In the opening moments of Taylor Swift’s new dance-heavy video for “Shake It Off,” mainstream America’s favorite singer thematically moves from white to black to gray, from ballerina to B-girl to modern dancer.
Swift changes scenes playfully, clumsily working to keep up with her more practiced, graceful co-stars. She trips in her tutu, ogles short-short booty while gliding beneath splayed legs and leaps while dressed as a cheerleader.
Juggling outfits and approaches, Swift, 24, simultaneously introduces an Us vs. Them lyrical narrative in which she swats aside criticism like King Kong batting airplanes.
“The players gonna play, the haters gonna hate,” she sings of her detractors and/or ex-boyfriends, “but I’m just gonna shake.” She delivers the chorus with a joyful defiance. Don’t think. Dance. Stepping out on me? Play away. Getting yelled at by mom? Put your hands over your ears and start screaming “the haters gonna hate!”
Eight years into her remarkable run, “Shake It Off” presents an artist gunning for sly transgression but instead landing on tone-deaf, self-absorbed teen regression, with music to match the vibe. A defiant simplification with a lyrical hook to die for, the first song from her forthcoming album, “1989,” goes all-in on dance pop. The closest thing to twang are the cornrows on one of her dancers’ heads.
That said, it is a perfect pop confection, one destined to generate licensing dollars for decades to come (Swiffer! Shake Shack! A Chevy Malibu on the road to vacation! “Shake it off!”). It’s also a sly strategic step-aside, one that suggests that despite any and all protestations, this song is going to be running through your head for the next few months. You may have preferred me as a Nashville princess, Swift implies, but I’m gunning for mainstream rebel queen status.
Throughout the video, Swift juggles cultural and musical signifiers with glee. She tries to twerk knowing full well the trouble that caused Miley Cyrus. She carries an old-school boombox while wearing red. She plays with feminine stereotypes – cheerleader, ballerina, an android Lady Gaga mimic, a stripper-suggestive twerker and gender-neutral figure dressed like Steve Jobs. Combined, Swift delivers her pitch as everywoman.
To my mind, the most telling moment of the video arrives in a quick edit, while she’s wearing ghetto-fabulous eyeglasses: Staring at the camera, Swift mimics a fisherman reeling in an imaginary catch. The cut implies that she’s hooked us, that we’re helplessly flapping in air like swordfish and singing along to that dang chorus, “Shake it off!”
Tone-deaf? Maybe a little, even if it’s not her fault that she can’t (yet) control the news cycle.
There’s one undeniable argument for the success of “Shake It Off” as a pop song. By the time I had digested it a single time, that chorus was already implanted in my head, where it prompted an internal civil war between the part of me that resented its cloying nature and my mind subconsciously looping the words, “The haters gonna hate.”
Like a Trojan horse sneaking a Swiftian army into a nemesis’ psyche, “Shake It Off” is in our consciousness whether we like it or not. The only question is how to best live with it.