As she gyrated and shimmied at the VMAs on Sunday night, Taylor Swift did not seem like a person under attack. With a troupe of tuxedo-clad male dancers—recalling Madonna’s video for “Material Girl”—she seemed like the reigning pop queen she is, totally in control. Her gorgeous legs seemingly reaching up to the sky, Swift performed her new single, “Shake It Off,” with a bouncy, poppy energy.
But the lyrics speak of Swift dealing with all the criticism and worse she has apparently faced since she became a star, her solution to which has been to “shake it off.” She catalogues all the slights chucked at her: “I stay out too late/Got nothing in my brain/That’s what people say”; “I go on too many dates/But I can’t make ‘em stay/At least that’s what people say…”
Her rationalization of how to counter this—although someone could perhaps gently tell her quite a lot of people don’t care enough about her to say any of that, or even to know what she is referring to—is to say “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” whatever the hell that means, and that she intends to “shake it off.”
Hate, as is often said, is a strong word. And yet, as Swift’s lyrics show, it is now being bandied around liberally to essentially mean anyone who is critical, from the mild and offhand to the vitriolic. “Haters” is now an all-purpose word used by those feeling “hated” toward those who don’t automatically fall down to worship their pedicured feet, or divinely anointed heads. Who question them. Who criticize them. Who dare say anything slightly dissenting to them. Or yes, who outright condemn them.
None of those things amount to “hate”—the kind of hate that those of us slightly older may remember aligned to actual “hate crimes” of gays and ethnic minorities, for example—but hate is now a general currency word, to signify the general pissed-offness of a pop star snarking at her critics, rather than a word to signify a nasty, mean-minded, vicious extreme.There is no stupider phrase currently bobbing around in pop culture than “haters gonna hate.”
But then “haters gonna hate,” which has flared into public life for a couple of years now, is an empty phrase born of our social media addiction, especially Twitter, where brouhahas and firestorms burst into existence, and everyone eventually leaves the arena feeling unfairly targeted and victimized. The sufferers have been bullied, the bullies have suffered, everyone has a wound deeper than someone else. Just as everyone wants to play the victim now, so also there is a rush to be the victim of “hate.”
It’s a phrase born of a hype-drenched world of reactive extremes: where everybody “loves” Beyoncé a little too passionately, where heroes are deified, and villains vilified in a culture ill-given to nuance, subtlety, complication, people with complex motives, or whose difficult words should be read or considered. “Haters gonna hate” takes the broad brush of stupid and glosses over all of that.
“Haters gonna hate” makes the person who says it into an automatic martyr, persecuted, misunderstood, maligned. It is the weary conversation-closing rejoinder to anything anybody doesn’t feel much like addressing. It says both “Don’t criticize me” and “I won’t be criticized.”
The phrase “hater” originally meant someone envious of someone else’s success, who then entered a public forum to decry that. But since when was that “hating”? It’s just some jerk sounding off, and usually with significantly less power than the person they’re criticizing. And just as everyone seems to be becoming more sensitive, so are they becoming more polarized. You either support something or someone, or don’t. Around my own friends, someone will wind up a conversation with a shrug and a baffling—to me—utterance of “Haters gonna hate.”
It has even infected political discourse. In a July speech, President Obama said: “We could do so much more if Congress would just come on and help out a little bit. Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hating all the time. Let’s get some work done together.”
Perhaps his frustration is genuine, but the “hating” he describes is political power play, as much used by the Democrats as the Republicans. More pointedly, it just sounds so childish and sulky. Obama may be right, but he sounds like a 5-year-old mad because someone’s stolen their coloring book.
And then, of course, there are Teresa Giudice’s opening words in the fifth season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey: “Haters are gonna hate, but I just love, love, love.”
This presumably means people who are critical of her on Twitter. But as so often when the phrase is raised, the question is: Who or what are you talking about?
Giudice made her name by being infamous on reality TV, with its confected conflicts and scraps. But like the imperiled heroine, she also rails against those who question or criticize the persona she has crafted, sells herself, and then uses social media to propagate even more.
The most irritating thing about “haters gonna hate” is that it is often the recourse phrase of the most controversial or powerful, who are in the public eye, and like to stay in the public eye, by courting the strong reactions of others. How does “haters gonna hate” adequately, court-of-law adequately, address the legal matters faced by Giudice and her husband, Joe, which through their own choices they have decided to play out as a storyline, deploying their children for cuteness potential, on the latest season of RHONJ? If Giudice has fans, if she has “haters,” she keeps feeding them the bones of sustenance.
The most offensive thing about the debased use of “haters” and “haters gonna hate” is that, with everyone using it, or claiming victimhood because of it, the focus is taken off those who are genuinely victims of hate, and who do need protection against those who wield it.
It isn’t just Giudice’s self-inflicted mess, but many others—the feminists, the anti-abortionists, the right-wingers, the gay rights activists, the goodies, the baddies—all of those who state strong views then recoil when those who disagree with them, just as strongly, and offensively, respond to them, flinging the word “hater” around. But if you choose to conduct your discourse in 140-word snaps, or soundbites, then you reap the crop of dumb that you sow. Not everyone will be your friend. You will have critics. Get used to it.
“Shake It Off” could have been a better song had Swift playfully addressed the criticism. Note that her lyrics don’t deny any of the boring, piffling, of-interest-only-to-her accusations that so beleaguer Swift. She just belches about the unfairness of those criticisms being made. But instead of a witty pop song, we have yet more woe-is-me-feel-my-pain from an overpaid, over-cosseted celebrity.
Swift’s overweening self-regard was evident when she announced her album to a room of what could have been weepy, focused, and borderline-hysterical cult followers but were in fact fans, in a Yahoo live stream last week. She would not deign to be interviewed or asked anything. Instead, she addressed the world. “I’ve learned a pretty tough lesson that people can say whatever they want about us at any time, and we cannot control that,” Swift said. “The only thing we can control is our reaction to that.”
And so, she said sternly, you can either let such terrible misfortune change you, and you stop trusting people, or the other option is to “shake it off.” Of course, this was greeted with a round of applause and whoops from her room of willingly incarcerated followers.
This wasn’t enough. “Can I get a round of applause?” she asked in a tone that said: Clap now, bitches, or the hounds of hell are backstage waiting to feast on your entrails.
At least Swift, at the end of her ridiculous victimhood-ballyhooing Yahoo broadcast, had the good grace to be honest about why she was broadcasting her sunny trauma to the world. “There’s no sale like a pre-sale,” she said, realizing a second too late (“No one says that”) what she had said. But her blatancy was welcome. Swift hopes that playing the victim, the perky sponge of “hate,” sells. Then it’s just her and her glassy-eyed fans against the world, and especially against the “haters”—whom she, and other celebrities and politicians like her, need more than they will ever acknowledge.