Like many feminists responding to the Taylor Swift-Kanye West controversy, I wrote passionately about the intersections of gender and age at play in West’s decision to take the microphone away from a teenage girl and then use her spotlight to demean her. As a woman of color and intersectional decolonized feminist, I also noted the ways he relied on racial narratives to condemn MTV through Swift’s win by pointing to how one time cutting edge award shows have fallen into the same pattern of exclusion and ghettoization of musicians of color as their mainstream counterparts (even if the music channels haven’t been alternative since the start of TRL) and hoped that race + gender in the form of Beyonce would trump race vs gender in the form of Kanye’s black masculinity v. Taylor’s Swift’s white femininity. He was wrong.
As I said in my original post on the issue, his behavior was steeped in heteropatriarchal assumptions that demeaned women and girls and blamed a single girl for the failings of an industry that she neither set up nor had any say in. It was a move whose offense could not be excused on either individual or structural level. And worse, it was one that despite being about sexism would clearly be read through the lens of racism, leading to racial ramifications for black men in the industry and black people in general. Beyonce’s carefully crafted response was meant to champion girls, women in music, and deflate potential racial backlash and the initial response by white female musicians seemed to underscore the need to not racialize this event but rather to focus on its clear sexism.
Unfortunately, in the days that followed, neither Taylor swift nor the general public followed this example. Taylor Swift has every right to be upset about what Kanye West did at the VMAs. No racial narrative excuses away Kanye’s offensive behavior and general arrogance in the face of a teenager winning her first moon man and realizing a long hoped for goal. He was wrong and she was clearly crushed by him. Yet, Taylor Swift has been riding a wave of racially charged disdain for West ever since. Last night that wave deposited her on Saturday Night Live as both host and musical guest, a job she would never have gotten otherwise. She used that opportunity to engage in racially offensive caricature that not only calls into question her continued reliance on the image of blue-eyed-blonde-victim to scary black male perpetrator but also reinforced it by embedding the issue in several unrelated skits throughout the night.
Thus the show began with Taylor Swift’s monologue, a song she called “La La Song” in what I assume was an ironic reference to Kanye’s slight of her musical talent in his initial insincere “apology” to her on his website the night of the VMAs. And yet, while she took pop shots at her ex-boyfriend and Kanye West, I could not help but remember his comment about her lack of talent. The song’s insipid nature failed to be ironic, though scoring a few laughs, instead underscoring how little lyrical or musical talent Taylor Swift actually has. Add to that her current commercial, which played twice, and her lackluster musical performances on the show where he voice broke, she failed to show musical range, and her lyrics varied little from the opening monologue in terms of focus or lyricism, and ultimately I don’t think anyone could deny that her double duties on SNL were directly related to the Kanye incident.
While there is no excuse for his behavior, it is impossible to ignore the way that Swift has moved from actual victim to astute manipulator of racial tension to her own ends. Thus she sings that she won’t say anything about Kanye because she has security, while SNL actors flank her with an artist rendering of West/wanted poster. Neither the white comedians nor the white “musician” they pretend to protect have any sense of irony or shame about reducing a black musician to a criminal for daring to steal a white one’s spotlight. The skit shows little understanding of the racial history of this nation that not only criminalizes black men regularly but also has a long history of torturing and killing them for daring to look at a white women the wrong way in public. What Kanye West did to Taylor Swift was inexcusable, but it was not criminal.
What many watching will also likely miss: after the skit was over and Taylor Swift was supposed to deliver the obligatory “We have great show for you tonight” she once again took the opportunity to dig at Kanye West, saying in an embittered voice “and no Kanye West won’t be here.” And while she has ever right to be angry about what he did, her anger on SNL seemed to oddly stem from a place of entitlement rather than continued hurt. Given that she continues to benefit from racialized backlash against Kanye, including in her role as host, and that the show opened with such a specific linking of Kanye’s behavior to supposed black criminality vis-a-vis white innocence, her continued vehemence so much later smacked of unacknowledged privilege and investment that would become a major thread in the show itself.
The vast majority of the rest of the night was taken up with harmless and surprisingly entertaining skits. Swift’s turn as Kate Goselin was inspired depite The SNL troupe’s version of The View that continues to be mired by both problematic depictions of race and gender. Her timing was as good as the woman who played Walters. In fact, her timing was spot in so many of the skits that it was a real tragedy to see her sink into racial parody at various points in the show.
Twice in the rest of the show, Taylor Swift engaged in racialized mockery that called up the spectre of Kanye West. In both cases, she was playing stereotypically imagined characters of color with the goal of demeaning them and perpetuating the dichotomy between her “true” Barbie Doll features and those of the racial stereotypes she was emulating.
