The Internet's left nut trembled earlier this week as Taylor Swift unveiled the video for her already-smash single "Shake It Off." Immediately, countless Americans digested the video's glorious imagery, inhaling its infectious pop sensibility. To be sure, the world still belongs to Taylor: "Shake It Off" has already amassed over 20 million views on YouTube. The 24-year-old singer's song surged to number one on iTunes in a matter of hours after its release, causing Taylor to tweet -- aptly -- WHAT EVEN, HOW EVEN in response.
Just as immediate as the song's success, however, a vocal chorus of criticism emerged. Some discount it for being too impersonal; for others it's too far a departure from Taylor's country roots. Perhaps no single criticism received more attention than from Earl Sweatshirt, himself previously a kind of a pop provocateur, given his alliance with the rap group Odd Future. However, in this instance, Earl was dead serious on Twitter:
@earlxsweat · Aug 18
haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful
@earlxsweat · Aug 18
perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture
@earlxsweat · Aug 18
for instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it's ok for you to be trill or twerk or say nigga
Now, admittedly, I am a fan of the singer's (as I attempted to articulate in this 2012 love letter to "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"). To me, accusations of the song as too "perfect" or cookie cutter miss the point, as the song's lyrics lightheartedly refute critics' perception of Swift as being melodramatic/whiny about her staggering romantic life. It's a clear evolution for the singer, but distinctly Taylor.
Nevertheless, Earl's incisive tweets struck a chord. Sure, he's copped to not even watching the video (or so he says). Like Taylor, Earl is a young performer continuing to develop as an artist; although his discography is mixed, he remains one of those singular voices capable of tapping into the zeitgeist in a meaningful way. Last week, he captured a real truth.
Ferguson, Missouri, continues to dominate the news, and the think pieces have snowballed into one large, indomitable force of hand-wringing and pandering racial politics. Seemingly, everyone has an opinion, yet no one has any answers. One piece worth reviewing -- especially in lieu of Earl Sweatshirt's tweets -- is Globe columnist Derrick Jackson's piece, "White America's racial blinders." In it, he describes white America's "stunningly Pollyannaish view of inequity," and contextualizes Michael Brown's killing within a larger prism of indifference toward both poverty and violence toward black Americans. It is a riveting column that demands we reexamine our own racial perceptions, particularly within our increasingly subjective cultural lens.
As Earl hints at, today's world affords us many luxuries, with one of the Internet's many benefits being the idea that cultural walls are coming down -- that we finally can experience things, and understand one another with enhanced clarity. Perhaps, to an extent, that is true. After all, as President Obama continues to underscore in his remarks, the United States has taken great strides in confronting the racial divide over the past few decades. Music videos starring pop starlets coopting black culture imply that artists' comfort level with things like twerking. This ghettofication of popular music banks on the country being categorically and assuredly post-racial. But are we ready to concede that Taylor Swift is a cultural ambassador? Have we really gone from MLK and Muhammad Ali to... Miley Cyrus?
Ferguson's burning, and Earl's tweets, suggest no. Ultimately, there is still a huge economic gap in this country which is, often, defined along racial lines. Social media -- or the advent of the digital age -- may hint that we've reached cultural equilibrium... but I think that's misleading. Differences still exist, and Swift's goofy post-racial iconography remains a fantasy.
Escalating racial tensions, and the puzzled response from white America, reminds us that many in suburbia still have no clue about American's complicated history with race. Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" may be bubblegum fun, but it does not deserve a ghetto pass (regardless of her playful "I'm such a dork!" tone). It's totally unearned. She can sing teardrops on her guitar, but she isn't entitled to do whatever she wants. That's what Earl Sweatshirt is tweeting about.