Taylor Swift Can’t Keep Claiming Ignorance When It Comes to Her “Inspiration”

Turns out ignorance isn’t *always* bliss

Katherine Singh
Taylor Swift performs at the BBMAs
Photo: Getty Images

The Billboard Music Awards were a big night for comebacks. The newly reunited JoBros (and the #JSisters) performed a medley of new and old hits, legends like Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey proved they’re iconic for a reason and Taylor Swift came off her hiatus with a Pepto Bismol-hued performance of her newest single “ME!”

But in a night of greats, one of the above performances left us—and a large swath of the internet—feeling not so great, with fans calling out T-Swift for seemingly *ahem* borrowing *ahem* her performance from another icon: Beyoncé.

Opening the awards show alongside Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie, T-Swift stormed the stage with a marching band-heavy performance, with many of her poses and even her outfits causing some viewers to pause, because haven’t we seen this before? For many people, the answer was a firm “Yes!” We saw it about two weeks ago, when Queen Bey released her behind-the-scenes documentary of her 2018 Coachella performance: Homecoming.

For the Beyhive, Swift’s version left *much* to be desired, and was decried as a bland, gentrified, Torros vs. Clovers knock-off of B’s performance. In line with #Beychella, T-Swift’s BBMA performance has been dubbed #Mayochella (which, LOL).

Swift has yet to comment on whether the performance was meant to be inspired by the Queen—or to the claims of it being a straight-up copyright infringement. But never ones to be silent, her fans shot back, with many Swifties pointing to a long (albeit contentious) history of artists taking inspiration from each other. American actor Michael Rapaport (a covert Swiftie—who knew?) chimed in on Twitter, tweeting: “So Taylor Swift stole from Beyoncé who stole from Gwen Stefani who stole from Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s?”

Others tried to claim Swift actually used marching band imagery first, and that the similarities were all one big coincidence. Hey, marching bands are in!

First off, Beyoncé’s performance was a movement

Fan reactions aside, what we *can’t* put aside is some serious critical thinking. Because, it’s ridiculous to assume that Tay’s BBMAs performance came about in a vacuum without at least *one* person on her team recognizing or drawing from the significance of—and similarity to—Bey’s performance.

We get it, as much as we’d love to credit her with everything Beyoncé didn’t invent the marching band. Artists have long used the trope in their videos and songs (including Swift in her 2008 music video for “You Belong With Me“).

But Homecoming wasn’t just about that one time at band camp. Bey’s iconic Coachella performance paid homage, through her use of drumlines, to HBCU’s (historically Black colleges and universities). As writer Bee Quammie wrote for FLARE in April 2018: “HBCUs were established in response to the rampant racism and segregation that barred Black students from attending existing colleges and universities (commonly called PWIs—’predominantly white institutions’), but they’ve become a vital part of American culture.” And in paying homage to the Black collegiate experience— in everything from the outfits, berets and cast of largely all-Black performers—Bey paid homage to Blackness and the Black experience as a whole.

Tack that on to the fact that Queen B was the *first* Black, female performer to headline Coachella *and* announced a set of new scholarships for students at specific HBCUs after both Coachella performances, it’s indisputable that what she did with Homecoming goes beyond a regular concert. That band wasn’t just there for the beat or for an aesthetically pleasing set—there was meaning and intention behind their participation.

And it’s this intention and personal connection to the performance content— with Beyoncé practicing for eight-months (after just giving birth!) and literally pouring her heart, soul and body into this performance—that makes riffing on it, whether intentional or not (FWIW, we think it’s very intentional) just wrong. It not only cheapens and diminishes Swift’s own performance (which, honestly, looked like it had been thrown together in eight minutes—don’t @ me), but its very existence attempts to dillute Beyoncé’s love letter to her community.

And, let’s be honest, Taylor and her team would have had to have known that. The price of Netflix may have gone up, but we’re sure T-Swift can afford the $16. And Twitter—which has been buzzing since the release of the “Formation” singer’s doc—is free.

This is not the first time Tay’s copied Bey

It’s hard not to believe that Tay’s performance was somewhat intentional, especially because she’s taken cues from the Homecoming performer before.

As #OscarsSoWhite activist April Reign pointed out on Twitter, there were *a lot* of parallels drawn between the two performers all the way back in 2017, during Swift’s Reputation era and Beyoncé’s post-Lemonade.

“Imagine thinking this wasn’t obvious. I have to laugh. #Mayochella” the activist tweeted with images from Beyoncé’s formation tour alongside photos from Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.”

