is a real ideology with a real history. Telling homophobes they’re boring downers probably won’t sway them, and it’s hard to imagine that such a message will comfort many of the people they target. Right here is the aforementioned meaning-drift, the dilution. “You Need to Calm Down” has, between its muddled metaphors, only one clear through line: Swift’s struggles with criticism in the public eye are like those of gay people facing actual hate for being who they are. Huge social conflicts are boiled into a bland, unworkable battle between smiley rainbow people and “haters.” And if you’re annoyed at that, you’ll be told you need to calm down.