It’s hard to argue that Taylor Swift’s Democratic endorsement is anything other than a net positive. Her decision to throw her support behind U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen comes at a crucial time in Tennessee politics and may well manage to significantly shift the votes of that race in the right direction. Regardless of where one falls in relation to her cultivated public image, there is no denying that Swift holds sway over a dedicated court of young, politically engaged women who see themselves reflected in her music. It’s this truth in part that led to the sustained criticism of her refusal to speak publicly about her politics in a tense and divided election cycle back in 2016. With a “girl power” image and a female Democratic Presidential nominee on the ballot, an explicit endorsement should have been a no-brainer for Swift’s snazzy new pop star brand; she’d have been just one in a long, long, long, list of celebrities who fell in line.
But she chose to stay silent. Even as the race became explicitly about the worst strains of misogyny and racism hiding on the seedy underbelly of America’s true but unstated values. Even as the elected President immediately threw millions of lives into chaos with his ill-conceived Muslim ban, tried to ban transgender people from serving in the military, tacitly endorsed the murderous alt-right, pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio despite his many documented human rights abuses, endorsed Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate race despite multiple credible accounts of sexual assault on teenage girls, and generally continued to demonstrate a staunch disregard for the lives of people whose experiences didn’t mirror his own. Even as life became measurably more dangerous and fraught for large swaths of the people who live in the country she calls home, Swift stayed mum. But then came Brett Kavanaugh.
For someone like Swift, Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford was the elusive “perfect victim.” White, able-bodied, straight, well-educated, articulate and from a good family, she was the exact kind of woman that a white supremacist patriarchy supposedly values and protects. Her bravery in recounting her assault and her willingness to subject herself to scrutiny and humiliation in order to spare the country from a man she knew to be dangerous resonated with generations of women who drew on her strength to tell their own stories. She was supposed to be safe, and one can only presume it’s the dissonance of Kavanaugh’s confirmation coupled with her own experience with sexual assault that prompted Swift into action. For the first time, she was directly at risk.
In a way, this would seem like the Occam’s razor—an event of such political significance occurred that Swift finally felt a moral obligation to break her public silence. But even if we accept this as true, it only brings more questions to mind, primarily: Why did it take the public flagellation of a white woman to get her to shift her stance? Was it simply the first time she’d seen her privilege challenged in such a definitive way?
The thing is, two things can be true, and there are two separate questions at play: What prompted Swift to break her silence? And does it even matter if her motives are selfish? To the latter question, the answer is relatively clear. It doesn’t. Good things are still good even if your motivations ultimately land you in the Bad Place. But as to the first, that requires a larger interrogation of Swift’s interaction with a now-savvy public that is less inclined to extend her the benefit of the doubt. Whether or not she intends it, this is firmly part of her larger myth-making exercise, and has to be understood in that context.
Swift has now given her most cynical critics ample ammunition to use against her. In the days since she published her Instagram endorsement, she’s garnered a wave of overwhelmingly good press about everything from the spike in voter registrations, to her fans’ relief that they no longer have to defend her, to her record-breaking wins at the 2019 American Music Awards. But it’s hard not to wonder about the prodigiousness of the timing. As Taylor’s Instagram post was racking up likes, her long-standing nemesis Kanye West was coming off yet another negative news cycle precipitated by a pro-Trump rant on SNL and the responses to it. It’s almost too lucky that after years of silence, she could enter the discourse on the right side of history, just as the villain of her story was accelerating his fall from grace. Then there’s the matter of the voter registration spike. Did Taylor lead thousands to flock to the polls? Perhaps. But isn’t it more likely that the spike is a result of the then upcoming registration deadline? Convenient, too, that all this bluster comes after the end of her best-selling U.S. stadium tour, and not a second before.
Then there’s the AMAs. At this year’s ceremony, which aired on Tuesday, Swift used her record-breaking win to remind people to go to the polls. This is good. But award shows have always been Taylor Swift’s domain. They are where all the biggest peaks of her public narrative have played out, and she knows how to bend them to her will. As a person so consumed with her image that she framed her comeback in response to her sullied name, it is essentially impossible to see this decision outside the context of a rehabilitation effort. How else is an audience burnt out on her media machinations to interpret a sudden foray into the political arena two years too late? Why is what’s happening now more urgent than actively and loudly denouncing the alt-right for claiming her as their Aryan princess?
Even the message itself leaves just enough room to be open to interpretation. “As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn,” she writes. Which women? Is that an indication that she did in fact vote for Clinton in the general election despite the rampant speculation to the contrary? Or is that just what she’d like you to think? And if it is what she means, why not simply say so rather than dance around the point?
In the end, celebrities are still citizens, and citizens have a right to and responsibility for civic engagement. The fascination over Swift’s political affiliation stems largely from her refusal to course-correct damaging and racially coded ideas in the zeitgeist, but overall the celebrity endorsement is vastly overvalued. Taylor Swift can only indicate her own preferences and biases. She can’t upend the systemic issues that led us to this cultural moment in the first place.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.