Look What You Made Taylor Swift Do
Endorsements in Tennessee election campaigns don’t usually draw international headlines. But when Taylor Swift on Oct. 7 told her 112 million Instagram followers that she intends to vote next month for two Democrats — US Senate candidate Phil Bredesen and Representative Jim Cooper — news outlets the world over rushed to report the news.
It has never been clear to me why anyone would care about the political loyalties of a pop singer (or an athlete or supermodel), and until recently it wasn’t clear to Swift, either. Though she has made a career out of oversharing the details of her personal life, she always drew the line at politics. When Rolling Stone asked her just after the 2008 election whether she was a Republican or a Democrat, she declined to say. “I just try and stick to my specialty and my specialty is music,” Swift said. “I voted yesterday, but I don’t think it’s my job to try and influence people which way they should vote, because it’s a very personal thing.”
She was equally reticent four years later as she was promoting her fourth album, Red. “I just figure I’m a 22-year-old singer,” she told Swedish TV, “and I don’t know if people really want to hear about my political views. I think they just want to hear me sing songs about breakups and feelings.”
By 2016, Swift’s public neutrality on politics was infuriating liberals. She was blasted as a hypocrite for not endorsing Hillary Clinton and for being “complicit in every hateful statement” uttered by Donald Trump. The Daily Beast castigated her as “spineless.” The pop-culture Australian website Junkee thundered: “If Taylor Swift Wants To Address Her Bad Reputation, She Should Start By Condemning Donald Trump.” The editors of Marie Claire didn’t let up even after the election. “We’re still waiting for an explanation of Taylor Swift’s decision to remain apolitical during the 2016 election,” they tweeted. Last November, the Guardian labeled her an “envoy for Trump’s values.”
On the kooky far-right fringe, meanwhile, some basement-dwelling white supremacists took Swift’s avoidance of politics as evidence that she was secretly one of them. Milo Yiannopoulos wrote in 2016 that the “very white and very blonde” Swift had hard-core alt-right conspiracists swooning. At least one besotted admirer, the founder of the white-supremacist blog Daily Stormer, pronounced her “a pure Aryan goddess.”
Well, goodbye to all that. As Swift’s Instagram post exploded across the Internet, liberal and Democratic activists exulted, while the Aryan goddess-worshipers grieved. The president told reporters that he “like[s] Taylor’s music about 25 percent less now.” And Swift’s vast legion of young fans? Most probably won’t care one way or the other. But there was a spike in voter registrations after she urged her followers to sign up.
My surmise is that Swift wearied of the incessant pressure to declare her political loyalties, and decided that the benefits of remaining publicly apolitical no longer outweighed the costs. With partisan passions so intense and tribal these days, the clamor for her to take to the barricades would only have grown shriller. Her capitulation, if that’s what it was, is understandable.
But it’s also a pity, and I’m sorry the old Taylor can’t come to the phone anymore. America’s public discourse is stiflingly thick with acrid political fumes; the last thing we need is even more of the stuff. Representative Marsha Blackburn “appalls and terrifies me,” Swift wrote, referring to the Republican candidate in Tennessee’s Senate race. Racism in the United States is “terrifying, sickening, and prevalent.” I don’t know if Swift is really just another left-wing Hollywood ideologue, but she’s already doing her best to sound like one.
She’s not the only star who has waded into politics after long refusing to do so.
Actor and comedian Kevin Hart declined for years to inject politics into his act. “My job as a comedian is to spread positivity, to make people laugh,” he once said. “I don’t want to draw attention to what’s already pissing us as a people off.” But that changed at the Video Music Awards a few weeks ago, when Hart used his time on the stage to taunt the president for his criticism of NFL players who protest during the national anthem. “At this game, you guys can kneel. You can do whatever the hell you want. There’s no old white man that can stop you,” Hart said. “In your face, Trump! Suck it!”
As a free speech near-absolutist, I unreservedly defend the right of Swift, Hart, and anyone else to trumpet political views.
But more than ever I admire those celebrities who steadfastly resist the temptation (or the hectoring) to talk politics. There are still some of them, including Bruno Mars, Mark Wahlberg, Reba McEntire, and Josh Duhamel.
They follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest entertainers in American history. At the peak of his long career, Elvis Presley’s influence on popular culture was unparalleled, but about politics he would say nothing. A classic illustration occurred during a pre-concert press conference at Madison Square Garden in 1972. It was at the height of the antiwar movement, and Presley, an Army veteran, was asked for his thoughts on the Vietnam War protests.
“Honey, I’d just as soon keep my own personal views about that to myself,” he answered modestly. “I’m just an entertainer and I’d rather not say.”
Faced with the pressure to get political, Elvis knew how to shake it off. Would that could still be said about Taylor Swift.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).