In the opening moments of Taylor Swift’s new dance-heavy video for “Shake It Off,” mainstream America’s favorite singer thematically moves from white to black to gray, from ballerina to B-girl to modern dancer.
Swift changes scenes playfully, clumsily working to keep up with her more practiced, graceful costars. She trips in her tutu, ogles short-short booty while gliding beneath splayed legs and leaps while dressed as a cheerleader.
Juggling outfits and approaches, Swift, 24, simultaneously introduces an Us vs. Them lyrical narrative in which she swats aside criticism like King Kong batting airplanes.
“The players gonna play, the haters gonna hate,” she sings of her detractors and/or ex-boyfriends, “but I’m just gonna shake.” She delivers the chorus with a joyful defiance. Don’t think. Dance. Stepping out on me? Play away. Getting yelled at by mom? Put your hands over your ears and start screaming “the haters gonna hate!”
Eight years into her remarkable run, “Shake It Off” presents an artist gunning for sly transgression but instead landing on tone-deaf, self-absorbed teen regression, with music to match the vibe. A defiant simplification with a lyrical hook to die for, the first song from her forthcoming album, "1989," goes all-in on dance pop. The closest thing to twang are the cornrows on one of her dancer’s heads.
That said, it is a perfect pop confection, one destined to generate licensing dollars for decades to come (Swiffer! Shake Shack! A Chevy Malibu on the road to vacation! "Shake it off!"). It's also a sly strategic step-aside, one that suggests that despite any and all protestations, this song is going to be running through your head for the next few months. You may have preferred me as a Nashville princess, Swift implies, but I’m gunning for mainstream rebel queen status.
Throughout the video, Swift juggles cultural and musical signifiers with glee. She tries to twerk knowing full well the trouble that caused Miley Cyrus. She carries an old-school boom-box while wearing Blood colors. (I always took her for a Crip.) She plays with feminine stereotypes – cheerleader, ballerina, an android Gaga mimic, a stripper-suggestive twerker and gender-neutral figure dressed like Steve Jobs. Combined, Swift delivers her pitch as everywoman.
To my mind, the most telling moment of the video arrives in a quick edit, while she’s wearing ghetto-fabulous eyeglasses: Staring at the camera, Swift mimics a fisherman reeling in an imaginary catch. The cut implies that she’s hooked us, that we’re helplessly flapping in air like swordfish and singing along to that dang chorus, “Shake it off!”
Tone deaf? Maybe a little, even if it’s not her fault that she can’t (yet) control the news cycle. Still, for anyone who agrees that what’s on the popular charts is a reflection of where we are as a society, “Shake It Off” can’t help but be partially viewed through another lens.
Certainly I’m not the only one who’s been jumping between Web browser screens, performing split-second juxtaposed alt-tabs from shouts of “Shake it off!” to protests of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” Heard in that context, “Shake It Off” feels like a missive from the outer ring suburbs, where Ferguson may as well be on the other side of the world -- one big white whine from an artist who’s shown herself in the past to be way more thoughtful and savvy than this.
A few, most notably rapper Earl Sweatshirt, slammed Swift for cultural appropriation, mainly due to her play-acting at being a B-girl breakdancer. But at this point said critiques are tired and beside the point. If you complain about Swift’s twerking in “Shake It Off,” you should be equally outraged by L.A. band Haim’s just-dropped remix with ASAP Ferg, or James Pants’ whole-hog swiping of cheesy ‘80s black funk.
Hits seldom perfectly mirror the times or match skin color. During the Watts riots, the No. 1 song in America was "I'm Henry the VIII I Am" by Herman's Hermits, as thematically removed from the drama as could be. (Then again, as South Central burned in 1992, Kris Kross' "Jump" was number one.)
Still, pop music and current events often run at parallel frequencies. While imperfect, chaotic racial conflict rages in real time, but in mainstream pop, music and good intentions are a perfectly well-edited, wonderfully choreographed dance floating above the fray, one where even the flubs are intentional.
The harshest juxtaposition in "Shake It Off" comes with the song’s takeaway verse: "While you been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty dirty cheats of the world/ You could have been getting down to this sick beat."
That’s sage advice when your biggest problem is whether to date a millionaire or billionaire. But when lives are at stake and nothing seems more relevant than getting to the Actual Truth, liars and cheats can’t and shouldn’t be shaken off.
There’s one undeniable argument for the success of “Shake It Off” as a pop song. By the time I had digested it a single time, that chorus was already implanted in my head, where it prompted an internal civil war between the part of me that resented its cloying nature and my mind subconsciously looping the words, “The haters gonna hate.”
Like a Trojan Horse sneaking a Swiftian army into a nemesis' psyche, "Shake It Off" is in our consciousness whether we like it or not. The only question is how to best live with it.