Saturday, August 23, 2014

Taylor Swift shakes into the Appropriation Olympics

by Melissa Scott, Writing Intern
Photo from Flickr

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” debuted as the lead single from her fifth studio album, 1989, on August 18. Yahoo! Live Stream first played the song for fans around the world. The attached quirky music video received over six million hits on Youtube within a few days. But while her song advocated little more than a hearty disregard for “the haters,” the implications of her video sparked some controversy.

In the video, Swift played around with a gimpy, awkward image of herself.  She adopted a number of personas, including a Lady Gaga knockoff, a ballet dancer, a cheerleader, and a rapper. Her efforts to imitate the surrounding dancers in the different genres was abysmal. 

“I love the idea that you could tell who someone is by how they dance,” Swift explained during a 30-minute live stream with Yahoo on Monday. “My idea was that life itself and who people actually are, can be greatly reflected in how they dance. And I don't mean how good you are; I mean your willingness to dance,” she continued. “We basically decided that we would get this huge group of incredible, professional, dancers, of all different types of dances, and throw me into the middle of them and see what happens.”

However, the video frequently returned to shots of Swift dancing alongside twerking, break-dancing African American back-up dancers. Although she may have intended to mock herself, people spoke out about a perceived mockery of African American culture.

Rapper Earl Sweatshirt, from hip hop collective Odd Future, voiced his resentment towards Swift’s latest video performance. Earl tweeted three unflinching objections to her portrayal of the dancing. “Haven't watched the Taylor Swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful.” He added indignantly, “Perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture.” . . . “For instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it's ok for you to be trill or twerk or say n---a.”

Earl’s bandmate, Flan Emoji, dissented in the Daily Mail, “You know what this Taylor Swift video is missing? Some nice graffiti by Bieber. Let's be urban, everyone!”

In addition, women’s interest blog Jezebel griped that Swift “picked the wrong week for this sappy, ready-made Target commercial cut where she celebrates her true self by crawling through a bridge of brown and black women’s butts.” Prachi Gupta of Salon also denounced the video. “[She] may not be twerking, but she is participating in racial cross-dressing, blanketed in gold chains and sporting a tight updo, a white woman dressed as a caricature of a black woman, leading a team of black backup dancers,” Gupta argued. “The image is jarring, and is hard not to wonder if this is what Taylor Swift thinks it means to ‘be black,’ and if so, how troubling that is.”

Youtube personality Lilly Singh disagreed. In response to Sweatshirt’s criticism, the Indo-Canadian Singh tweeted “SMH to people thinking @Swiftswift13 new video is racist. I'm going to rent out an entire theatre so you can take SO many seats. #stop.” She persisted, “I speak ONLY on behalf of myself but when @selenagomez wears a bindi in her music video, I'm not upset. Culture should be shared.”

Lilly referred to Selena Gomez’ portrayal of Indian classical dance in her “Come and Get It” music video.
Miley Cyrus - photo from Flickr
But Selena’s video incorporated the dancing as a tool for empowerment, and audacity. She enfolded herself among a group of dancers, perfectly synchronizing their movements. Selena “shared” Indian culture in a positive light; she made it alluringly superior.

Meanwhile, in her video, Swift deviated from the cultural dance moves and infused inanity with each step. Her tone insinuated ridicule; Selena’s tone shouted liberation. They couldn’t be more different. Lilly’s encouragement of shared culture is fair enough, but the representation of the cultures separated the two videos.

Swift’s video poked fun at herself, but also at African American culture. An unspoken theme could be “look at these stupid dance moves.” So was the message: African American dancing is stupid? The video’s appropriation of black culture merited a critical eye, but I’m not sure Swift is to blame. Miley Cyrus’ installation of “white girl twerking” sparked an adoption of a subtext-like mockery of African American culture. Swift’s controversial video mirrored the attitudes of too many people treating “black” culture as a joke. Earl and Flan made noteworthy points: are we overstepping racial boundaries, or simply being “urban?”


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