Swift has become a political and cultural cipher of sorts — at once nothing and everything. Between her fans and her detractors (there’s rarely an in-between), she holds numerous, often dueling meanings about the perceived state of America at any one moment.
“Unfortunately in the 2016 election you had a political opponent who was weaponizing the idea of the celebrity endorsement,” she told Vogue. “(Then-candidate Donald Trump) was going around saying, I’m a man of the people. I’m for you. I care about you. I just knew I wasn’t going to help.”
Her gay-friendly, among other things, political re-emergence now comes as the nation gears up for what’s sure to be a bruising 2020 election, one in which President Donald Trump is already pulling at the cultural fabric in order to cement his reelection. Swift surely won’t swing an election, but if her stepping-in-from-the-sidelines approach to 2020 reflects a broader trend compared to 2016, it could be a difference-maker.
And yet, despite Swift’s ostensible centrality in certain parts of the election chatter, so little, looking back, actually seemed to be about her. She was — once you peel back a layer — a totem of something else: many people’s broader anxieties around a high-stakes political contest. It wasn’t so much that she was mum during an election as it was that she said little during that election — one that made various social and political ills key planks of the White House.
Similarly, when Swift released her 2017 album “Reputation,” the attendant blowback is perhaps best understood as a response not to the singer but to an oft-cited data point: Fifty-three percent of white women voted for a man who was heard on tape crowing about assaulting women.
The fact that Swift was mute on political conversation but then released a record that underscored her personal feuds only seemed to give more evidence to a deep historical wound that had recently been torn open again: that of wealthy or otherwise privileged white women choosing to protect their supposed economic security over the welfare of others.
Even for neo-Nazis, whose visibility has been on the rise over the past few years, Swift’s specific allure is symbolic — largely about her iconicity as some sort of “Athena reborn.”
In other words, it’s about Swift — but also, it isn’t.
Consider, too, the times Swift has taken on the man — in the corporate and literal sense — and what those occasions have shown about sexual politics. In 2017, she received a $1 settlement in a case she brought against a DJ who had groped her, with her lawsuit saying that the move would be “an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts.” And that same year, Swift, along with several other women, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year issue (to a significant amount of controversy) as a “silence breaker” who had stepped forward to speak about sexual violence.
Swift, in those instances, was once more a kind of simulacrum. Writing for The Washington Post, Lavanya Ramanathan connected Swift’s at times humiliating lawsuit to “the burden women endure — this probing and hand-wringing and point-blank disbelief and shame and self-doubt,” and she argued that “it was as if (Swift) really was speaking for every woman.”
Likewise, for all the disagreement it triggered, the Swift/Time dispute helped pull into focus that no woman — not even a multimillionaire — is necessarily protected from systemically empowered men.
Now, jump to 2019 to see how a different though related dynamic has been on display, this time regarding LGBTQ rights. During the run-up to “Lover,” Swift completely jettisoned her past political coyness, in ways both subtle and obvious.
Her aesthetic, compared to the black-and-white of the “Reputation” era, is now saturated with bright colors — with Pride-friendly rainbows, to be exact. Just check out the music video for the new album’s first single “ME!” or its follow-up “You Need to Calm Down,” the latter of which also features a small army of queer luminaries such as RuPaul and Ellen DeGeneres. More overtly, in April, Swift donated $113,000 to the LGBTQ advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project, and in October 2018, ahead of the midterm elections, she used Instagram to endorse two Tennessee Democrats.
Unsurprisingly, queer people’s reactions have been mixed. Some have been scratching their heads over whether Swift was queer-baiting (for profit or for her, well, reputation), while others point out that she’s genuinely trying to put her massive platform to good use (her friend Todrick Hall, himself gay, told BuzzFeed News’ AM to DM last week that it’s no little thing for someone like Swift, whose fan base straddles the political spectrum, to be vocal about LGBTQ rights).
Again, however, the crux of the conversation seems to speak less to Swift and more to the climate of the current political season. In particular, the praise and critiques both grapple with questions of what queer audiences, in particular, expect from their gay icons: Should their art be explicitly queer? What if it smacks of the cringey portrayals of queerness that were so common in decades past? Is that better than silence? And does that matter if these figures also support their queer fans in other, more directly political ways? It’s about Swift — but also, it isn’t.
This isn’t to strip Swift of her own singular agency. One of the words perhaps most attached to her is manicured. Beyond her sizeable musical talents, Swift is a smart, savvy businesswoman. It’s fair to assume that she has a firm grasp on the complex pas de deux between Swift the person and Swift the persona, and how this interplay fits into the culture at large.
That said, it’s hard to think about Swift these days and not also think about how she’s become someone whom so many Americans channel their ideas of life through. In her 2004 book “The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” literary scholar Sarah Churchwell writes that she’s “interested in the shame, belittlement and anxiety that we bring” to the life and legacy of Monroe. The same could be said of Swift. As discussion swirls around her new album in the days ahead, it makes sense to ask: Are people talking about Swift, really? Or about something bigger?