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A Politics That Requires Taylor Swift Is Not Healthy or Durable

The singer made news with the first real political statement of her career. It was overdue—and oddly depressing.
Taylor Swift accepts the Artist of the Year award during the 2018 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on October 9th, 2018.

Taylor Swift accepts the Artist of the Year award during the 2018 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on October 9th, 2018.

For a long time, Taylor Swift's biggest political failure was silence. After Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election, speculation ran hot around the question of whom Taylor Swift had voted for. On election day that year, Swift had posted a noncommittal Instagram photo of her pointing to the "VOTERS ENTRANCE" sign outside her polling place. "Today is the day," the caption read. "Go out and VOTE."

Beyond this milquetoast rallying cry, there was no indication of what Swift's voting itself had looked like. When the now-infamous 2016 data came back showing that 53 percent of white women voters had gone for Trump, Swift became a scapegoat in some corners. People of color, specifically women, were justifiably angry at these numbers, feeling once again let down by the political actions of white women, while various progressive white women expressed frustration at how their peers were holding back progress. Swift, at the center of this debate by virtue of her success and iconography, kept silent, which only fueled further speculation about her possible complicity.

Swift wasn't entirely politically inactive. Last fall, she threatened to sue a blogger who had compared her to Hitler—a gesture that implied as much about her political commitments as it did about her comfort with using her considerable power. But Swift never cleared the air about her politics, nor did she take pains to reject the alt-right's fascination with her, even as writers and critics urged her to do so.

Finally, last week, after 12 years of politically coy pop stardom, Swift once again took to Instagram to clear the air. She acknowledged that she'd long been silent on politics but said that she could no longer sit idly by. Further, she endorsed two Tennessee Democrats, Phil Bredesen for United States Senate and incumbent Congressman Jim Cooper. She also wrote: "I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent."

Swift's political debut was surprising, since for a long time she'd seemed more interested in protecting her commercial prospects than in standing up for basic humanitarian principles. But I'm still unsure about the role that extremely famous musicians play, or should play, in national politics. While I don't look to musicians for political insights, I'll admit that when a musician keeps mum, it seems odd, almost suspicious. Whenever I hear or see a version of the line that "I don't talk politics," I become instantly skeptical about how that speaker moves through the world: Who are they afraid of offending, and why? I also inform my listening choices based off of political actions. Not listening to abusers is political. Not listening to Ted Nugent, who spouts about his racist views on television, is also political.

I am invested in the musician who at least tries to gesture toward politics, in their work or outside of it, and while political analysis is hardly my first priority, I appreciate the gesturing—because without it, I'm left to my original questions about how one can move through this world without engaging in what must unavoidably be called "politics." It becomes glaring when one of the biggest pop stars in the world remains silent while the world burns, particularly because her peers—including artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and even Justin Bieber—have made a point of expressing their political opinions, on matters small and large.

The alt-right projected their desires onto Swift, latching on to her aesthetic as blonde, thin, pretty, with a look they deemed traditionally all-American. For those on the alt-right, laying claim to Swift seemed both aspirational and fun, another meme they could use to anger liberals. For people on the left, Swift's neutrality made her utterly plausible as the type of white woman who could totally vote for Trump: wealthy, a feminist but not a troublesome (or intersectional) one, someone who often casts herself in the role of a victim, whether justified or not.

Swift's debut political statement has also put her and her old foe Kanye West once more at odds. The two have been in an odd, tense tug-of-war since 2007, when West infamously interrupted and upstaged Swift as she was receiving an honor at the MTV Video Music Awards. Lately, West has embraced the MAGA crowd, donning the red hat in Instagram videos while proposing various wannabe-provocative ideas and lecturing fans about how slavery was a choice (or a "mindset"). It all feels like a performance from West, but it has endeared him to the right in stunning fashion: West met with the president at the White House last week, and has cemented himself as a figure of adoration for Trump and his supporters—a new, cool black person to trot out and celebrate, in a party where very few people match that description.

Of course, West wasn't always seen this way by conservatives. For years, right-wing commentators decried West as arrogant, annoying, talentless, and reverse-racist after he declared, on live TV during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that President George W. Bush didn't care about black people,. Now that Swift is making political proclamations, right-wing commentators are weaponizing the new Kanye West against her, with Fox News talking heads insisting that Swift should stick to music—even as they continue to embrace West's self-styled political shift. The conservative movement is always excited to pretend that a movement of black people is exiting the Democratic Party.

The people on the right praising Kanye West aren't actually praising Kanye West; they're selectively praising a very specific role that Kanye West can perform for them. Americans love the rich and famous to define our miseries and joys, or at least add some coloring to them, preferably on our terms. For a long time, there was a tension to Swift's silence because there were two sides waiting to claim the singer for themselves. There's a desperation to this that I'm not sure serves anyone. And still, I get it. I take part in that cycle, even as it feels a bit like moving around action figures, running them into each other and hoping the victor will give some grand answer about the state of the world. I am happy that Taylor Swift finally spoke up, and I am happy that she encouraged some young people to vote. I also hope that all of us can learn to adjust our desire for answers from people who simply may not have them.