“You Need To Calm Down” is worse than you think

Taylor Swift’s attempt at a Pride anthem has been getting a lot of criticism. It’s been accused of “hijacking queerness” by conflating people’s distaste for her music to homophobia and transphobia; others say it’s yet another example of the commodification of Pride; and still others point out the way it appropriates black queer vernacular expressions. Even hard right publication The Federalist got in on the game, accusing the video of being “elitist” in its representation of poor rural whites–i.e., stereotypical rednecks–as the anti-LGBTQ protestors to whom the titular imperative is addressed.

I want to pick up on the moment The Federalist criticized and offer a different, more progressive interpretation grounded in queer feminist pop music scholarship.

In her award-winning book Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, Nadine Hubbs identifies “a logic that links “hillbilly” and “pervert”” (28): working-class, poor, and rural whites’ class-based deviation from bourgeois whiteness manifests (at least in part) as sexual deviance. For example, in a chapter on Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” Hubbs shows how the white “redneck” femininity celebrated in this song includes gendered behaviors that deviate from the traditional patriarchal nuculear family ideal (an ideal that other feminist theorists like Melinda Cooper have shown has actually been doubled-down on by neoliberals and neoconservatives in the 21st century); insofar as her performance of femininity excludes her from the patriarchal nuclear family as a sexual norm, Wilson’s “redneck woman” appears to depart from that norm. Intersectionality, y’all.

As Jasbir Puar pointed out in her 2007 book on the use of “homonormativity” (i.e., the folding of certain kinds of homosexuality–i.e., the homosexuality compatibility with the racialized property relations traditionally upheld by that same old patriarchal nuclear family–into cisheteropatriarchal white supremacist capitalist privilege) to construct the figure of “the terrorist” as both racially and sexually deviant, perceived homophobia against homonormative people has come to count as its own kind of sexual deviance. In Puar’s study, that sexual deviance registers as racial difference; in “You Need To Calm Down,” it registers as racialized class difference. Think about how the actors playing protesters are costumed: their deviations from binary cis masculinity and femininity are presented as failures to meet these norms rather than transgressions that progress past them.

So, at one level the popular imaginary follows “a logic in which “gay” and “country” figure as opposites” (Hubbs 28). But because country music fans are purportedly too homophobic, this logic “reaffirms that the real bigots and homophobes are redneck/hillbilly/country music lovers” (28) because they deviate from homonormativity, which is ultimately a deviation from the white patriarchal property relation traditionally held up by the patriarchial nuclear family (but nowaydays takes a wider range of forms). Swift’s video picks up on the longstanding association between “hillbilly and pervert,” displacing sexual deviance from LGBTQ people onto nominally straight but nevertheless sexually abnormal “rednecks.” Although “You Need To Calm Down” sells itself as a Pride anthem, instead of critiquing or deconstructing the logic of sexual deviance it doubles down on it. The problem isn’t that the video is, as The Federalist calls it, “elitist,” but that it secretly relies on the very same logic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy — here in the form of a discourse of racialized and classed sexual deviance — that it purports to reject. I’m thinking of my former student Camilla Canon’s work on marketing representations of non-binary and genderqueer people as surveillance capitalism’s ideal consumer–which is in part what YNTCD does in its representations of the perfectly groomed and costumed non-cis actors. What about poor nonbinary and genderqueer people, who may lack teeth or reliable access to showers and thus appear more like the grubby protestors than the non-cis celebs making cameos in the video?

There’s also a lot to be said about the way the song’s chill aesthetic underlines the video’s sexual, racial, gender, and class politics. As I have said for at least a year, chill is an ergonomic device designed to keep people productive amid a neoliberalism that requires and feeds on ever recurring and ever intensifying crisis. The titular lyrics are basically turn chill into an imperative, and the song’s structure (those barely-there tension/release structures) and Swift’s vocal performance (listen how low she goes on “down”) represent that imperative in sound. She even cops Grande’s appropriation of mumbly hip hop flow in the verses. What’s interesting and significant about YNTCD is the way it explicitly connects chill with a gender, race, sexual, and class politics. Traditionally, unchill is feminized–it’s hysteria. But in the era of popular feminism and homonormativity, unchill is a deviation from a nominally more inclusive but ultimately just as strict gender/racial/sexual/class norm. As Cooper and others point out, the thing that unites neoliberalism and neoconservativism is their use of “family values” (the patriarchal family as a property relation, thus also as a form of whiteness) to undercut the folding of previously excluded parts of the population into legal and social personhood. Just as hysteria was a gendered deviation from a model of personhood centered exclusively on masculinity, “no chill” is a gendered/sexualized/classed/raced deviation from a model of personhood that is deregulated at the level of identity but just as exclusively centered on gender/sexual/class/race status as it has ever been.