What’s Really Behind The Obsession Over How Taylor Swift Uses Her Political Voice?

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For years now, people have accused Taylor Swift of possessing the savvy of a politician. This, of course, has been an insult, as she is a woman, and when women are sharp, calculating, and discerning, our culture regularly portrays that as something to be sneered at, an element that single-handedly undermines any of their more empathetic or relational qualities. As does pursuit of money, success, or power; as does falling for men who use and abuse a woman’s heart and escape relatively unscathed — no matter what their bad behavior might have been — while the dumped girl carries a humiliating new reputation.

This reputation is a punishment, something that detractors can still cling to, even when a pop star like Swift, ever savvy, drops all pretense and endorses two Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee — during one of the most important midterm elections in the country, no less. As Swift has grown up in the public eye, relocating to Nashville and landing her first record deal when she was 14, she has been loathe to voice her political opinions. At first, people ignored this, more eager to read about the boys who broke her heart, but lately, this neutrality had become a major part of her identity.

Back in 2009, Vanessa Grigoriadis (the same writer who elicited Nicki Minaj’s wrath in 2015) was one of the first to craft this narrative in a Rolling Stone profile that also condescendingly describes Taylor’s life as “pink and perfect.”

“She’s constantly worried about saying something that could be construed as offensive to her fans,” Grigoriadis wrote. “And even swats away a question about her political preferences before conceding that she supports the president: ‘I’ve never seen this country so happy about a political decision in my entire time of being alive,’ she says. ‘I’m so glad this was my first election.’” Some swat.

Later, Swift confirmed her decision to keep her political views to herself, citing an awareness of her own ignorance when a Time reporter asked her about the 2012 presidential race. “I follow it, and I try to keep myself as educated and informed as possible,” then 22-year-old Swift said. “But 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.”

To be fair, she probably didn’t (who does at 22?) and doubled down on the that sentiment later in the year during an appearance on Letterman, where the show’s namesake fist-bumped her for saying: “I feel like at 22, it’s my right to vote, but it’s not my right to tell other people what to do.” Here, Swift illustrated a kind of restraint that has become uncommon in young celebrities, American ones at least. Instead of jumping in where she had little knowledge, she chose to live and learn.

More apropos, in 2008, before either of these archly neutral statements, a 19-year-old Taylor supposedly posted on Myspace: “Republicans do it better,” what would be an unsurprising sentiment from a teen steeped for the last five years in conservative Tennessee. (This was around the time Swift was romantically linked with Joe Jonas, for context on her choices at the moment.) But deeper than a Myspace post, given her parents’ wealth and her upbringing in the south, where a conservative fanbase pulls the purse strings on the lucrative market that is country music, it’s long been assumed that Swift had stuck to the sentiment of her youth for financial reasons.

But since the divisive squalor of the 2016 election and the rise of President Trump, it became deeply unfashionable for any massively famous entertainer to remain politically neutral, or worse, that they appear to be conservative. In fact, plenty of celebrities — musicians especially — didn’t need any goading to decry the havoc of this presidency, leading the public at large to believe that anyone who didn’t speak up was hiding a support of Trump.

And yet, into Taylor Swift’s political silence, mayhem descended in a way that it flat out hasn’t for any other celebrity of her stature. I’d argue that’s for three reasons: One, because many people don’t like powerful women and look for any reason to criticize them; two, many people have already decided they don’t like her music and this an excuse to attack her; and three, above all else, because many people don’t like young women and work to actively undermine and mock the things young women love.

The conversation around Swift’s own beliefs reached a peak in early 2016, pre-Trump, when Mitchell Sunderland, a former writer for Vice’s feminist vertical Broadly, wrote about her appeal to white supremacist groups. Sunderland was later revealed to be working closely with the far-right site Breitbart and was subsequently fired from Vice, but not before he Trojan Horse’d the idea of Nazi Taylor Swift into the mainstream, kicking off a wave of copycat articles, as publications like The Daily Beast, not formerly or currently known for their Swiftian expertise, indignantly called for her to denounce these conspiracy theories. (They returned in 2017 to call her “spineless” when she expressed support of — but did not attend — the Women’s March in January of that year.)

