Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and the Cult of Awkward White Girls


Taylor Swift’s announcement of her new album, 1989, doubled as a proclamation of her pop-star status. “I woke up not wanting, but needing, to make a new style of music,” she said Monday during the 1989 live-stream “event,” adding that this would be “her first documented pop album.” It’s cute that Taylor Swift wants us to think she doesn’t know she’s been a pop star since, essentially, 2010’s Speak Now, but I don’t believe the act for a second. This is one of the most sensitive, self-obsessed celebrities on the planet, the type who’s a pro at transforming public perception into hits (see: “Mean”). But boy does it feel like she’s fresh meat all over again, striving towards even higher-stakes pop perfection in her own, Liz Lemon way.

The first single off 1989, the haters-gonna-hate anthem “Shake It Off,” debuted in video form during aforementioned live stream. The Mark Romanek-directed clip quickly spurred the conversation we’re always having about pop stars these days: the “but is this racist?” test. As dancers of all colors go full Black Swan, “Get Lucky,” and Miley in a brief history of recent choreography trends, Swift plays the gangly, awkward-limbed dweeb who doesn’t get it but goes H.A.M. trying. As Swift slides through a tunnel of twerking asses, her “what in the…?” facial expression fully owns her status as a white cultural tourist.

It seems fitting that Swift is heralding her “first documented pop album” by pulling — or perhaps simply gesturing toward — the ultimate white female pop star move of 2014: cultural appropriation. (Of course, pop’s history is also full of appropriation; we’re just on higher alert for swagger-jacking nearly a quarter-century post-“Vogue.”) But as Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt alluded to, the race-related issues within the “Shake It Off” video stem not from appropriation so much as othering. It’s incredibly subtle, almost systematic racial ignorance that finds Swift not co-opting twerking or other various hip-hop dance styles, but approaching them as an outsider. “This isn’t me, I don’t quite get this, but I’m trying really hard,” she seems to be telling us.

Of course, she’s doing this with historically white genres of choreography like ballet and contemporary dance as well, and packaging it all in a fun, dorky way. More than anything, the “Shake It Off” video is on-brand for Taylor Swift. That brand isn’t about controversy; it’s about Swift reinforcing her status as the queen of oblivious yet self-conscious white girls. She’s the ideal version of the kind of suburban basic bitch who might ask a woman of color, “Girl, can you teach me to twerk even though I have a white-girl ass (and am, like, waaaay intimidated by it)?”

The video seems like the culmination of Swift’s attempts to differentiate herself from other female pop stars by casting herself as an adorkable avatar of awkward perfection. Despite her very public romantic track record, Swift is perhaps the only grown-ass female pop star whose brand has little to do with her sex appeal. I can still remember the day she discovered hot-pants, and much of America can too. After maturing into adulthood and out of “wholesome” country music in the public eye, she has shielded herself from sexual objectification in the last few, short-shorts-filled years by upping the awkies quotient. Her social media persona is all cats, Lena Dunham-esque dispatches, and trying-too-hard pictures of Swift with her eclectic bunch of famous gal-pals (Emma Stone, a Victoria’s Secret Angel, and the Girls creator herself). If Lana Del Rey is the Tumblr of pop stars and Beyoncé is the well-curated Instagram feed, then Taylor Swift is the Facebook friend you know really well due to her TMI statuses, though you’re not quite sure how exactly you met her IRL.

Pop stardom, at its highest level, is the Olympics of perfection. Rihanna’s dominant brand is nasty-gal rebel, but taken to the highest, diamond-on-bare-nipples heights. Gaga’s perfectionist personality is the only suitable foil to her art-freak side. Bey, of course, has turned flawlessness into a business model, in a way that has so far only been replicated by major cosmetics brands. And Taylor? She’s gunning hard to be your dorky BFF while still performing perfection in many ways. She seems to know that, for her, the irritatingly successful and stunning part only works if she remains relatable above all. And being confused by racial nuance and vaguely inappropriate about where one’s own identity fits into it all is, frustratingly, relatable to some young white women. In fact, “Shake It Off” may do more than even Swift intended to connect the singer to her fan base. She sells these girls Keds and Diet Coke already; now she’s giving them a friendly but ultimately ignorant worldview to go with them.