In her “black face” role, West appeared opposite the only black comedian on Saturday Night Live in a skit that has always traded on black criminality for laughs. In fake cornrows that called up West’s hairstyle without actually mimicking it, Swift would do the worst impression of a black convinct/gangsta I’ve ever seen. (Some may argue that she was playing a white character who emulates black stereotype b/c of the absence of face make up, and while I will concede that this may be the intent of the skit, Swift played it as racial passing. Had she not, she would have been mocking a certain kind of whiteness that in and of itself requires racial appropriation, but there was no aspect of her character that mocked whiteness in anyway.) While the character she played was a stereotype that does not reflect black culture, her performance, like her earlier song, spoke volumes about her knowledge of black people and her willingness to mock them. Worse, it played out like a bad impression of Kanye West during certain awkward moments, and it didn’t feel like the first time she’d done it. In fact, a little Google Search shows that Taylor Swift has “thugged out” before in the worst kind of culture appropriation because it is not only funded by the music industry but excused away because nobody gets out the paint.
In what was perhaps the most ironic moment of the night however, Taylor Swift donned a jumpsuit and mocked Shakira’s musical talent in the second of the two skits. Once again passing for another race, Taylor Swift, who plays no instrument well, has multiple writers help write her songs, and has no rhythm to speak of, dared to mock an internationally known female musician who shot to stardom precisely because she played her own music, wrote her own songs, and had a soulful, lyrical, grasp of music and performance. One needs only place early videos of Shakira’s songs about love accompanied by her skillful guitar work against Swift’s whiny girl in the bleachers songs accompanied by her studio modified guitar playing to see who has the right to mock whom. Of course, that would require a knowledge of women and music that not only goes beyond the English market but also the last few weeks neither of which seem to interest Swift or her fans.
Talent aside, Swift’s real offense is racial. While Shakira’s She Wolf is dreadful, Swift’s depiction of the song relied almost entirely on making fun of Shakira’s seemingly tenuous grasp of the English language. Instead of openly mocking the 70s throw back video or the disconnect between actual lycanthropy and Shakira’s lyrics, Swift’s Shakira was largely unintelligible. After a brief reference to her jump suit, Swift made gutteral sounds punctuated by tongue rolling, no doubt meant to mock the way certain consonants are formed in Spanish, and the signature “ahh ooh” of the She Wolf song. She made no sense and that was the point. She didn’t even bother to learn Shakira’s signature dance moves, instead seemingly recreating the beginning of the undead dance from Micheal Jackson’s Thriller. In short, her Shakira was a racial caricature that denied Shakira’s dance prowess and racialized her musical performance in ways one might expect from a supremacist venue.
Swift’s depiction stands in stark contrast to other SNL skits spoofing Shakira. While these skits have also exploited Shakira’s use of the English language, the comedians portraying her have emulated her actual dancing and video style. Rather than relying on overt difference in which it is assumed the audience is part of an insider understanding of how “ridiculous Latinas are and how hard they are to understand” like Swift’s performance did they specifically target and exaggerate real issues in Shakira’s English-language performances.
Perhaps more important than even this racially disturbing behavior, is that Shakira was the one who handed Swift her VMA award. In other words, both incidents of racial mockery on SNL intentionally or otherwise centered the Kanye West incident. And in both cases caricatures of people of color potrayed by Swift were made into buffoons. Like traditional minstrel acts her buffoonery relied on identification with whiteness and acceptance of difference defined as less than.
While the racial politics of SNL certainly lent themselves to the multiple offenses of the night, Swift consented to these portrayals. In so doing, she sent the message that she clearly believes that racial mockery and borderline black face is amusing. The centering of West at every turn made these moments speak to a rage that is very much invested in certain kinds of hierarchies that have little to do with West’s actual offense against her. The fact these offenses were likely “unintentional” or subconscious make me all the more wary of Swift.
Ultimately what her performance on SNL shows she, and her fans, need to understand is that Kanye was not acting as a black man, he was acting as a sexist self-involved moron. Taylor Swift’s willingness to capitalize on spoken and unspoken racialization of the incident coupled with her willingness to mock people of color and engage in “black face” (minus make up) should give everyone pause. Like so many mainstream women invested in oppression olympics and/or white innocence, Taylor Swift was a victim of sexism (and ageism) who continues to use her considerable access to racial hegemony to retaliate at a level that is uncalled for and increasingly offensive.
UPDATE: and the wave continues. Taylor Swift won all 4 categories in which she was nominated at the CMAs, including artist of the year, for music about day dreaming about boys from the bleachers & other high school oriented ditties. Anyone who doesn’t question the message behind this sweep, need only have seen the gathering of the other artists around her or the most offensive moment of the night when stars sung out “Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be Kanye” amidst applause. Kanye West’s mother died one year ago last night (the night of the CMAs). In this game of entitlement and award show wrongs, where does calling a musician’s mother a failure on the 1 year anniversary of her death fit? Clearly nowhere near taking a microphone from a blonde, blue-eyed, white teen since the neither the media nor anyone from the award show has bothered to comment, including Swift. (And again, while Swift is not responsible for the milieu in which she performs, her wide-eyed willingness to capitalize on the racial backlash is troubling at best &, especially given her silence last night, fully embracing hegemony at worst.)
- Swift, Hader, & Sudeikis/ SNL 2009/Dana Edelson
- T-Pain & Taylor Swift/ Getty Image
- Swift/SNL 2009/Edelson
- Taylor Swift & Shakira @ VMAs/ Getty Image