What those calling for her action against the neo-Nazi sites failed to realize, is that by ignoring them, Swift is purposefully giving them far less attention than they’d receive if she had issued a public statement — as the media frenzy after her foray into politics this weekend so clearly reveals. When she did take legal action against a blogger who took the connections between her new music and white supremacy even further, the backlash from groups like the ACLU — who claimed this defamation claim was an attack on free speech — was seething, barbed, and dramatic.

But, let’s be honest: The shift in the conversation about Taylor had more to do with a pop culture feud than politics, as her well-publicized disagreement with Kanye and Kim — over his use of her name and the word “b*tch” in The Life Of Pablo track “Famous” — became a bone of contention between the camps. Ever since their run-in at the 2009 VMAs, a tumultuous up-and-down relationship between the two stars has heavily defined both of their public personas, and when Kim Kardashian got involved in the last round, a dark wave of negativity toward Taylor rolled in. She all but left the internet due to the bullying and shaming that populated her social media feeds in the wake of this encounter, wrote and recorded a new album, released it, and embarked on her most successful tour to date behind it, but the lingering venom of this exchange has not abated.

Yet, in the meantime, Taylor has changed, as anyone who is paying attention can clearly see. She chose to date someone who actually meets her needs as a partner, urged her followers to vote, publicly supported the Women’s March and the March For Our Lives for gun reform, she fought a sexual assault case of her own in court against a DJ who groped her, she took two of the most forward-thinking voices in pop (Charli XCX and Camila Cabello) along with her on the Reputation tour for an all-female bill, and more generally, she grew up.

She’s no longer 22, she’s 28, and at the close of her tour, Taylor felt ready to express her view to her fans: That she supports LGBTQ and gender rights unequivocally; that she doesn’t side with a white female candidate for Senate, Marsha Blackburn, in her home state of Tennessee strictly based on gender, but looks at the issues of feminism like voting record on legislation around violence against women; that she is against the recurring, sickening prevalence of police violence against communities of color, and that she can no longer keep quiet about the most important issues of her politics. She has endorsed Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives, both Democrats.

Yet, instead of being met with open arms and support for taking an action that formerly felt too big or too confusing to make public, Swift has been met with plenty of contention, not just from the right, but also the left. We shouldn’t even find it surprising anymore, the way in which a woman who has once been vilified in the public eye is not allowed to recover, even when she gives critics exactly the action they’ve demanded.

Meanwhile, a man of similar stature, like Kanye, is given plentiful passes and numerous attempts at recovery, even while he actively spits in the face of the same critics who won’t let up on Taylor.

Kanye is quite literally wearing a MAGA hat on SNL, saying he “loves Trump,” and essentially denying slavery, but plenty of liberal fans are still defending his actions by citing his struggle with mental illness. These same people sneer at Taylor while grasping for a non-existent reason to keep Kanye up on a pedestal. They will do anything to clear Kanye’s name because they love his art, and they will continue to hate on Taylor using the same logic — they don’t like her music. The double standard that women are held to in the public eye reeks of misogyny, even when the criticism comes from those who, perhaps correctly, envision themselves on the right side of history.

But of course, the fact that this is even framed as a “him-versus-her” — with many commentators attributing Taylor’s decision to get political as a one-up of Kanye’s recent, public support of Trump — only further reveals just how coded public political acts are for women. That Taylor speaks now can only be another feminine, petty jab at a rival, not an act spurred on by, say, grotesque historical moments like the confirmation of a sexual predator to the highest court of the land. Is she not allowed access to the “perils and possibilities” of female anger that The New Yorker affords other women in times of political upheaval? And if not, why is that?

When we do not let the young women who are raised in the public eye fail, stumble, learn, grow, and change as they move forward in life, we are doing a disservice to them and to ourselves. More importantly, we are doing a disservice to the political movement and causes of justice, equality, and freedom that so many of us are fighting for, that so many of us are desperate to see come into fruition. If the next generation is not allowed to grow up, and indeed, to outgrow their past ignorant or uninformed mindsets on their way into the movement, then there is little hope for the reputation of the left, a party that preaches the gospel of compassion, but can’t stop gleefully humiliating anyone who ever falls short, even for a moment, of unattainable political perfection.