When compared side-by-side, it’s hard *not* to see the similarities. Bey’s “Formation” looks—which again, pulled heavily from her culture and background, featuring emblems of the South—seem almost mirrored in a still of Swift in a similar black bodysuit, standing in formation with similarly decked out dancers in an eerily similar location to Bey’s music video.

… And it’s not the first time she’s feigned ignorance

Listen, none of us are perfect—far from it. And T-Swift has done a lot of good, for both her fans and the music industry, but this not the first time she’s failed to acknowledge and take accountability for her actions, or the repercussions of them.

In October 2017, writer Meghan Herning wrote about the singer’s popularity among white supremacists for online blog PopFront, suggesting she’s linked to the alt-right. Per PopFront, the post “dove into a history of white supremacy and eugenics and how those ideologies have played a role in the political discourse of this country. It compared the lyrics of Swift’s song ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and the chants at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.”

The piece then ended with a call to action: “[…] While pop musicians are not respected world leaders, they have a huge audience and their music often reflects their values. So, Taylor’s silence is not innocent, it is calculated. And if that is not true, she needs to state her beliefs out loud for the world-no matter what fan base she might lose because in America 2017 silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor.”

In response, Swift’s team tried to have the post retracted, calling the story defamatory.

This wasn’t the first time a journalist has written about Swift and a connection between her music and the alt-right. Outlets such as Vice, Konbini and Complex have done the same, with Vice describing her as the alt-right’s pop icon.

Do we think that Swift is a white nationalist and supporter of the alt-right? OF COURSE NOT. But, as Herning stated in her call to action, she has a huge audience and following; and, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. By failing to acknowledge and address the—albeit unintentional—effects of her music, Swift not only brushes over a seriously big issue, but doesn’t do anything to deter it.

And this tendency to haplessly shrug has extended in to her feuds, where Swift has time and again played innocent; unaware of why other celebs, including her ex Calvin Harris, would go after her—and she’s been called out for it. And let’s not forget her whole ascension into her reputation era, largely initiated by her rift with the reigning family of reality TV, the Kardashian-Wests. ICYMI: In 2016, Kim Kardashian-West and her hubby Kanye got into a feud with T-Swift over a some contentious (and, tbh, misogynistic) lyrics in the former’s song, “Famous.” Upon the song’s release, Swift and her squad appeared surprised and offended by the lyric: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” In response, Kardashian-West posted video footage showing West in-studio, clearing the lyric with Swift via phone. From there, the idea of Swift as a snake was born, as was the imagery for her next album and tour.

There are myriad ways Swift could have attributed, paid homage and, frankly, bowed down to the Queen of music, but you can’t nod to something you don’t have a connection to—or at least not a meaningful one that isn’t gimmicky and clearly meant for tweets or sales.

And that brings in *a whole* other element to this contentious issue: If this is all an exaggerated wink, elbow-in-the-ribs, “don’t you get it?” gimmick, it’s one that co-opts, capitalizes and profits off the hard work of Beyoncé, a Black woman, as well as Black culture. Which in turn contributes to a very long history of white people capitalizing off the labour and culture of people of colour, especially in the realm of music. As Kathleen Newman-Bremang wrote for Refinery29: “The history of Black music in America includes many white artists taking Black songs and Black aesthetics, throwing white faces on them, and trying to pass it off as their own.” And while she—and we—aren’t saying  that’s what  Swift did on the BBMA stage, “someone on her team should have known that this is how it would be perceived and advised her against it.”

And really, who benefits from any of this? Certainly not Beyoncé, who I’m sure would have appreciated a direct shout out or even a tweet of appreciation. Which really only leaves Swift to benefit from the chatter and hype that this performance would bring, on the coattails of Bey’s set.

If anything, Swift’s performance shows that she still doesn’t understand that images have meaning beyond her kira-kira’d co-option of it. She doesn’t get the idea that when you use specific imagery, be it a marching band onstage at the BBMAs, or twerking in her “Shake it Off” music video, there’s a long history behind them, and often, race plays a bigger role than you think.

In conclusion, we’re taking a cue from Beyoncé’s art director, Andrew Makadsi:

Related:

Taylor Swift Ended One Feud, Only to Reignite Another Moments Later
Taylor Swift Should Speak Out Instead of Trying To Make Her Critics Shut Up
Homecoming Proves Beyoncé is Still the Queen of Control

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