Silence Quite This Loud
Taylor Swift’s comeback has been all about her reputation. It’s the title of her new album and the underlying theme of her single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” The singer has written songs about feuds with Kanye West and Katy Perry and breakups with John Mayer and Taylor Lautner; she has started Twitter fights with Nicki Minaj, spoken out about being a feminist, and paraded her leggy girl-squad onstage during her 1989 tour. Swift has no problem using her voice—except when it comes to presidential politics.
Swift has not publically spoken about the election, a decision that is by no means standard practice for celebrities in this age of social media—fellow female pop icons Beyoncé and Katy Perry openly campaigned for Hillary Clinton. Yet Swift has said nothing, causing some fans to speculate that she voted for Donald Trump, while others guess that she has refused to divulge her liberal opinions for fear of alienating the Make America Great Again hat-wearing portion of her fan base. Swift’s silence on political issues, despite her self-proclaimed feminist identity, raises the question—what duty do artists have to be political?
In a practical sense, celebrity support for a political candidate has little effect on that candidate’s success—rendering a Taylor Swift endorsement essentially worthless. A piece published in The Daily Beast, featuring research done by Professor David Jackson of Bowling Green State University, found that while popstars and actors can help candidates with fundraising, a celebrity endorsement more often provokes a more negative view of the candidate from voters than a positive one. If Beyoncé’s endorsement didn’t help Clinton win the election, it stands to reason that a Swift endorsement would have been similarly ineffective. Therefore, an artist’s refusal to endorse a political stance or candidate has no practical impact on the outcome of an election.
Furthermore, the experience of previous artists who went from seemingly apolitical to sharing their political opinions publically demonstrates that speaking out about a political issue can often serve to further alienate fans from the cause that the celebrity is promoting. After the lead singer of the popular country group the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, said she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” and criticized his policy in Iraq, the group faced a massive backlash. Their songs were pulled from almost all country radio stations, and rallies against their music effectively caused the group’s successful career to come to a grinding halt. This incident might have stood as a glaring example for Swift—whose music largely avoids overt political messages and whose fan base spreads across party lines—that speaking out about politics would only serve to alienate her fans, rather than persuade them of her cause.
Just because an artist’s music is seemingly apolitical, however, doesn’t mean their public image is. In an age where artists are expected not only to produce albums, but also have an engaging social media presence and a cultivated brand, many stars end up using their personal identities to forward their public careers in a way that often has a political bent. In the case of Swift, this public persona has been closely tied to feminism. Swift has spoken out about identifying as a feminist on multiple platforms and has encouraged women to uplift and support one another. She enthusiastically paraded her “squad” of talented (and mostly White, skinny, beautiful) women onstage at her 1989 tour and denounced the press for their tendency to slut-shame her for her dating history.
Yet Swift’s feminism, which is White and self-serving, helped shape her career and increase her popularity, her silence on actual feminist issues calls the legitimacy of her stance into question. Her White feminism fails to recognize the privilege that White women have over women of color. She has yet to speak out in support of Planned Parenthood. She tweeted in solidarity with the Women’s March, but did not attend. And when one considers how Swift has used her feminism to further her career, her silence on the issue of the recent election of Trump—a man accused of sexual assault multiple times over and whose policies work to place reproductive rights in jeopardy—was disappointing to many fans and critics. As Amy Zimmerman wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast denouncing Swift’s political silence, “Cutesy sentiments and political palatability are no longer acceptable…If you refuse to denounce your ‘alt-right’ supporters, you risk alienating all of your queer, trans, Black, Latino, undocumented, Muslim, and Indigenous fans.” Swift’s fans seem less easily placated by the fact that her art has always tried to be apolitical.
Similar issues surround other popular artists. In an interview with Nightline, Lil Wayne, a rapper wildly popular, especially within the Black community, angered fans when he claimed ignorance about the Black Lives Matter movement, later stating as an excuse, “I ain’t no fucking politician.” Miranda Lambert, a powerful female voice in country music, recently told Billboard that she refused to write political songs or speak publically about politics because country singers should just talk about “tears in [their] beers.”
But as much as these artists try to remain apolitical, and as much as their music attempts to remain so, they cannot be separated from their identity and aren’t living in a vacuum. Swift profits from her “feminism,” and yet, she won’t denounce Trump when he brags about grabbing women by the pussy. Lil Wayne can try to be apolitical, but he can’t be fully divested from his identity as a Black man at a time when Black people are under attack by the police. Whether they like it or not, stars like Swift have a massive platform with which to assert their influence and pay more than lip service to political and social movements that have shaped and buoyed their careers.
In a time where politics aren’t merely about tax reform or foreign policy, but also about the physical and mental safety of so many Americans now under attack by a Trump presidency, being apolitical is becoming an increasingly untenable position for Swift and other artists like her. If Swift continues to claim to be spokesperson for women and feminism, remaining silent on politics will undermine her position at every turn.