The (High?) Cost of Taylor Swift’s Liberal Awakening
Is her being a Democrat as daring as “Miss Americana” spins it?
Two years ago, Taylor Swift did what her Netflix documentary Miss Americana wants us to believe was the near-unthinkable. After years of silence (from her) and speculation (from us), she came out as … a Democrat.
It’s a transition that’s explored in detail in the critically acclaimed Miss Americana. We see how Swift completed her metamorphosis from sweet country music ingenue to defiant pop superstar, how she helped pull the #MeToo bandwagon out of the starting gate, and, most notably, how she negotiated her political awakening in 2018.
In some of the documentary’s most-engaging scenes, she stands firm while her team pleads with her to remain apolitical for the sake of her multi-platinum career. It almost feels like a cue for viewers to stand up and cheer her on. How brave! How daring!
I, for one, never thought any less of Swift while she was publicly playing Switzerland. If we all have a right to our opinions, we all have a right to keep those opinions to ourselves. That said, kudos to her for ensuring she’s on the right side of history. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves by exaggerating the bravery or daring of her coming out.
A Taylor revolution?
Swift is no Rosa Parks. She’s no Eleanor Roosevelt either. She’s not taking unprecedented positions. She’s not the first celebrity who has been publicly up with women and gays and firmly against racism and Donald Trump. Her friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again Katy Perry, among many others, beat her to that punch.
She is, however, the first one to let us know just how much she had to lose by announcing it to the world. In Miss Americana, she underscores the bravery and daring she wants us to see, wearing her feminism and gay pride on her sequined sleeve, in one more act of grand defiance.
The drama practically wrote itself. Swift is no ordinary celebrity. She’s bigger than your average superstar and, by extension, wields a much larger level of influence. But what the fans giveth, the fans can taketh away, by canceling a star for saying, doing, or posting the wrong thing.
Which brings the documentary to the million dollar question Swift and her team faced in 2018: For a Nashville-based former country star in these red-state times, would revealing herself to be a Democrat supporter have been tantamount to career suicide? It depended on which fans they considered most valuable to her continued success at the time.
Getting behind women, gays, and the Democratic alternatives to Tennessee’s Republican U.S. House of Representatives and Senate candidates in the 2018 midterm elections wasn’t such a stretch for a singer with a sizable gay following who always had been staunchly pro-feminism. Casting her Instagram vote against Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn, a woman, who, according to Swift herself in Miss Americana, “thinks that if you’re a gay couple, or even if you look like a gay couple, you should be allowed to be kicked out of a restaurant,” was the kind of thing the LGBTQ community might have expected from her anyway, if only to show solidarity with the most loyal of fans: gay men.
Getting behind women, gays, and the Democratic alternatives to Tennessee’s Republican U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate candidates in the 2018 midterm elections wasn’t such a stretch for a singer with a sizable gay following who always had been staunchly pro-feminism.
It was sort of like the homecoming queen standing up for the campus outcast against the campus bully. We should thank Swift for the music and for finally speaking up, but should we canonize her for doing what mere mortals and less prominent celebrities and some equally prominent ones do every day just because she’s a nice white girl who launched her career in the Deep South?
OK, so perhaps she had more to lose than, say, Debra Messing, the Will and Grace star who is one of the most vocal and aggressive Democrats on social media (much to Susan Sarandon’s annoyance), but once you’ve hit Swift-level multi-platinum heights, pissing off some red-state fans isn’t going to crash your career. Tim McGraw told me he was a Democrat when I interviewed him for Entertainment Weekly in 2005, and he and his wife Faith Hill have been out and proud of it for years without sacrificing their standing in country music.
Although Dixie Chicks’s sales slipped after country-radio programmers dumped them from their playlists over lead singer Natalie Maines’s anti-George W. Bush comment before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the trio still managed to score a chart-topper and five Grammys (including Album of the Year) with their 2006 album Taking the Long Way. For those with shorter memories than the Texas-bred band’s former red-state fans, during a 2003 London performance, Maines said, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with ya’ll. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The power and protection of pop stardom
Unlike Dixie Chicks, Swift didn’t really have to worry about losing the support of the country music community. In 2018, she was already an established pop sensation, even less strictly dependent on country music fans than Shania Twain was when her midriff was offending Nashville and her 1997 album Come On Over was en route to becoming the all-time best-selling album by a female artist. (Despite their political affiliations, Swift and Dixie Chicks both scored a Top 10 country hit last year with “Soon You’ll Get Better,” their collaboration on Swift’s 2019 Lover album.)
