Despite Swift’s overwhelming popularity, some fans are beginning to hold her accountable. Photo courtesy of gettyimages.com
ELLIOTT ROBINSON | OPINION COLUMNIST | firstname.lastname@example.org
When I was a kid — sometime during those blissful, stress-free years after gaining sentience but before the pockmarked hell of teenagerhood — my best friend and I would occasionally stage impromptu singing competitions in our bedrooms. These competitions, however, were always rather short-lived, since between us there was only one CD we owned and knew by heart: Taylor Swift’s 2010 album “Speak Now.”
Given that my adolescent music taste, unfettered by the unrestrained Internet access of today’s youngsters, mostly depended on whatever came on the radio, Taylor Swift was one of the first artists I consciously sought out. She was the quintessential girl-next-door: quirky but not too weird, appropriately feminine, largely inoffensive and conveniently attractive. She embodied both country tomboy and pop princess idol, and sang almost exclusively about her own torrid love life, churning out song after song of broken hearts, vindictive exes and fairytale romances.
But in 2022, nearly two decades after she entered the music scene, Swift’s image is virtually unchanged. And while the size and intensity of her loyal fan base seem daunting, an outspoken few are finally beginning to voice criticisms for the cat-obsessed, flannel-wearing millennial icon.
Regardless of whether you love or hate her, Taylor Swift is unquestionably one of the best-selling artists of this generation. She’s won countless awards, broken numerous records and accumulated millions of followers on social media sites, with her most recent album, “Midnights,” receiving 185 million streams on the day of its debut.
Still, any celebrity as popular as Swift is not without controversy. For the majority of her career, Swift has thrived by carefully cultivating an unproblematic image that avoids potentially contentious issues. Though I feel that this position is only possible for someone of Swift’s privilege — wealthy, white, able-bodied, etc. — our modern-day culture tends to conflate politics with entertainment, and oftentimes looks to celebrities as the pinnacle of political expertise. This trend, I believe, is far more detrimental than any wealthy celebrity taking advantage of their privilege to remain outside the political sphere.
Unfortunately, Swift’s strategy became difficult to maintain in the face of the notoriously divisive 2020 presidential election, as well as the garbage fire that followed. Even Swift found herself occasionally speaking up in opposition of former President Trump, signifying her first foray into the world of politics.
But for me, this new, more political Taylor Swift seemed to embody the neoliberal “girl boss” mentality. As a wealthy and successful musician, she has a vested interest in preserving capitalism, and most of her political criticisms revolve around the ways in which the patriarchy prevents other white women from attaining capitalist privileges as well. Neoliberalism isn’t terribly concerned with radical social change — and neither is Swift, considering how much she stands to gain within the current system. Instead, she benefits from projecting an inclusive and philanthropic image while avoiding the consequences of genuine social reform.
Katie Stamatis, a senior international business major, agrees that while Swift does speak out about some social justice topics, she doesn’t venture far beyond issues that directly relate to her, such as gender-based oppression.
“Everyone has their certain passions or social causes that they prioritize over others,” Stamatis said. “But I feel like she only really promotes the ones that are convenient to her and affect her, and that’s what I have a problem with. If you’re only going to promote things that impact you, that’s a very selfish way to use your platform.”
Stamatis added that this selfishness isn’t unique to Swift; in fact, she believes it to be a larger symptom of “white feminism” that has dominated Western culture.
White feminism is an activist term that describes the self-centered, self-serving mentality of some feminists — typically white, middle or upper-class cis heterosexual women. These feminists tend to avoid intersectional issues such as class inequality, systemic racism or queerphobia in order to prioritize the issue of gender-based oppression as the root of all inequality, therefore excluding the populations that are actually in need of the most attention.
For instance, while the existence of privilege and the existence of hardship aren’t mutually exclusive, Swift often fails to recognize the ways that she has benefited from her wealth and status, especially in songs about her personal struggles. In Swift’s song “The Man,” she discusses gender inequality by ruminating on whether she would be more successful as a biological male. But this sentiment feels somewhat ingenuine, considering Swift’s ample privilege in nearly every aspect of her life: born to wealthy, white parents, able to pursue a career in music at a young age, internationally famous and incredibly successful. Though Swift has faced misogyny over the course of her career, this misogyny has not inhibited her due to the considerable safety net cast by her whiteness and wealth.
