“Shake It Off,” director Mark Romanek’s recent clip for Taylor Swift, depicts bad new trends in beautiful old ways. It works the same way as the best ‘80s-‘90s music videos—using semiotics to express up-to-the-minute changes in pop culture, producing the sort of imagery commentators and marketers now glibly call “iconic.”
The video shows Swift—a young blonde of model-like proportions—out of place among several sets of professional dancers representing a range of styles from stage to street. Rather than trying to find a way to slot herself into the dance, Swift flaunts her difference as a “normal person” trapped in this freakshow of talent. Her “comic” antics (e.g., nodding in self-satisfaction as she flagrantly botches a move) are in fact ambiguous, pitched precisely between self-deprecation and impertinent mockery of the dancers. They contain a sort of chastened appreciation for the dancers’ accomplishments that somehow only bolsters Swift’s centrality as protagonist and the primary object of audience identification.
Yet Romanek’s camera confers slo-mo grace and glory on the dancers nonetheless. The sharpness of HD photography (along with DP Jeff Cronenweth’s deceptively subtle lighting) augments one’s awe at the ballerinas’ impeccably poised serenity, the future-disco troupe’s defiance of the accepted limits of a limb…even the twerkers’ commanding vectors, which put 3-D in the shade.
This helps explain why the controversy over “Shake It Off” supposedly misappropriating black culture is beside the point. Old ways of framing exploitation have little relevance to 2014’s pop machinery. Taylor Swift is not Madonna (though she’s just as bad a dancer). The issue is no longer what it means when empowered whites take up black and subcultural modes of meaning, but what it means when a privileged perspective interposes itself between its audience and those modes. And it should be noted that in the video Swift co-opts high styles as well as low, as any good child of postmodernism would. (Her upcoming album is called 1989, after the year she was born.)
Practically every frame of “Shake It Off” begs the question: Why is Taylor Swift a star? The only possible answer: Because she is. The winds of commerce deposited her where she stands, so it’s useless to blame her unduly.
Romanek’s ballerinas (the first dancers we see in the video) subliminally critique Swift’s irreducible white privilege by evoking Kanye West’s 2010 “Runaway” video, which also prominently featured ballet. It was probably West’s sense of that privilege that drove him to rush the stage in protest at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards after a top prize went to Swift over Beyoncé. The run-in with Kanye clings to Swift’s identity as a popstar, even as she tries to ditch the country-pop genre, with all its racial associations, for the more “inclusive” and lucrative mainstream. Her grand rebranding effort doesn’t even permit moments of gamine expressiveness, such as the endearing swish of her ponytail in the video for “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” or collapsing with her legs bent back in “I Knew You Were Trouble” (both 2012).
The blows Swift strikes for “normalcy” here remind us that banality is hypocrisy—the hypocrisy of today’s cultural mainstream. “Shake It Off” ends with Swift convening an amateur dance party for her real-life fans, a gesture torn from Lady Gaga’s ersatz-empowerment handbook. Indeed, our current cultural condition—in which art has been reduced to “content,”  moral neutrality passed off as nuance, and the audience’s thirst for meaning-and-pleasure-together slaked with celebrity worship—is widely regarded as something “progressive” worth celebrating. It’s the Golden Age of television, after all! Is the tween audience that flips over Taylor Swift so very different from their affluent parents, who binge-watch in obedience to New York Times hype?
Cheers to Mark Romanek for making a video that at least portrays honestly how contemporary culture operates, and how the banality of privilege (to the extent that we accept it) diminishes our dreams.
But let’s not end there. Dreams are relaunched in Swedish pop singer-songwriter Tove Lo’s recently released debut album Queen of the Clouds. Tove’s musical milieu isn’t far from Swift’s (in fact, they have collaborators in common), and she’s only a year or so Swift’s senior, but their divergent approaches make them nearly perfect pop foils. While Swift’s infamous serial monogamy seems tailor-made for the era of singles over albums (ensuring at least a few bite-sized dramas per promotion cycle), Tove aims for a full-length examination of the stages of one relationship, sequenced as a three-act drama complete with intertitles: “The Sex,” “The Love,” and “The Pain.” (That about covers it!)
Ironically, the song “Shake It Off” is about brushing off haters, while the video evinces repressed envy toward those who have what Swift lacks. Tove is never that petty, even when describing her betrayal (sexual and otherwise) of a lover: “And I know that you’re so gonna hate me/If you did what I did, I would hate you too,” she sings on non-album track “Over.” There’s something akin to a ballerina’s poise in the way Tove exposes the worst of herself without self-protective abjection or narcissism. Her complex candor might make Taylor Swift blush, but it should make mature listeners wince. And even though Queen of the Clouds’ sound doesn’t transcend the AutoTune zeitgeist, in today’s environment that’s enough to make the album pass for countercultural.
Per Lex Brown’s commentary on ArtRank.
Ben Kessler can be reached at Kessler_b@yahoo.com. His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.