That Swift now wants us to see how difficult it was for her to bust out of the political closet feels more like a play for praise than the peeling back of layers to reveal previously unthinkable depth and daring. By the time she spoke out against Blackburn, she’d already successfully reinvented herself as the primary pop competition to Beyoncé and Adele. Coming out as a Democrat in 2016 during the Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton U.S. Presidential smackdown might have had a far greater symbolic, if not political, impact, something Swift, to her credit, acknowledges in Miss Americana.
But then, ultimately, what difference would it have made in 2016? Swift’s message to her millions of social media followers couldn’t sway the 2018 U.S. Senate election results in Tennessee, despite widespread Democrat gains around the country. Blackburn was elected, becoming the first woman to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate, while incumbent Democrat Jim Cooper retained his seat in the House of Representatives.
Why would anyone have expected a Swift surge to prevent Blackburn’s political coronation anyway? (As the incumbent candidate, Cooper already had the edge before Swift stepped in.) The net effect of Lady Gaga’s, Miley Cyrus’s, Beyoncé’s, and Katy Perry’s endorsements couldn’t keep Trump out the White House two years earlier. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider just how much power stars have over fans’ voting habits.
Celebrities may have the strength to influence teens who aren’t yet of voting age when it comes to what they wear and what they listen to, but adults aren’t quite as impressionable. Considering that just over half of adult Americans over the age of 18 exercise their right to vote, it’s hard to imagine many of them heading to the polls and voting for a Democrat just because of a Swift post on Instagram.
I’m more impressed by Swift’s feminism, mostly because it predated #MeToo, though it’s important to put that into perspective, too. While watching female talent at the February 9 Oscars slyly and not so slyly commenting on the treatment of women in Hollywood and the fact that no women were nominated for Best Director, I felt like we were back in the red-ribbon days of the early 1990s.
Rose McGowan, for once, nailed it when commenting on Natalie Portman’s Oscar cape emblazoned with the names of female directors who were left out of the Best Director running at the 2020 Academy Awards.
Some thoughts on Natalie Portman and her Oscar “protest,” she wrote on Facebook. The kind of protest that gets rave reviews from the mainstream media for its bravery. Brave? No, not by a long shot. More like an actress acting the part of someone who cares. As so many of them do.
I find Portman’s type of activism deeply offensive to those of us who actually do the work. I’m not writing this out of bitterness, I am writing out of disgust. I just want her and other actresses to walk the walk.
Female empowerment and woman power will never go out of style (one hopes), but in Hollywood, it appears to almost always revolve around well-paid (and usually white) female actors and directors. What about the everyday women around the world who have concerns much greater than whether they’ll make five million or one million for a movie and whether they’ll be nominated for a Best Director Oscar?
What about the everyday women around the world who have concerns much greater than whether they’ll make five million or one million for a movie and whether they’ll be nominated for a Best Director Oscar?
They’re the ones who often literally risk life and limb for stepping out of line. They’re the ones whose lower-than-men wages prevent them from being able to support their single-parent families. They’re the ones who don’t end up on the cover of Time magazine when they speak up about being sexually assaulted by men who promise them absolutely nothing in return.
These are the true heroes, and I wish Hollywood’s elite would make their Oscar night activism more about them. Then, perhaps, I might have been impressed by Natalie Portman’s cape and Oscar presenters Sigourney Weaver, Brie Larson, and Gal Gadot’s superwomen symbolism. I’m ready for Swift’s alleged daring to get realer, too.
I’m ready for the credits on her albums to feature female producing talent rather than being loaded with the usual all-male suspects. In her recent “You Need to Calm Down” video, she packed the onscreen celebration with big-name LGBTQ celebrities. The message I received wasn’t that she is such a great ally to the community, though I don’t doubt that she is one.
It was the perfect opportunity for her to highlight the sort of everyday LGBTQ heroes the media tend to gloss over in favor of A-listers and reality TV stars. Instead, it screams, “Look at me! I’m so popular I hang out with Ellen DeGeneres, the cast of Queer Eye, and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants! Oh, and now I’m making up with Katy Perry! The end!” It’s like watching the LGBTQ version of her old celebrity “girl squad.”
Swift’s heart, as usual, is in the right place, but I’ll save my thunderous applause for the activists and revolutionaries who risk so much more and yet remain unsung and unseen.