The long, political career of Taylor Swift

Over the past decade, Swift has navigated a changing political climate with considerable, if decreasing, deftness.

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Taylor Swift has finally ended her political silence. That’s how most publications are framing the fact that the 28-year-old, arguably the most successful pop star in the world, posted an Instagram on Sunday urging her 112 million followers to vote in the upcoming US midterm elections on 6 November. In the post, Swift did something she’s never done before: specifically endorse a candidate, and set out a series of her specific political beliefs. “In the past,” she explained, “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.”

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I’m writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I’ll be voting in the state of Tennessee. 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. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. 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. I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support 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. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway. So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to vote.org and you can find all the info. Happy Voting! 

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

She declared her support for LGBTQ rights and condemned America’s “prevalent” and “sickening” racism, criticising Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn for her opposition of gay marriage, preventative domestic violence legislation and equal pay laws. She added that she would be voting for Phil Bredesen (a Democrat).

It’s a savvy post that addresses several criticisms made of Swift in the past few years. She’s been accused of using feminism as part of a vague, pro-girl power image to sell records when the movement gained cultural cache in 2014, without sending specific or thoughtful feminist messages in her work or on social media. She’s been met with accusations of racism thanks to a music video that included an attempted parody of hip hop videos, high profile rows with Nicki Minaj and Kanye West, and her refusal to specifically condemn white supremacists. She’s been accused of complicity in oppression thanks to her silence during the election of Donald Trump. And yet, it still, in some ways, manages to remain evasive: Swift never pins her colours to a political party more broadly, and avoids saying Blackburn wouldn’t get her vote because she is a Republican. The words “Republican” and “Democrat” are noticeably absent from the post.

It’s in keeping with a long career: reading and watching interviews, it can seem as though Swift has never even uttered the words. Despite some persistent rumours to the contrary, Swift has refused to disclose her allegiance to a political party since her career began in 2006. When her second album coincided with the 2008 US presidential election campaign, Rolling Stone asked Swift outright if she was a “a Pennsylvania Democrat or a Pennsylvania Republican”. She responded: “You know, I just try and stick to my specialty and my specialty is music, and writing songs.” Before the 2008 Academy of Country Music Awards, Swift spoke about her desire to support women in office, but still dodged questions about her political beliefs: “I’m an 18-year-old girl, I’m not going to sit here and go into my political views, because that’s not what I chose to do, I chose to do music.”

In 2012, she found herself again promoting an album, her fourth, Red, during a presidential campaign. She told Time, in a quote that made headlines, “I don’t talk about politics because it might influence other people. And I don’t think that I know enough yet in life to be telling people who to vote for.” When asked why she is so “secretive” about her political beliefs on Scandinavian TV, one day after Obama’s re-election, Swift deliberately infantilised herself with the same phrasing about being a young girl she was using in 2008. “Well, I mean, I just figure I’m a 22-year-old singer… And, you know, I don’t know if people really want to hear my political views. I think they just kind of want to hear me sing songs about break ups and feelings.”

But just because Taylor Swift has shied away from explicit statements of support for a particular party, does not mean her career has been politically neutral. Nor does it feel completely accurate to describe Swift as silent, when her songs, her brand, her actions and her words have frequently and deliberately positioned her in specific political contexts.

When Swift first appeared as a significant musician, aged just 16, with her 2006 self-titled album, she was framed as blue-eyed, blonde-haired innocent with old-fashioned family values. On that record, Swift repeatedly references her “daddy”, her “mama” and God. Songs explore the fantasy of marriage and babies with a childhood sweetheart: monogamy is paramount, cheating the ultimate sin. A potentially sinister side to these heteronormative ideals appears once: when the word “gay” is used as an insult used to emasculate a former lover. (The lyric was changed in subsequent versions of the album). It’s clear that she was being marketed towards what is often assumed to be a right-leaning, Christian country music audience.

