Queer Filmmakers React to Controversial Taylor Swift Video: Do We Need to Calm Down?

"You Need to Calm Down" has us asking — is the pop star profiteering off the queer community, or do WE need to calm down?
Taylor Swift, "You Need to Calm Down"
Taylor Swift, "You Need to Calm Down"

On Monday, Taylor Swift released a video for her new song “You Need to Calm Down,” the second single from her forthcoming album, “Lover.” Taking a page from Beyoncé’s book, Swift shares a directing credit with filmmaker Drew Kirsch, as well an EP credit with frequent “RuPaul’s Drag Race” judge and choreographer Todrick Hall. Clad exclusively in pink (millennial and other shades), Swift waltzes through a kaleidoscopic set that is colored in astroturf greens and chlorinated blues. An early shot has Swift dumping cotton candy into a blender — a perfect metaphor for the bubble-gum-hued visuals and dizzying parade of LGBTQ celebrity cameos to follow.

Released in the middle of Pride month, “You Need to Calm Down” is Swift’s attempt at producing a gay anthem. Despite staying silent during the 2016 election, prompting many to speculate that she voted for Donald Trump, Swift has amped up her activism in the last two years, campaigning against Tennessee’s notoriously anti-LGBTQ then-congresswoman Marsha Blackburn in the 2018 midterms as Blackburn ran for a U.S. Senate seat — despite Swift’s opposition, Blackburn won that race. In “You Need to Calm Down,” Swift doubles down on her LGBTQ advocacy, including a link to a Change.org petition supporting The Equality Act in the final cue card.

Critics have noted, among other things, that Swift is late to the game compared to contemporaries like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who have been vocal LGBTQ allies since the beginning of their careers. The lyrics include shoutouts to LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, as well as appropriation of black queer slang such as “shade,” and “you just need to take several seats.” Cameos include the cast of “Queer Eye” at a tea party, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Justin Mikita being married by Ciara, RuPaul delivering Swift’s crown, Ryan Reynolds as Norman Rockwell, and Billy Porter in a flowing mumu-esque gown.

But in the video’s final moments, Perry appears in her camp-themed Met Gala burger look, and the two pop divas make a show of ending their beef. This muddles the message — is “You Need to Calm Down” about LGBTQ rights, or is it about two white wealthy women settling some trivial rivalry? Is the pain and suffering of queer people, especially at a time when gay rights are in peril from a hostile administration, comparable to some vitriolic tweets thrown at an international superstar? Or is all advocacy good advocacy, especially now? Do we all just need to calm down?

IndieWire reached out to an esteemed group of LGBTQ filmmakers, producers, and publicists to get their thoughts.

Brian Jordan Alvarez (“The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo,” “Everything Is Free”)

Creator Brian Jordan Alvarez in “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo”YouTube

“I love the video. I cried at the end. I feel completely grateful anytime anyone, especially someone with a huge platform, expresses positivity, love, and support for the LGBTQ community. We have a long way to go, and big, mainstream moves help in a big, mainstream way. People all over the world love Taylor Swift (I’m one of them), and Taylor Swift is saying unambiguously that she loves queer people. That will make a positive impact on this planet, I’m sure of it. Thank you, Taylor!”

Andrew Haigh (“Weekend,” “Looking”)

“Weekend”Sundance Selects/Peccadillo Pictures

“To be honest if you hadn’t emailed me I’m not sure I’d have ever known there was a video to comment on. Plus I couldn’t even name a Taylor Swift song so I’m not sure my opinions would be that relevant!”

Yen Tan (“1985,” “Pit Stop”)

Yen TanNewFest Opening Night, New York, USA - 24 Oct 2018
Yen TanPaul Zimmerman/Variety/Shutterstock

“Does this make queer kids in middle America feel more seen and empowered? Does this make them dream of a better future? If yes, I need to calm down ’cause my opinion doesn’t really matter.”

PJ Raval (“Call Her Ganda”)

Call Her Ganda
“Call Her Ganda”Tribeca Film Festival

“In all honesty, I have not paid much attention to Taylor Swift. She’s a country singer turned pop star at some point…right? As someone who has made a series of queer — ahem — ‘provocative’ music videos with performance artist CHRISTEENE, what I will say is I rarely watch music videos all the way through these days, but I did watch this one to the end, if that says anything!

For me, the question is not so much what Taylor Swift is doing, but why are we spending so much time contemplating it? Isn’t the country on fire? Not just Swift’s studio set trailer? If it’s allyship I welcome it, we need every ally we can get right now. If it’s profiteering, we have to acknowledge clearly Swift is not the first to do that, including some LGBTQ+ people in the name of ‘advocacy.’ But really how I feel is: As a queer, indie documentary filmmaker of color making work about marginalized queer communities, I wish I had her budget and media attention. Now wouldn’t that be something to talk about…”

Nico Opper (“The F Word”)

Nico OpperCourtesy of the filmmaker

“I will say you can’t really get less queer than Swift deciding NOT to make out with Perry, a singer famous for kissing a girl and liking it. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the eye candy that is this music video, and like that writer from BuzzFeed, I’m just so thankful to Taylor for inventing gay people.”

Rhys Ernst (“Adam”)

“Call me crazy, but I actually didn’t hate this. I’ve been rolling my eyes at every other excessive example of ‘Rainbow Doritos’ this year. My friends and I have an IG group where we’ve been sharing branded pride campaigns from opportunistic corporations/products (Lucky Charms, Levi’s, you name it) alongside barfing emojis. But this one I didn’t really mind.

My impression is that Taylor (who I do not follow closely) has been holding her fire for some time— and that wasn’t the best choice. But now she’s come out strong in supporting LGBTQ (or is it just gay?) rights — or at least airtime. This video makes that statement unequivocal-ish, and the video will have a net positive effect on *the children*. The link to the Equality Act petition at the end makes it a little less flimsy than Lucky Charms being rainbow themed for pride month.

Jill Soloway, Rhys Ernst Transparent
Rhys Ernst and Jill SolowayInvision/AP/Shutterstock

Is it important allyship? Her Lemonaid love letter to the gay community? Will it go down in history as an important statement? No. But it’s not the example of Rainbow Doritos that draws my ire.

Feels to me like a version of straight cis white girl pop star advocacy — not the most effective thing, but not as calculated and hollow as the other branded opportunist pride campaigns of late. Do I love it? No, but it’s not really FOR me. Doing a takedown of it doesn’t seem like it would be productive in this moment in history, in my opinion.

Someone asked me at a Q&A about the complexity of working for a large media corporation while doing important work for trans representation. There’s a longer answer to that one— but generally speaking, I feel like we’re all trapped in this system of peak capitalism and are hopefully trying to make the best of it and do as much good as we can in the face of rising fascism.

In summary, I wasn’t mad at the video.”

Adam Kersh, publicist

“I would really love to share what I think of this video, but being the nice ‘Christian woman’ that I am I can’t say it.”

Michael Lieberman, Head of Publicity for Metrograph

I’m the cat.

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