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12 February 2024

Taylor Swift’s triumphant incoherence

The star doesn’t make much sense, which is why she makes people so angry.

By Finn McRedmond

Taylor Swift is where America exercises its delusions. In 2016 neo-Nazis claimed her as one of their own: Swift, an “Aryan goddess” with subliminal far-right beliefs encoded in her music. In 2024, meanwhile, the New York Times subjected her to a sprawling 5,000-word essay hypothesising she is secretly gay. The article – contending that she was perhaps “stuck in the shadowy, solitary recesses of the closet” – was published in spite of Swift’s public statement in 2019 that she is not a part of the LGBT community.

Remembering this, the anti-Swift mania that gripped the “Make America great again” (Maga) conservatives for weeks now is hardly surprising. A flurry of accusations emerged: Swift is a “Pentagon asset” conspiring with Democrats to deliver electoral victory to Joe Biden. She and her boyfriend – the American football star Travis Kelce – are an “artificial”, propped-up couple. At least according to the former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. So pernicious is her influence that Donald Trump’s camp is prepared to wage “holy war” on Swift. That her boyfriend’s team – the Kansas City Chiefs – won the Super Bowl last night has done nothing to dispel these notions. This thinking is in the DNA of the conspiratorial American right – Pizzagate, the great replacement, a stolen election, and now a rigged fairy-tale Super Bowl win. Swift, to them, is prejudice-confirming: evidence of a malevolent higher power, a state much deeper than it appears.

She seems uniquely vulnerable to these paroxysms of madness (no one is suggesting Beyoncé is a Democrat psy-op). There are the obvious reasons, stipulated endlessly by the pundit class desperate to reckon with the politics of Swift: she is more famous than her contemporaries, under constant media exposure, and the longer she sits at the zeitgeist the more opinions – swivel-eyed or sane – will form around her. She wields genuine cultural power – estimated in 2023 to have driven 35,000 voter registrations with a single Instagram post. She could be the GOP dream: a pretty blonde country star with an American footballer as a boyfriend and middle America wrapped around her finger. These are the aesthetics of a small-town Republican. To her political enemies, it must feel like a betrayal.

Yes, all of this is true, but it’s also irrelevant. To understand the politics of Swift we have to start with the music. Swift is endlessly contradictory: a country music ingénue turned pop behemoth; a discography that oscillates between twanging guitars and breezy synths; one song that idealises the Republican-coded Georgia skies; another that pays homage to the Kennedy dynasty. Reputation (2017) is a dark and boisterous album. It was succeeded by the bubblegum poptimism of 2019’s Lover. Swift’s career is one of aesthetic whiplash. She has never presented a stable identity to the world.

This shape-shifting has an upside for record sales. In the quest to pinpoint the source of her cultural endurance one argument emerges above all else: Swift – ever the chameleon – turns a rarefied life into songs with universal appeal. She may sing of her girlhood in Pennsylvania but she speaks to a feeling of adolescent angst general to America; a lost scarf may be the motif of Swift’s greatest heartbreak but every young woman mourns something just as mundane. No matter what Swift does, she is a conduit for the listener’s own psychological preoccupations.

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It is not just her music. In 2019 Swift adopted and then seemed to quickly drop a patina of social justice activism to market the album Lover; Red (2012) came with photo-ops in New England and 1950s bathing suits; by the time 2014 rolled around she was sporting a sleek bob on the streets of New York to match the metropolitan ideals of her pop magnum opus 1989. These vertiginous changes in Swift’s style – sonic, aesthetic, political – made her vulnerable. Without any coherent identity of her own she became a blank slate for America to scribble its culture war lines on.

Jonathan Haidt suggests that sometime between 2011 and 2015 a great split in the United States revealed itself. The campus-born, identity-obsessed left on one side, the Maga new right on the other. A decade on, there exists a Democrat party torn between the progressive extreme and the moderate centre; and the right, fully captured by the drain-the-swamp virtues of Trumpism. Taylor is tugged between these poles, not as her own person, but as a vector for America’s existential angst. It is easily done to an artist without a robust persona.

And it is not just the right that is prone to such outlandish projection. In 2024, the Maga crowd might see a Swift-endorsed Democrat plot bent on thwarting their electoral dreams. But in 2017 the cause célèbre was different.

During the so-called Great Awokening – when social justice and ideological puritanism gripped the left, Swift became a target. This was a moment when the commanding heights of culture looked at Swift – too rich, too thin, too heterosexual, too apolitical – and decided she needed course correcting.

Swift was no Pentagon psy-op, but instead she was failing in her alleged social duties to advocate for the minority voice. Buzzfeed published a viral essay titled “How Taylor Swift played the victim for a decade and made her entire career”. Its criticisms belong to the time: Swift was a “powerful media manipulator” who exploited her “white fragility”; she capitalised on “the stereotype of the ‘angry black man’” to catapult her “into the mainstream consciousness”; her friends were not diverse enough. It is an article, were it published two years later, that would have called Swift a Karen.

It is hard to know which accusation is less tenable: a tool of the deep state in 2024 or a manipulative racist in 2017. But one thing is clear. Swift’s malleable identity served both groups: an empty vessel for a polarised country to project its anxieties and confirm its prejudices.

In 2012 Swift sang of the feeling of being 22: “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time”. This incoherence is the thesis of her life: she is the closest thing we have to a monoculture, yet endlessly divisive; lauded as a distillation of small-town Americana, taken down as a covetous and rapacious capitalist; too left wing, not progressive enough; apolitical, but for the wrong reasons. Swift – by design or not – has become a metaphor for the soul of America: its contradictions, throes of madness, quest for a stable sense of self.

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland