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What Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off” Tells Us About the Authority of Law

What Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off” Tells Us About the Authority of Law

In 2014, Taylor Swift sent the whole world into a 24/7 dance-off by claiming that she was entitled to “shake it off”. But what was she shaking off exactly? And, more importantly, on what grounds was she entitled to shake off whatever was bothering her? These are important questions, and they directly relate to how individuals, groups, and, ultimately, the law, claim authority over us. Joseph Raz and Ronald Dworkin have offered us two opposing accounts of the theory of authority – the former a rationality-based approach, and the latter a relationship-based account. While Swift’s Shake it off first appears to endorse a rationality-based account of authority, it later commits in its chorus to the relational account of role obligations. By doing so, Swift tells us a few things about why we ought to accept – or reject – social and legal norms imposed on us.

But before getting ahead of ourselves, let’s first answer the first question: “what does Swift want to shake off?” It appears from the first verse of Shake it off that she is concerned with the social norms that her environment tries to impose on her:

I stay up too late
Got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say
That’s what people say
I go on too many dates
But I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say
That’s what people say

Being out and about in your twenties can bring public scrutiny on your lifestyle; some people might then publicly voice judgements or give you advice in order to curve your behavior. This is the “it” Swift is claiming to be entitled to shake off: social expectations attempting to constrain her life-choices. But to justify this “shake off”, Swift must explain why her critics fail to possess the right to be obeyed.

To do so, Swift quickly follows through in her second verse with a rationality-based account of authority. Indeed, she first claims that people offering her moral advice cannot have any normative pull on her because they are simply mistaken in their views:

I never miss a beat
I’m lighting on my feet
And that’s what they don’t see
That’s what they don’t see
I’m dancing on my own
I make the moves as I go
And that’s what they don’t know
That’s what they don’t know

Swift here refers to the service conception of authority developed by Joseph Raz. According to this conception, an authority is legitimate if it helps its subjects better conform to reason. More precisely, there is an obligation to obey (and a right to rule) when, first, a person would better conform to reason overall by accepting someone’s directives rather than by directly assessing the reasons for action and, second, this person is confronted with a decision that she wishes or ought to make reasonably.

Arguably, Swift is committed to “getting it right” when it comes to managing her life, as the rest of her œuvre clearly indicates. Swift however rejects that the first condition of the service conception is fulfilled and that her critics could be any helpful at conforming to reason. They would lack information on important aspects of the contemplated matters (she claims to “make the moves as [she] goes” and that she is “lighting on [her] feet”) and this shortage in information would put them in an epistemically disadvantaged position with regards to reasonable decision-making (“That’s what they don’t see” / “That’s what they don’t know”).

However, the inapplicability of the service conception is far from being everything that Swift has to say about legitimate authority in Shake it off. Indeed, Swift’s conception of authority runs much deeper than this, as her chorus suggests:

Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I Shake it off, shake it off
Heartbreakers gonna break, break, break, break, break
And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake
Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I Shake it off, I shake it off

Yes, this chorus is not only a threat to your overwhelmed hips at this point of the song; it is also a threat to the service conception, as Swift adopts a relational-based account of authority in her chorus.

Reading between the lines of this chorus is essential to find the key to Swift’s theory of authority, and she helpfully puts us on the right path by placing a subtle non sequitur in it that hints at the hidden premise of her reasoning.

Claiming that “players gonna play, play, play, play, play”, that “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”, and that other Ω-doers will Ω are descriptive conceptual claims, while the claim that one is entitled to “shake it off” is an evaluative justificatory claim. How can the latter claim follow the former? In the service conception of authority advanced by Swift in her verses, a conceptual claim that some Ω-doers are morally deviant (because they Ω) does not justify rejecting those persons’ authority if they are otherwise good at getting the contemplated decisions right. Indeed, players and haters might be very skillful at navigating through the troubled seas of romantic life: after all, who knows better about going on too many dates than a player?

Once properly understood, this chorus actually raises the relational objection to the service conception: theoretical authority does not entail legitimate de facto authority, as something more is needed to crystallize an obligation to obey. To illustrate this point, let’s take the following example. If Dr. Phil would have burst into Swift’s bedroom late at night while she was composing 1989, barking dating advice at her, this would not only have been incredibly creepy, it would also not have been conductive of an authority relationship.

This is so because the key to legitimate authority lies in the roles that we play when we engage in some social practices, rather than in the instrumental value that authority possesses (i.e. conforming to reason). Participating in friendship, romantic, or political relations impose on us obligations to obey to different extents given our consent to participate in those practices (or given our interpretative account of their intrinsic value). Dr. Phil might be a leading theoretical expert in life management, but Swift certainly did not agree to be endowed with his insight on dating in the middle of her night-time soul searching. She therefore did not contract a role obligation towards Dr. Phil in our example.

On the other hand, we would feel slightly more awkward to dance to the chorus if the lyrics to it were: “Best friends gonna care, care, care, care, care”. Our intuitions on haters’ entitlement to impose on us moral obligations contrast with our intuitions on our best friends’ similar entitlement and this indicates that we can attract obligations simply by taking part in relationships, but that not every kind of relationship is conductive of role obligations. Swift ought to go out less and spend some time with her friends who request her presence, but she has no duty to stay at home because of a mean-tweet sent by a paternalistic bystander.

So we now understand better Swift’s theory of authority: obligations to obey derive from roles we undertake within social practices that we interpret as valuable. Role obligations arise from those valuable social practices, Ronald Dworkin explains, because they present some characteristic features, such as equal concern and reciprocity between its participants.  

The philosophy of Shake it off has obviously more to offer than a theory of authority. For example, the song’s rap breakdown offers some thoughts on how to cope with romantic disappointment. This being said, Swift’s account of the authority of social norms can be applied to how law claims authority over us. While conforming to reason is an instrumental value of law – and just law should help us conform to reason – de facto legal authority must meet a higher threshold. A political community that does not further the intrinsic value of each individual participating in it fails at implementing the purpose of a political community. When it does so, the legal authority of this political community becomes unclear. In other words, law can claim authority over us when it helps achieving our account of why living in a society is a good. Viewed in this way, obeying the law – or shaking it off – is a personal dilemma that we each have the moral responsibility to resolve on our own.

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