Posted on September 1, 2014

Danger! White Girl Twerking

Jake Flanagin, New York Times, August 25, 2014

Taylor Swift released a splashy new music video last week–“Shake It Off,” a single from her forthcoming album, “1989.” The video features Ms. Swift trying her hand at a variety of dance styles–pointe, interpretive, break–to the tune of a brassy pop anthem about “players,” “haters” and “fakers,” a measurable departure from the soft-sung country love ballads that brought her worldwide fame.

Despite the anti-hater vibe of “Shake It Off,” the video has inspired considerable backlash. The controversy centers on a clip in which Ms. Swift appears to (attempt to) twerk alongside backup dancers scantily clad in stereotypical street wear–high-tops, gold doorknocker earrings, crop-top hoodies and shredded-denim shorts.

The rapper Earl Sweatshirt, of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop collective Odd Future, took to Twitter to air his particular grievances:

The indictment echoes criticisms levied at Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video and Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (and its antecedent, the video for “We Can’t Stop”)–that white-girl pop stars twerking, or singing about twerking, appropriates, objectifies and oversimplifies African-American culture.

“Miley and her ilk need to be reminded that the stuff they think is cool, the accoutrements they’re borrowing, have been birthed in an environment where people are underprivileged, undereducated, oppressed, underrepresented, disenfranchised, systemically discriminated against and struggling in a system set up to insure that they fail,” wrote Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart in an essay titled “On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People.”

“Why does every pop singer looking for a new, risqué look these days rely on allusions to black culture to render them sexy, daring and current?” asks The Daily Beast’s Amy Zimmerman. “‘Shake It Off’ might be Swift’s version of throwing an ethnically inclusive dance party, but her culturally insensitive stamp of approval is as superfluous as it is ignorant.”


Ms. Swift’s video may not be as blatantly appropriative as a “Hard Out Here” or “We Can’t Stop,” but it’s evident her art direction strikes a nerve. And sometimes, to cross genres is to highlight deep-seated tensions between racially delineated genres of music.