On 29 May 2020, Taylor Swift tweeted “after stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism your entire presidency, you have the nerve to feign moral superiority before threatening violence? ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts’??? We will vote you out in November”. It quickly became her most liked tweet, hitting a million likes in under five hours. Some fans were ecstatic – “SAY IT WITH YOUR CHEST TAY TAY! I never saw this coming in 2020, y’all, but here we are”. Others were furious, saying they would no longer attend concerts or listen to her music. From being seen by the alt-right as an “Aryan goddess” to Trump insisting that he likes Swift’s music about “25% less now”, she has walked a long and winding political path, feeding into some of her best and worst moments as a cultural icon.
The Guardian notes that, until late 2018, Swift was publicly quiet on political matters and her “public neutrality allowed fans to project views on to her”. This encouraged mass appeal for Swift, allowing her to sell out stadiums and break streaming records – especially for 1989. However, Swift’s silence led to speculation regarding her political views, especially when she didn’t endorse Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. On the day of the 2016 election, she posted encouraging fans to vote but did not reveal a political affiliation. “Who is Taylor Swift voting for?” was a top search on Google. The far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos had an answer for this silence. He explained in Breitbart that “Swift is covertly ‘red-pilled,’ concealing her secret conservative values from the progressive music industry while issuing subtle nods to a reactionary fanbase”. This interpretation may seem ominous. On other corners of the internet, though, views of Swift were more worrying.
The Daily Stormer bills itself as “the world’s most visited alt-right website.” It’s run by the proud white supremacist Andrew Anglin (“I believe white people deserve their own country”) and frequently visited by Dylan Roof. The site includes plenty of articles about Taylor Swift: “Aryan Goddess Taylor Swift: Nazi Avatar of the White European People” or “Taylor Swift, Avatar of European Imperialism”. Anglin even told Vice that “Taylor Swift is a pure Aryan goddess, like something out of classical Greek poetry…Athena reborn. That’s the most important thing.” He continued “it’s incredible really that she’s surrounded by these filthy, perverted Jews, and yet she remains capable of exuding 1950s purity, femininity and innocence”.
This abhorrent content did not prompt a reaction from Swift or her team. However, in 2013 a teenager named Emily Pattinson started overlaying quotes from Adolf Hitler on Pinterest photos of Taylor Swift – apparently as a joke. J. Douglas Baldridge, Swift’s lawyer, sent a stern letter: “the association of Ms. Swift with Adolf Hitler undisputedly is ‘harmful,’ ‘abusive,’ ‘ethnically offensive,’ ‘humiliating to other people,’ ‘libelous,’ and no doubt ‘otherwise objectionable’… public figures have rights”. Other than these oblique legal challenges, there was little comment from Swift or her team on the alt-right’s adoration of her. To those particular fans, the silence itself was confirmation: Swift was one of them, a secret conservative in liberal Hollywood.
Things began to change in March 2018. Swift showed support for the March For Our Lives campaign. She wrote on Instagram that “no one should have to go to school in fear of gun violence. Or to a nightclub. Or to a concert. Or to a movie theater. Or to their place of worship… I’m so moved by the Parkland High School students, faculty, by all families and friends of victims who have spoken out, trying to prevent this from happening again”. While not explicitly political, this did align with Democratic ideals by calling for gun reform.
In October, Swift made her first official endorsement regarding the November midterm elections. “I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent”, Swift said, urging fans to vote for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. The president of Turning Point USA, Charlie Kirk, responded, tweeting that “you just endorsed a Democrat in the Tennessee Senate race with a ridiculous statement saying Marsha Blackburn, a woman, is against women. You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about”. This ridicule was widespread throughout Republican circles. Trump even said that he liked her much “25% less” in the wake of her statement.
More recently, Swift shared a video about the importance of Juneteenth, asking that it be made a national holiday. Danielle Young created the video and commented that “I respect her trying to learn. I respect her trying to educate people. I respect her even asking permission to post the video, because she knows that The Root is a platform that is black and unapologetic, and thus has definitely made content about our girl Taylor,” Young continued. “So, she knows that that exists, and I thought that was really just quite bomb of our girl Taylor … It’s just so beautiful that someone of her calibre and of her stature could do something this supportive of Black lives”. In an article for Elle, Swift wrote about her political awakening: “invoking racism and provoking fear through thinly veiled messaging is not what I want from our leaders, and I realized that it actually is my responsibility to use my influence against that disgusting rhetoric. I’m going to do more to help. We have a big race coming up next year.”
However, some have challenged Swift for not putting her money where her mouth is through public donations which support the BLM movement. This opens up a bigger discussion regarding what we expect from celebrities. If they are too public-facing in their activism – see the tone-deaf performance of ‘Imagine’ begun by Gal Gadot and the slightly better but still insensitive ‘I Take Responsibility’ video – then it is a cringeworthy charade to appease fans rather than genuine activism. If they stay silent then they are seen to do nothing. Swift is known for her private donations
For Taylor Swift in particular though, Black Lives Matter should be significant. Vulture comments that, by 2016, her image “had obtained racialized notes of self-interest and treachery” due to her frays with Nicki Minaj (brief, stirred up by a media desiring to pit successful women against each other) and Kanye West (convoluted and going on for years). Swift was accused of professional victimhood and embodying white fragility. While tropes are certainly partially true, the tale is complicated by leaked phone calls and nude waxworks, as well as contention over what Swift approved. Forbes sees this as a miscommunication between West and Swift inherent in their cultural background, with West claiming that “bitch is an endearing term in hip hop” while Swift says that “you don’t get to control someone’s emotional response to being called ‘that bitch’ in front of the entire world”. Vulture’s Now That No One Cares Anymore, Who Was Right in the Kanye-Taylor Feud? concludes that “now that Kanye has flirted with Trumpism and released a string of sub-par albums, while Swift has successfully completed her second woke re-brand, the world is primed to be on her side again. Which is good, because after painstakingly going over all the evidence, we can conclusively say: In the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, Taylor Swift was right”.
Swift’s previous silence and current activism feed into a bigger moral quandary for celebrities. While speaking out may please some ardent fans and feed into parasocial relationships, it’s also divisive and can lower profits. For the Dixie Chicks (now renamed as the Chicks due to the antebellum connotations of ‘Dixie’), it was almost career-ending. In March 2003, the band said to London crowds “we do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas”. Fans were incensed – burning their CDs, boycotting radio stations which supported them and publicly protesting. Silence is often financially safer for celebrities, even if their values are being betrayed.
Her Denver sexual assault trial was one time where Swift couldn’t and didn’t stay silent. After being groped by a radio DJ at a meet-and-greet, Swift complained and the man lost his job. He sued and she countersued for a symbolic one dollar. Her testimony was blunt – “Gabe, this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass… you can ask me a million questions. I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.” She was featured as one of Time’s People of the Year as one of the “silence breakers” in 2017 – acknowledging her efforts to speak out (despite, in her own words, having “all the privilege in the world”) during the year’s cultural reckoning with #MeToo. She still has not received her dollar of compensation.
In her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Swift wrestles with claiming her political voice before concluding that “if I get bad press for saying, ‘Don’t put a homophobic racist in office,’ then I get bad press for that, I really don’t care”. While this attitude is a manifestation of her privilege – she can afford to not care if she loses some fans – it is also a needed call to action for her many fans, who are soon becoming eligible to vote.
Will Swift trigger a political revolution?
But in her own small way, she can change the world.