Cult of Outrage: Taylor Swift’s New Video Called Racist, Cultural Appropriation
Taylor Swift has joined the ranks of musicians like Iggy Azalea or Lily Allen, by being accused of “cultural appropriation” for her latest video “Shake It Off.” In the video Swift performs her song accompanied by various groups of dancers. There are ballerinas, interpretative dancers, and some kind of Lady Gaga-inspired future stuff. Yet what is getting Ms. Swift in trouble are two other groups, one of men breakdancing (while she wears a hoody, hat, and carries a boombox) and another where she is flanked by twerking women.
The accusation, at least as elucidated by 20 year-old rapper Earl Sweatshirt, is that Swift is “perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love the culture,” and that even though he hadn’t seen the video claims “it’s inherently offensive and ultimately harmful.” Interestingly, Sweatshirt is a year younger than twerking itself.
Yet, this argument seems predicated on the idea that hip hop and all of its trappings are exclusively “black culture.” Of course, the genre was born in the streets of New York and has since remained dominated by black artists. However from Rick Rubin to the Beastie Boys to 3rd Bass to Eminem to hundreds of others whose names we don’t know, people of other ethnic background have helped to build up hip hop to the major cultural force it is today.
Along with hip hop, the other two explicitly American-created musical genres – rock and roll and jazz – have their roots in the black community. When Taylor Swift was born, “Rapper’s Delight” was already a decade-old; by the time she was ten, hip hop was the most popular music in the country and an intrinsic part of the American zeitgeist.
It’s obvious with this video, Swift is trying to make some kind of statement? Is it a satire of how she the business – e.g. her pop peers Azalea, Miley Cyrus, and Gaga – or is it a kind of homage to the culture that surrounds her? I don’t know, but it deserves a larger consideration than currently being given. However this isn’t even truly about them individually, but the springboard to a larger point.
James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son – a book particularly relevant in light of the situation in Ferguson – is not one of my favorite “black books” but one of my favorite American books. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just the country’s most important “black leader” but (in my opinion) the most important American leader. Like hip hop, the previous examples transcended their origins to become forever interwoven into the “default,” American culture.
The argument against the idea that “white culture” is subject to appropriation is that it is the “default” culture and has been forced onto others. This is a valid point, which one can see still in action today wherever there is a politician rallying about English being our “national language” or that immigrants should abandon their own styles of dress, food, or whatever to better ingratiate themselves to white culture.
Yet, what is inherently American is not restricted to explicitly WASP-y things. Levi’s jeans are as symbolic of America as the flag itself. It was a company created by Jewish Americans and its products were first used by farmers and ranchers of all races. So, like blue jeans and rock and roll and jazz and Apple pie, hip hop is one of those American things now.
It’s also contemporary art, which because of the importance of the First Amendment and the ideal of free speech it aspires to, has become something of an American-dominated market as well. It’s inherently American to experience that art and then feel compelled to express yourself, steering the conversation towards things like our troubled history or troubled present with respect to race. What isn’t American, or at least shouldn’t be, is stifling expression.
Perhaps it’s idealistic, but I argue that speech should always beget more speech. It should never be our goal to silence those we disagree with, but instead to make a better, more compelling case of our own points of view. When it comes to art especially, the totality of the work should be considered, anything else is just nitpicking.
Intention and full context should matter when it comes to forming opinions about their message, especially if it’s an artistic one.