When I first watched Taylor Swift’s new video “Shake It Off” – I have to admit, I smiled at the goofy, jokey nature of the video. Swift dancing with various groups of dancers – a flock of ballet swans, some break dancers, girls twerking, interpretive dancers – all set to her shiny, hooky pop record.
I watched the video again though and realized that though the video is fun it does smack a bit of bad timing and bad judgment. Like Miley Cyrus, Swift swipes black urban culture as well as black female sexuality to sell her new single. Unlike Cyrus, though, there’s at least a sense of humor and self-deprecation with Twift’s appropriation, but it’s not enough to make it okay to have a line of black women’s butts gyrating on the screen, while Swift crawls underneath, staring in astonishment.
Like Cyrus, Swift popularizes the Hottentot Venus image, juxtaposing her tall, thin white frame against the muscular black backup dancers. In fact, much of the video is Swift appropriating hip-hop culture by donning hip-hop drag – dressing like a Fly Girl for the twerking sequence, while donning hip-hop gear for the break dancing bits (she even shoulders a giant boom box). A lot of the video’s comedy is a “fish out of water” kind of deal where we see the pop star’s porcelain complexion and almost-white blond hair compared against the crew of dancers backing her up.
When writing about Miley Cyrus, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote, “Cyrus’ choice of the kind of black bodies to foreground her white female sexuality was remarkable for how consistent it is with these historical patterns…But I believe there is a pattern in the cultural denigration of [black bodies] as inferior, nonthreatening spaces where white women like Cyrus can play at being ‘dirty’ without risking their sexual appeal.” Though Cottom was referring to Cyrus, she could’ve been writing about Swift, Madonna, or any other white female pop diva who surrounds herself with black/Hispanic dancers.
Again, unlike Cyrus, Swift uses humor – and to a certain extent, it charms her viewers (I was charmed), in a way that Cyrus failed. She posits herself as a pop music Carol Burnett, and because she’s the gawky butt of the joke, she’s given a tiny space because her cultural appropriation could be seen as just a laugh. And she avoids the kind of ugly racism that Cyrus traded in, by using her coltish awkwardness to stand out when badly keeping up with the ballerinas and the interpretive dancers. Like a Saturday Night Live skit, Swift exaggerates her bodily differences from her backup dancers to comic effect (though, it has to be noted that even if she can’t dance a lick, she looks a lot like a ballerina).
If we weren’t embroiled in another national topic about race, Swift’s video faux pas would seem harmless. But as we’re seeing daily in Ferguson, MO the disregard and exploitation of black bodies have tragic repercussions. I can’t help but think that the concept of the video should’ve been revised to get rid of the more problematic images in the video.