“[Swift] only really does things that benefit her,” Stamatis said. “It doesn’t benefit her to care about women of color; she’s not going to see a change in her own personal life. But it’s not just about her. It’s about making sure other women have a better life as well.”
Of course, Swift’s is far from the only household name that exemplifies white feminism. But as a powerful cultural phenomenon in a world where young people are increasingly looking to celebrities as role models, Swift’s politics — or lack thereof — are no longer confined to a bubble.
Fortunately, some of Swift’s fans are becoming aware of her more problematic aspects. For example, Abby Lopez, a sophomore biology major, spoke about her issues with Swift despite identifying as a long-term fan.
“Well, there’s that whole thing with her carbon emissions,” Lopez said.
Lopez is referring to an article published earlier this year that revealed Swift’s shocking status at the top of a list for the most carbon emissions produced by celebrity private jets. Personally, I feel that this statistic alone should be proof enough that Swift is not the all-inclusive, unproblematic feminist that many perceive her to be, especially since it emphasizes her distance from the average American that has never even seen a private jet in person.
“But there’s also that huge rumor with her identifying as LGBTQ+,” Lopez said. “In my opinion, I think assuming that she is LGBTQ+ is the most flattering opinion I can have of her, otherwise some of the things that she has said and done are just very tasteless.”
Lopez went on to discuss Swift’s 2019 song “You Need to Calm Down” as an example of this tastelessness, particularly because it portrayed Swift’s struggles in stardom at the same level as systemic queer oppression. While Swift’s seemingly ambiguous sexual orientation is a long-standing debate among fans, the artist herself has never identified as anything other than heterosexual, and any further speculation seems at best unproductive — and at worst, extremely invasive and harmful. And even if Swift does identify as queer, her adoption of queer struggles as a parallel to her own experiences as a very successful, very wealthy white musician is once again a symptom of her self-centered, white feminist mentality.
However, I believe it’s worth noting that not all of these issues are isolated to Swift’s own behavior, problematic though it may be. The overall toxicity of modern fan and celebrity culture has also influenced the perceptions of Swift.
Angelica Letcher, a senior strategic communications major who is also an avid Swift fan, believes that most criticisms of Swift are due to the unrealistic idolization of her by fans.
“I’ve definitely noticed that especially in social media, there are so many people in our generation that feel obsessive about the things they like,” Letcher said. “There’s less of a filter between artists and fans, and so much transparency that people feel like they really know the artists. But it’s a really negative space. I mean, I don’t think we should be bowing down to these people.”
Swift certainly isn’t unproblematic — but neither is anyone else. However, fan culture deliberately leaves little room for nuanced critiques. As Letcher pointed out, many fans view Swift as an idol rather than a normal person who is capable of making mistakes, and they feel obligated to defend Swift against any hint of criticism, even going so far as to engage in outright racist behavior to protect Swift’s image.
But at the end of the day, Swift’s career is music and entertainment. While her prowess at both is subjective and has received praise and criticism alike, she should not be viewed as a political role model, especially for young and impressionable fans. In fact, Swift’s previous strategy of remaining outside the political sphere may have been less harmful than her decision to engage in the promotion of white feminism and neoliberalism.
Furthermore, this blind idolization of Taylor Swift reflects the much larger issue of fan and celebrity culture, which both Letcher and Stamatis condemn. Though individuals should feel free to express their varying opinions of Swift’s music, we as a collective society need to recognize the harm that fan culture causes. Celebrities aren’t our friends, mentors, role models or idols. They are flawed individuals who are not immune to criticism or critique, and they certainly shouldn’t be coddled while promoting harmful views.
Taylor Swift is a grown woman with a multi-million-dollar empire. It’s time for her fans to recognize this and hold her accountable.