Tired of Twerking: On Taylor Swift, Cultural Appropriation and the need for Role Models

by - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

First things first: I adore Taylor Swift. I love her songs, her dress sense, her organic rise to world dominating fame and her refusal to oversex herself. Upon hearing that she was announcing a new record, I was pretty darn thrilled, and after hearing 'Shake It Off', I deemed it a modern classic in the same way I deemed Pharell's 'Happy': simple, to the point and with the ability to relate to almost anyone. It was smart incisive pop done just right. 

But just like anyone in music, Taylor can't get it right all the time. Surely a song that rallies so hard to  encourage people to shrug off negativity should have a similarly positive video? If this is the case, why must we have 3 minutes of pop goodness soundtracked by overt racial stereotypes that add absolutely nothing to the narrative? 

By now everyone has read rapper Earl Sweatshirt's accusations that Taylor is perpetuating black stereotypes in a tokenistic: at first I rolled my eyes, wondering how anyone can criticise a video they admit they haven't even watched. But then I watched it myself. As always, these things are up for different readings and debate and I wouldn't for a second consider that Taylor Swift would anyway consider herself a racist of any degree. Like I say, I love her as an artist and a musician, but I'm pretty  disappointed in her (or indeed her management) for her music video laziness.

Without getting too detailed, the video treatment  is thus: Taylor tries her hand at a variety of dances with different cliques, turning out to be endearingly not very good at any of them. Nothing wrong with that. But cutting from scenes of pristine caucasian ballerinas in white tutus to 'ghetto', predominantly black hip hop dancers, or more noticeably, their asses, with Taylor cavorting in gold chains at the front, seems like a joke than I'm not in on. She may throw in some light skinned black men and women in the others scenes to sweeten the deal, but they are very much stripped of their ethnicity, dressed down in western clothes. And when we reach the culminate scene, where Taylor is dressed in her 'usual' style and dancing with a variety of people designed to look like her clique-less everyday fans, very few darker faces are lingered upon. It smacks just slightly of 'I'm white, they're white, these are my fans. Sure, I'll go dance with those other guys for a joke, but they're not my fans. You guys are safe with me'. Once again young black women are reduced to their bodies, their ability to twerk in a sexually provocative manner. Yes, there are black dancers in the other scenes, and yes, some of the twerking women are white, but who gets the faceless, butt close up? You guessed it.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Swift's video is by no means racist or even the worst example of cultural appropriation gone wrong, but I'm just so tired of naff hip hop parodies. I thought they died with 'Hard Out Here'. But at least in Lily Allen's case, the video was befitting of the lyrics, however ham fisted. Taylor Swift needs twerking about as much as she needs a steady boyfriend. She should be having too much fun being as utterly brilliant as she is to succumb to lame industry trends. 

As so often happens with music, what this boils down to is my worries about the children. Up until the age of 12 years old, I grew up fearing that my 'funny' name and mixed race appearance that was nothing like the other girls in my school would render me totally seperate to them, marked out as different and overlooked. Being half white and half black caribbean rather that fully one or the other left me struggling to find my identity, and conversations and insults about my race were precursed with 'I'm not racist, but...', like this somehow excused the omission, or like because I wasn't fully either, I would get less offended.

 My discovery of indie music did nothing to change this when again, I was confronted by very little in the way of role models and my peers assumed from my appearance that I was exclusively a RnB lover, surprised when they discovered that I knew my Alex Turner from my Aphex Twin, and that I wanted to me a music journalist (another area where mainstream black writers are lacking, but that's another story) . It was only through discovering Destiny's Child and Beyonce that I began to feel an affinity, and even then, at that age, I was acutely aware that it was an affinity that seemed very 'for my people', totally conforming to black stereotypes of being a finger clicking sassy teeth kisser who didn't need no man. Not a bad stereotype by any means, but a stereotype none the less. Indie Music was for white people. RnB was for black. It was that simple. Upon meeting me and finding me to be quite placid, comments were often made that I was 'very white for a black girl' or somehow letting down my race, which is some setting is humorous but in others feels like a very personal aspersion to cast upon another human being proud of their heritage. I'm 21 now and totally okay with who I am, but I hate the idea that 9 year old me would watch these music video and feel like I was being laughed at. Or worse, that being black meant somehow having to reluctantly accept a lifetime of trading off body rather than brain

I still adore Beyonce and think her later record has done wonderful things for feminism, but I appreciate it as a 21 year old who can handle that level of sexuality - it's not something I'd feel comfortable giving to my child to use as inspiration. Nor could I give her Nikki Minaj, Rihanna or (god forbid) Jason Derulo - 'black' pop music always seems to be packaged in a way that comes with a parental advisory sticker. Maybe Alicia keys at a push, but then she hasn't released anything good in years. Leona Lewis? Give me a break. I had high hopes for Lady Gaga, because even as a white artist, she pushed the envelope of artistry an uncomfortable sexuality in such a way that it became utterly thrilling in and of itself, but she seems to have gone off the boil. I'm placing all my hopes in Janelle Monae one day, but name me one African or Caribbean artist in the mainstream who has achieved success without resorting to 'black', sexual stereotype. It's a struggle.

To excuse my awful pun, I have a dream. My dream is that there can be more artists, just like Taylor Swift, who write brilliant pop songs, manage to win fans without taking their knickers off but find a way to include (or at very least, not actively exclude) all ethnicities. It's not fair to ask Taylor, or any artist in fact, to alter the music they makes to do this or to start pretending in their music videos that all their friends happen to be ethnically diverse and prettily, politically correct at all times. It's not a mantle of responsibility that should rest on any one artist, but more an industry trend that needs to change.

Until then, I think it's fair for artists to have their culture and embrace it, but to resist the easy option of  ridiculing 'other' cultures with such smugness, or to resign black people to gross stereotypes of ass shaking and loud, in your face sexuality. It's also worth mentioning that black artists need to stop perpetuating this stereotype too - Nicki Minaj, I'm looking at you AND your Anaconda. Trust me love, telling women to embrace their curves but then saying 'fuck skinny bitches' is not the all encompassing feminism and body confidence rally I'm looking for.

I want an artist I can show to my mixed race child and have them feel as if there is a pop star who looks like them and acts for them. Whilst we're at it, we need to add some more cultural commentators to the mix - it concerns me that the majority of people having this debate and white and middleclass. Superficial maybe, but so important at a young age. Heck, maybe if there's had been someone like that for me, I'd be out there making the music rather than sat at my computer trying to make sense of it all. Now there's a thought.

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  1. I personally don't like Taylor Swift or her music, but I agree with the points you've made - great post.


    1. Thanks Anika! Just had a little look at your blog, its great! Always nice to meet other Yorkshire bloggers :) xx