Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” Plays It Too Safe to Matter
Like so many of us, Taylor Swift could probably use a break from Twitter. Her last album, the improbably solid Reputation, saw Swift leaning into something like a newfound dark side, taking on the unnamed masses of internet gossipers by slipping into the snakeskin garments of her insecurity. She railed against the proverbial critics by digging in her heels, posturing as the nightmare she seemed to think everyone thought she was; the result was an album fueled by gossip, by internet controversy (“another day, another drama”), and the idea that while everyone may be a critic, there’s catharsis in embracing the villain archetype.
“You Need to Calm Down” draws inspiration from the Twitter mobs, too, but takes a more aloof approach. It starts with the single art, which features a shot of Swift with shades down, back turned away from the haters. What her posture suggests, her shockingly literal (fake) back tattoo makes explicit: the snake is now the butterfly, and Swift is moving on from the bullshit. At least, that’s what she appears to be going for.
“You Need to Calm Down” repurposes the generic bubblegum of “ME!” but puts across a more pointed message. “You are somebody that I don’t know / But you’re takin’ shots at me like it’s Patrón,” sings Swift, before affecting exhaustion with a sneer: “And I’m just like damn… / It’s 7 AM…” Something about writing a song about how you’re over it all suggests that you’re not, in fact, over it all. There’s new promise in the decisive bass line that underpins “You Need to Calm Down,” but the stacked “oh-oh”s of the chorus feel like a retread of “ME!”s wannabe anthemic sheen, which in itself felt reminiscent of past blockbuster pop experiments. Rather than moving onto bigger and better things, Swift sounds stuck.
She uses the second and third verses to address more real issues, but maintains the political reticence that’s defined her album cycle thus far. It’s no surprise that Swift would ask, “Why be mad when you could be GLAAD?” since the reference to one of the country’s most prominent LGBTQ+ nonprofits initially scans as just “glad.” The GLAAD double entendre makes “You Need to Calm Down” both apolitical enough for the Top 40, and just progressive enough to get media outlets talking. While Swift’s bare-minimum claim to have voted for a Democrat sparked controversy among her more conservative fans, the easy, inoffensive lyrics of “You Need to Calm Down” feel engineered to appeal to the broadest possible demographic. An accompanying lyric video also highlights “EA” in the words “peace” and “scream,” in an apparent allusion to Swift’s support for the Equality Act; like “glad/GLAAD,” it’s an expression of coded politics.
From the sarcastic plod of the chorus (“You need to just stop, like can you just not step on my gown”) to the political treasure hunt of the lyric video, “You Need to Calm Down” itself feels a little like a “cop out.” Swift remains one of the decade’s most important pop stars—it’s just a shame Lover is shaping up to be so safe.