In this week's Pop is Not a Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood unpacks what it means for Taylor Swift to break her hardy political silence, and why it would've done her fanbase a world of good a few years back.
If there’s anything Brexit and Trump’s rise to power has taught us, it’s that those who lurk in the background, opting to stay quiet, are often the ones that eventually bring everything crashing down. It’s true, too, of pop stars and celebrities. When you’re being given a gigantic public platform, silence can seem like complicity, and refusing to vocally support either side automatically feels like a win for the most dangerous (in America’s case, Trump’s Republicans).
This is true of America’s almost painfully pleasant megastar, Taylor Swift. For the past four years, throughout one of the most aggressive political campaigns in America’s modern history, the 28-year-old country-cum-pop star has refused to talk about politics. In fact, she pretty much refused to speak at all, navigating a promo campaign for her last record, ‘Reputation’, that saw her write her own narrative: releasing self-made ‘magazines’ alongside the album and turning her ‘cover story’ with British Vogue into a cringe-inducing poem instead of sitting down with a journalist to talk about her music and, if they had dared question her on it, her unclear political stance, too. It’s the kind of thing that led critics to call her an envoy for Trump’s values and the poster child for white feminism.
As the vast majority of women in pop came out in vocal support of Hillary Clinton, Taylor decided to stay silent. She’s in a unique position: born in Pennsylvania before moving to Tennessee to pursue her country music career, she’s forever been embedded in (and supported by the citizens of) red states. To come out in support of the Democrats back then would embroil her in a backlash that might have put her success in those areas at risk – and that doesn’t sound good when it comes to potential protests at concerts and trying to flog tickets.
That all changed at the weekend, as Swift finally decided to let her guard down and politicise her platform.
“In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now,” she said in an Instagram post that racked up 1.8 million likes in a day. She went on to say that, “[a]s much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support [her local Republican candidate] Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values.” It’s an admirable moment for an artist who’s finally recognised that her silence could be considered damaging to her younger generation of fans. And for someone with such a strong following of teenage women – many of whom don’t have the right to vote yet – she’s set an example, and helped change the priorities of a generation so often dismissed in the political conversation.
But here’s my issue: Taylor Swift waited for the sweetest moment to make her political position clear. The album cycle for ‘Reputation’ draws to a close and the slew of singles worth releasing from it dried up long ago. Her behemoth US tour, which passed through plenty of red states on the way, finally wrapped merely days before she made her announcement. Sure, it coincided rightly with the November midterms, and came in the wake of the heartbreaking Kavanaugh case, but if Taylor’s image – one that allures fans of all genders, sexualities, ages and races – had been at the liberal forefront of America’s pop culture-shaped politics three years ago, there’s a fine chance we might not have found ourselves in this situation in the first place.
Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump. That’s Swift’s strongest demographic, and though I’m being purely hypothetical here, her voice being thrown into the ring could have helped put the first woman in the White House. We can attest to that influence already: since she came out in support of Tennessee Democratic candidates Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper, urging her fans to head to the polls, there was a huge spike in voter registrations – 65,000 on Sunday alone.
But for so long she decided to stay silent: through the Trump campaign, and his term so far, and the oppressive bills that directly affected – or were significantly supported – by many of the marginalised people in her crowds every night. Her position as a woman making catchy pop makes her a queer icon, and she’s vocally supported the community in the past. Why couldn’t she denounce the Republican party’s abhorrent stance on LGBTQ+ people just once, and instil hope in a generation who see her as an idol? Of course, it’s a wonderful thing for America’s rocky future to have its most influential and accessible young star become the face of its more progressive and liberal party going forward, but we must always be wary of a how and when a celebrity chooses to make these things public knowledge.
Politics, after all, is a make-or-break subject for many artists, but for the ones at the top of their game with a gigantic fanbase to fall back on – like Taylor Swift – imbuing it with their public persona should be a necessity that doesn’t need to be mulled over too much. Sure, it can go horribly wrong in some situations (Kanye’s mass clout paired with a MAGA hat could have had a similar effect to Taylor’s), but I can’t help but think that Taylor’s power – if she’d put it to good use – might have helped liberate her most vulnerable fans and loyal followers a long time ago.