Could the black sleeveless sweater be a message? An homage to Hillary’s famous 1993 cold-shoulder dress? Did the lack of an endorsement for Clinton in the caption coupled with a pouty, secretive face say Make America Great Again? Or did the black betray a disdain for both candidates that sat on a ballot lying before her? These were the questions that circulated the internet on November 8, 2016, as Taylor Swift posted a picture of herself standing in line to vote on Instagram. The milquetoast photograph, captioned “Today is the day. Go out and VOTE,” was the only slight break in her election-season-long political silence that led many observers to question whether Swift has a broader responsibility to join the political conversation due to her platform.
Swift’s reluctance to talk about politics is conspicuous for the otherwise ultra-public Swift. According to Google Analytics, people searched for her voting preferences more than they did for those of former President George Bush, former Vice President Al Gore, former Governor Mitt Romney and Monica Lewinsky. Despite her popularity, perhaps in fear of alienating either her more conservative country fans (a Gallup survey in 2004 found that 60% of country music listeners identified strongly as Republicans) or her younger, more liberal pop fans, Swift refused to disclose her political affiliations.
Some argue that Swift keeps her politics confined to personal experience. After all, she has not been entirely apolitical throughout her storied career. For years, she railed against Spotify for what she saw as the mistreatment of artists by streaming agencies. Most recently, Swift made headlines for a crusade against sexual assault by publically suing the man who groped her for a symbolic one dollar and encouraging other victims of gender violence to speak out.
The idea of using celebrity power for political gain also raises many ethical questions, some of which Swift herself acknowledges. Some argue that Swift should not advocate for a political candidate because of the impressionability of her audience.
In an interview with Time Magazine in 2012, Swift said,“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.”
In any case, according to Yale American Studies Professor Jim Berger, Swift has a right to speak her mind.
“There are times when public figures, say, in entertainment fields, can participate in social actions and dialogues: in protests, petitions, lobbying, fundraising, electoral campaigns, etc. It is often objected, what do these guys know? What makes the opinion of an actor or athlete of any more significance than that of anyone else?” Berger said in an interview with The Politic.
“There’s something to that, and one can take the celeb’s opinion for what you think it’s worth. But insofar as they make an issue or injustice more visible and so encourage debate and action, they can do some good. And why should a famous person not voice his or her view, or work for some cause? Does one give up citizenship rights when one becomes successful in a public field?” he added.
There are also less charitable interpretations.
Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Music Editor of The Guardian, wrote in The Guardian, “the groping case, as with the response to Kanye West, shows that Swift only engages with social issues when they’re routed directly through her own life – that she responds to sexism only when she can best leverage social capital from it – ie when the story is entirely about her[AR1] .” Swift’s fiercest critics also often portray her as conniving, opportunistic, and Machiavellian—it’s a caricature that Swift both acknowledges and mocks near the end of her music video for Look What You Made Me Do.
Given that she attempts to profit off of the feminist mantle, her detractors argue, shouldn’t it be reasonable to expect her to condemn a presidential candidate bragging about sexual assault? Her brand of empowerment, they say, is simply a marketing strategy. It’s manufactured and inauthentic.
But does Taylor Swift owe us her authenticity? It’s a complicated question. According to Christian Toto, a conservative Hollywood critic, “It’s up to [Swift] what to share or keep secret, though.
Freedom of expression, or lack thereof, is a central part of the American democratic process. According to Berger, Swift does not have any special duty because she is a celebrity. Rather, her duty to speak out on matters of injustice stems from her humanity and citizenship.
“I think it’s really important that […] both […] (academics and celebs) participate in politics as citizens, not as either experts or famous people… that they actually work with existing organizations (unions, environmental groups, civil rights and social justice groups) not in leadership roles but just doing whatever work they can do, just like anyone else. As citizens and human beings with social obligations. Knocking on doors, going to meetings, listening to the views and expertise of others in the group. They should, at least some of the time, say, I’m here not because I’m a great entertainer or great scholar, but because I’m in solidarity with everyone else in this movement and I’m ready to help o[ut with] what needs to be done,” said Berger in an email exchange with The Politic.
“I don’t trust nobody, and nobody trusts me,” Swift declares repeatedly in another line of Look What You Made Me Do. But the latter half of Swift’s statement is not necessarily true. There is no question that Swift possesses a large and important platform. Swift is one of the most popular and prolific pop-artists in history. Her vague election day Instagram post garnered over 2.3 million likes. Her music videos each rack up hundreds of millions of views, and her following on Twitter is up to nearly one hundred million. It’s hard to believe that with such a large following Swift is entirely devoid of influence.
Swift’s political silence also stands out in particular contrast compared to widespread advocacy by other celebrities. Over the past few years, celebrities have become increasingly involved in campaigns. In 2008, Oprah Winfrey was credited for providing a huge boost of momentum to then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, at a time when he trailed then-Senator Hillary Clinton by a wide margin. In 2016, Beyoncé and Jay-Z held a free 12,000-person concert in Cleveland on the eve of the general election to boost turnout in the swing state. In 2004, Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond even held a reunion concert for the first time in twenty-five years to support John Kerry. In the aftermath of President Trump’s inauguration, the entertainment industry has been especially vociferous in their opposition to the administration: several artists have refused to let President Trump use their music, have hurled expletives at him in public shows and have donated large sums of money to fight his agenda.
However, the evidence is not clear that celebrity endorsements have as much of an impact as Swift’s critics claim they do. A Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans did not care about Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama and a majority of those that did said that it actually made them less likely to vote for him. In Cleveland, there was no evidence that the previous day’s concert had any effect on voting, which was down countywide. More generally, a study on the 2004 election by Professor Natalie Wood in the Journal of Political Marketing found that “celebrities may have looked pretty, but they were not particularly influential on first-time voters.”
This is certainly the opinion of George Tang, YC ’21, who despite describing himself as an avid Swift fan told The Politic that “Taylor Swift’s politics did not influence me at all… [she’s] not a celebrity because of her political acumen.” Similarly, State Representative and Yale lecturer Derek Slap, who teaches a course on politics and the media, said that “In general… I don’t think celebrity endorsements change a lot of minds as opposed to energizing the base… unless [a celebrity] was going to hold concerts in Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan the weeks before the election and register voters at the events and really help with an organizing drive, then the impact of [the] endorsement would have been minimal.”
Perhaps Swift would have been proven more influential than most artists, though. Her fan base—comprised of many young, impressionable, diehard supporters—is different from that of someone like Barbara Streisand. Slap cautioned that her particular brand might make her an especially powerful advocate.
He described his own personal experience of taking his daughters to a Taylor Swift concert in an email to The Politic, “celebrities, especially ones like Swift with cultural crossover appeal, can be effective at raising awareness about issues. I took my girls to a Taylor Swift concert a few years ago and had heard she evoked a strong female empowerment message but was disappointed that if that was her intent, I didn’t see it. I had imagined that between songs she might warn the tens of thousands of young girls in the audience about domestic violence or about studying science, anything… but alas, didn’t happen.”
Swift has always been so careful about her image, so why doesn’t she care how she is portrayed politically? Why would she allow this calculated persona to be co-opted for partisan means? The fact is that parties from all sides of the political spectrum are destined to use her persona and work product by sheer fact of its popularity. The question for Swift is whether she wants to define her political persona or let others define it for her.