Last night, Taylor Swift gave a gift to her queer fan base in the form of a summertime gay anthem called “You Need To Calm Down,” and on behalf of a grateful community, I must say: thank you, Taylor!
Also: is there any chance you kept a receipt?
Please understand: I appreciate the effort. Like God Herself, I love a trier. It is a thrilling and still somewhat new experience to be part of the textual narrative in pop music, and I am delighted for the young queer kid who’s hearing the song and feeling seen, supported and nourished for the first time. It’s important! And the song has already lodged itself in my frontal lobe and kicked both of those new Bon Iver songs out of their seats. Between “Calm Down,” Katy Perry's “Never Really Over,” and the whole new Carly Rae Jepsen album, the 2019 pop sound palette seems to be “the Fletch soundtrack,” and I am all the way here for it. I will hear “Calm Down” at pool parties this summer, and I will sing along. It is nice.
But attempting to write a gay anthem in 2019 reeks of sweat and substandard self-awareness. The classics of the past— your “I Will Survive,” your “It’s Raining Men,” your “Pull Up To The Bumper”— they gave us our gayness indirectly. They were anthems of strength, of perseverance, of plain, joyous horniness, served up vicariously, the way it had to be done back then. The singers, always women, almost always black, were our stand-ins. We found these songs and made them ours. These days, LGBTQ wokeness is a box to check off in a marketing plan, and when there are perfectly capable queer artists out there, sitting down as a straight person and setting out to write a gay anthem is very much like trying to give yourself a nickname.
Exhibit A: eight summers ago, Lady Gaga expressed herself with the gay-power single “Born This Way,” with its reduction of queerness to a genetic condition and its shudderingly tone-deaf commandment “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.” Those are your only two options, kids! Either say YAAS 50 times a minute or risk bumming us allies out! (What’s that? You’re the age of most pop music consumers, which is young, and being openly gay can get you bullied or kicked out of your house? Whatever; look, here’s my head on a motorcycle.) It is the thought that counts, I guess, but if your thought is that being gay is like being Lebanese, maybe you aren’t finished thinking.
The trouble in “Calm Down” comes in the second verse, when Swift shifts her focus from Twitter trolls to homophobes. “Why be mad,” she asks, “when you could be glad?” In the lyric video, that final word carries a silent A, and look: it is absolutely possible that her original lyrical intention was to specifically name-check GLAAD. The line makes a lot of sense when you read it that way: “Why be unhappy when you could be an LGBTQ media-monitoring non-profit?” Again, if it gets one kid to Google GLAAD and see representation, it’s a net positive, but also, you know, clunk. (Plus, have you ever read one of GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index reports? They are generally not the breeziest.)
Much more troubling is the second pre-chorus, which attempts to reason with a shouting homophobe thusly: “Take several seats and try to restore the peace/Control your urges to scream about all the people you hate/‘Cause shade never made anybody less gay.” Well, I am here to tell you that shade has made a lotof people a lot less gay. The homophobia that is at the root of our culture ties young queers up in knots that take decades to untie. If “you will spend eternity in Hell for your sexual orientation,” or “God hates fags,” or even “don’t behave that way, son, you’re embarrassing me,” are examples of shade, just like a well-timed zinger about a pair of pumps that doesn’t match a dress, shade has actually made a lot of people a lot less alive. It deserves a more thoughtful analysis than a throwaway line in your song about people being mean to you on Twitter, five seconds before the line where you imagine me in a gown.
(Also, and now I’m just being nitpicky but I’m on a roll, “take several seats,” like “take it with a huge grain of salt,” explicitly contradicts the meaning of the expression it attempts to intensify. These are creeping into our vernacular unexamined, and must stop here.)
In the pantheon of gay anthems, I’m putting “Calm Down” right alongside “My Brother’s Gay (And That’s Okay!)” from Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s brilliant Comedy Central show The Other Two. In it, young pop sensation ChaseDreams releases a song celebrating his brother’s homosexuality in a way that is sincere, supportive, and terrifyingly counterproductive: “The way that he acts, the way that he talks, the way that he laughs and the way that he walks,” ChaseDreams sings, and then just when you (and his brother Cary, still so poorly self-actualized he’s settling for blowing his straight roommate) are ready for him to stop, he continues: “the way that he runs, how he moves his hands, he’s gay even when he just sits or he stands.” Any gay person who spent their adolescence policing every word, step, giggle and gesticulation—which is every gay person—felt the burn. The very things you’re still struggling to love about yourself, packaged and sold as a marketing gimmick for a straight person. Many a truth has been told in jest
Speaking of which, all this is happening when the decade’s gay anthem has already arrived, and it’s called “The Joke." Brandi Carlile dropped it on us last year, and it is suffused with the ache of a lifetime of being told you are a little bit shameful at best, and doomed at the worst. “You’re feeling nervous, aren’t you, boy? With your quiet voice and impeccable style…I see you tugging on your shirt, trying to hide inside of it, hide how much it hurts.” There is triumph in the chorus (“Let ‘em laugh while they can…I have been to the movies, and I see how it ends: the joke’s on them”) and because the verses lay out with devastating clarity just how much less gay—and happy, and proud—shade makes a person, the triumph is earned. Can’t we just do one good remix of “The Joke” and call it a day?
A gay anthem is absolutely still possible, but now that gay people are doing it for themselves, without indirect representation or coded language, maybe the role of an ally is to take a seat (again, just the one!) and let them.
Taylor Swift has donated money to LGBTQ+ causes, and written an important letter to Lamar Alexander, and I thank her for all of it. But we are still at the dawn of a cultural era in which queer people are able to tell their own stories. We only got Troye Sivan’s “Bloom,” our first mainstream pop song about bottoming (unless you count Toni Basil’s “Mickey”), less than a year ago! It is an exciting new time; let’s see what develops from it for a moment before we shoehorn some self-serving allyship into a song about the pain of snake emojis in a billionaire’s Twitter mentions.
I am aware that I am being both a queen and a drag. Also, I am writing this on a ferry to Provincetown where I am sitting across from a dude in a GAYS FOR TRUMP t-shirt, so I know there are bigger fish to fry. But “You Need To Calm Down” is less a gay anthem than a Wells Fargo Bank tent at a Pride festival: You’re fabulous, and so is our introductory APR! If “The Joke” is a gay anthem, “You Need To Calm Down” is a bachelorette party at the gay club.
Thanks for the support, thanks for coming, but…like, can you just not?
From: Esquire US