A thread of nostalgic conservatism continues on her next two records. On her 2008 album Fearless, the most significant moment on the track “Fifteen” sees Swift mourn that her best friend Abigail “gave everything she had / To a boy who changed his mind”. The Romeo and Juliet-referencing “Love Story” reaches its re-written climax when Romeo persuades Juliet’s “daddy” to give him his blessing, and Juliet can go “pick out a white dress”. On “The Best Day”, Swift sings that “God smiles” on her nuclear family. “Daddy's smart,” she sings to her mother, “And you're the prettiest lady in the whole wide world”. These early albums deliberately sell Swift not just as a relatable teenager to her peers, but as a non-threatening, appropriate role model to concerned or conservative parents, and a safe choice for a wider, potentially Republican-leaning, country music audience.

While Swift consistently positioned herself as a doe-eyed victim, other women were often viewed with suspicion, especially on her 2010 third album Speak Now. The title track is less than charitable to a crush’s fiancé and her “snotty little family”, while “Better Than Revenge” is often singled out for sexism thanks to its slut-shaming lines about an “actress” who is “better known for the things that she does on the mattress”, while “Ours” is deeply suspicious of her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends, “lurking in the shadows with their lip gloss smiles”.

2012’s Red, a move away from pure country music and towards a country-influenced pop sound, propelled a straight-haired, red-lipped, more glamorous looking Swift even further into the spotlight, becoming the fastest selling record of the decade, tying Swift with Adele as the woman with most weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since records began. The traditional family fantasies that underpin so much of her previous work are, for the most part, gone, replaced with party-loving anthems and ballads of greater lyrical complexity.

When asked if she was a feminist by The Daily Beast in 2012, Swift distanced herself from the feminist movement: “When people say things about me empowering women, that's an amazing compliment. It's not necessarily what I thought I was doing, because I write songs about what I feel.” She went even further, adding: “I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” It’s a vague, centrist response.

But by the time her mainstream, chart-dominating pure pop record 1989 came out in 2014 (widely considered to the year when feminism became cool), she was reversing her opinion, telling the Guardian, “As a teenager,I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights.” She added that she now realised “I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so”, and distanced herself from those slut-shaming lyrics. “I was 18 when I wrote that song. That’s the age you are when you think someone can actually take your boyfriend. Then you grow up and realise no one take someone from you if they don’t want to leave.”

The 1989 World Tour saw her parade a series of female special guests on stage: including Serena Williams, fashion models from Karlie Kloss to Heidi Klum, and the entire US women’s soccer team. Her acceptance speech for Best Album for 1989 at the 2017 Grammys was addressed to young women watching at home, telling them to refuse to listen to the men who will try to undercut their success. She was accused of jumping on a bandwagon.

Criticisms of Swift only increased in 2016, as she made no political comments during the election of Donald Trump. She made reference to the election only once, in an Instagram showing her going to the voting booth, captioned “Go out and VOTE”. It was widely assumed that Swift and her team wanted to avoid alienating a fan base that straddled both the conservative teenager and proud feminist phases of her career. Her decision not to speak was undeniably a political choice in and of itself. Despite a long career of responding to media backlash, Swift did not respond to any left-wing criticisms of her beliefs. Her 2017 album Reputation simply posited her as a rebellious, sexy bad girl, persistently attacked by the media.

What changed? Is this Swift’s somewhat delayed response to an increasingly fraught political moment? As the #MeToo movement snowballed, Swift was made a Time magazine Person of the Year for her much-discussed court testimony against the radio DJ she accused of sexually assaulting her in 2013. Perhaps it’s relevant that her post comes days after Trump’s America appointed a man accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court. In March this year, she dipped a toe into explicit policy discussions with a rare political post in support of greater gun control.

Whether you believe Swift when she says events have changed her perspective, or see her post as just another in a series of empty, cynical career moves, it rings false to describe Swift as “Apolitical No More”, as the New York Times did in its coverage of her post. In the 24 hours since she urged her fans to “vote for values”, the US voter registration service has seen a spike in enrolment, and Donald Trump has tweeted that he likes her music “about 25% less now”.

Over the past decade, Swift has navigated a changing political climate with considerable, if decreasing, deftness. Now, she simply endorses a Democratic candidate at a point in time where not doing so arguably actively harms her reputation amongst the majority of her fan base. It’s better late than never.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain