Late last month, amid another week of controversies and Twitter-induced firestorms from the president of the United States, one of the world’s most widely read newspapers thundered at … Taylor Swift.
“In the year since Donald Trump was elected, the entertainment world has been largely united in its disdain for his presidency,” the Guardian, a left-leaning British paper, wrote in a bizarre, unsigned editorial. “But a notable voice has been missing from the chorus: that of Taylor Swift, the world’s biggest pop star. Her silence is striking, highlighting the parallels between the singer and the president: their adept use of social media to foster a diehard support base; their solipsism; their laser focus on the bottom line; their support among the ‘alt-right.’”
The paper went on to detail a raft of complaints about Swift. That her songs “echo Mr Trump’s obsession with petty score-settling in their repeated references to her celebrity feuds, or report in painstaking detail on her failed romantic relationships.” How she has “directed her extraordinary self-promotional skills towards cultivating a dedicated and emotional army of followers.” That her coterie of friends and hangers-on is “largely thin, white and wealthy.”
Swift’s suspicious reticence, the editorial concludes, must be “a product of her inward gaze, perhaps, or her pettiness and refusal to concede to critics. Swift seems not simply a product of the age of Trump, but a musical envoy for the president’s values.”
And this was hardly the first time a news outlet had called out Swift, a superstar so famous that she has resorted to hiding behind umbrellas, propped up curtains and walking backwards to avoid being photographed. Her most recent album, Reputation, has already sold 1.6 million copies in just 3 weeks. Since last summer, when Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, the Pennylvania-born and Tennessee-bred singer has been barraged by demands from liberals that she denounce him—despite the fact that she rarely voices a political opinion, let alone one about the world’s most polarizing man. During the 2016 campaign, media outlets scrutinized Swift’s social feeds for signs of her political leanings—and some writers demanded she denounce Trump after his “Access Hollywood” tape went public. At one point, Mashable even speculated that an Instagram post showing Swift with a bare shoulder was actually a secret sign that she was voting for Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, Taylor Swift was the top name for those searching for celebrities’ voting preferences.
But why? Why does anyone care what this 27-year-old music artist who was so devoted to her craft that her parents moved to Nashville when she was 14, this singer who never attended a day of college, thinks about the president of the United States?
“It’s almost like a knee-jerk thing,” says Shaun Cullen, who teaches about contemporary culture and popular music at Middle Tennessee State University. “You’re supposed to signify your solidarity or opposition to whatever Trump is doing if you’re in that tribe or to criticize the liberal media if you’re in the other tribe.”
But which tribe is Taylor Swift in?
In the course of her career, with few exceptions, Swift has always said she sticks to music, not politics. At a time when nearly every aspect of American culture is politicized—singers, actors, late-night hosts, TV networks and even car-sharing services are expected to align themselves with one side of the cultural divide or the other—it can come across as an odd idiosyncracy, not a principled stance.
But Swift has been impressively consistent on this front. Her polite side-stepping of thorny political questions dates back to 2008, when she participated in Lifetime Television’s “Every Woman Counts,” a bus tour aimed at boosting female participation in politics. The network described it as “the only public service campaign dedicated to encouraging women to speak out on the issues they care about most”—but like most corporate-run events, the women were not really meant to speak out much at all.
And Swift was the perfect front woman for this non-campaign campaign. “I’m not gonna sit here and go into my political views cause that’s not what I chose to do. I chose to do music,” she said when asked about her beliefs in an interview with the network. Her stance since then has remained more or less the same—though at times she’s hinted at anodyne, mainstream views that could be interpreted as liberal.
Later that year, for instance, Swift filmed a PSA for an LGBT organization following the death of a teenager from an anti-gay hate crime and told Seventeen magazine, “My parents taught me never to judge others based on whom they love, what color their skin is, or their religion.” In 2009, after Barack Obama’s election, she gave Rolling Stone an artfully worded non-endorsement of the results. “I’ve never seen this country so happy about a political decision in my entire time of being alive,” she said. “I’m so glad this was my first election.” Swift, the writer observed, seemed “constantly worried about saying something that could be construed as offensive to her fans.”
Swift has spent time with the Kennedy family and spoke admiringly of Ethel Kennedy when she dated Ethel’s grandson Conor in 2012. She called herself a “huge fan” of Michelle Obama’s when the then-first lady presented her with an award for her philanthropic efforts. Yet when pressed on the election that year, she reiterated, “I try to keep myself as educated and informed as possible. But 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.” At the time, Swift was a 22-year-old woman who had already amassed a fortune in the tens of millions.
She has expressed support for feminism and gay marriage but only in recent years, once the cultural tide had firmly shifted. As the 2016 election approached, pressure mounted on Swift to endorse a candidate, with headlines reading “Taylor Swift’s Loud Election Silence” and “It’s time for Taylor Swift to say something about Donald Trump.” Her only comment was a picture of herself on Election Day with the caption, “Today is the day. Go out and VOTE.”
taylor swift finally told u who she's voting for with a SWEATER. i'm screaming pic.twitter.com/aqECzAkCOh
— Kaitlyn Tiffany (@kait_tiffany) November 8, 2016
Swift is an anomaly in an industry in which most of her peers are eager to distance themselves from Trump, and thus many see her refusal to condemn him as a tacit approval. Even Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood—two country artists who are hardly known as political—mocked him at the Country Music Association awards last month.
“Whether pop stars like it or not, these days all culture has become politicized,” says Cullen. “And she’s not a political artist, so she’s gonna seem a little out of step with our current time.”
Yet while major male artists have remained similarly tight-lipped about their opinions, none has received the same backlash, as Swift has complained in the past about a similar double standard regarding her music. "You’re gonna have people who gonna say ‘Oh she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends,’ and I think frankly that’s a very sexist angle to take,” she told an Australian radio station. “No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises a red flag there.”
In recent interviews, she’s lamented the way female celebrities are pitted against each other, and emphasized the importance of supporting other women by bringing out many of her famous friends during her performances. She now proudly calls herself a feminist, explaining that she didn’t know what the word meant when she declined to do so earlier in her career. But her critics have zeroed in on one alleged blind spot: her approach to race.
In 2015, Swift got into a brief dustup with Nicki Minaj when the Trinidadian-American hip-hop star called out the Video Music Awards for snubbing women of color, which Swift initially misunderstood as a personal attack. “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year,” Minaj tweeted, to which Swift responded, “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Two days later, she followed up: “I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I’m sorry, Nicki.” Minaj accepted her apology and the two performed together at the VMAs that year.
Last winter, when Swift expressed support for the Women’s March on Twitter but did not attend herself, she ignited a firestorm of accusations for supposedly supporting a narrow, self-interested brand of white feminism.
“She was using popular feminism as a way to rebrand, but at least in her public persona, she hasn’t been a very political person,” says Elizabeth Affuso, who studies celebrity and popular feminism at Pitzer College. “Because she had aligned herself with ‘girl squad culture’ … there was an expectation that she might participate, which she then didn’t do.”
Swift has recently been vocal on the issue of sexual assault. She donated $250,000 to the pop singer Kesha in the midst of her lawsuit against a producer accused of drugging, raping and abusing her. She also took the witness stand for a sexual assault case this past summer, delivering blistering testimony against a radio host she said had groped her at a meet-and-greet event in 2013. On Wednesday she was featured as one of the “Silence Breakers” on the cover of Time magazine for her court battle, giving her first interview (in writing) in well over a year.
For the most part, though, Swift has been studiously apolitical to a degree that’s difficult in the Trump era—and critics assume her calculation is an economic one. Unlike most of her peers in pop, her roots are in country music, and many speculate she is fearful of alienating a large portion of her fan base who might support Trump.
“[Successful artists] have whole industries around them that they’ve built to support them, and those people—generally speaking—they only have one interest and that’s for the money to keep flowing,” explains Howie Klein, former president of Reprise Records. “I can imagine that someone like her is gonna be driven by almost her own little Taylor Swift industry around her doing quick calculations of cost-benefit analysis.”
But Hilary Rosen, a Democratic communications strategist who served as chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America for 17 years, said in an email that if artists approach politics authentically like they do with their art, “they can both accomplish a lot and keep their fans.”
The one exception, she acknowledges, is indeed country music, noting how the Dixie Chicks famously denounced President George W. Bush and the Iraq war in 2003 and were effectively exiled from the country music community. “But that is changing and there is a lot more diversity of thought,” Rosen adds. “I think that President Trump has actually pushed artists to be freer about their views because his divisiveness is as distasteful for many Republicans as it is for others.”
With so much demand for Swift to reveal her preferences, many of her friends are bombarded with questions about her in interviews, providing some of the only clues to Swift’s politics.
“I just think everyone has to do it their way,” Swift’s famously liberal friend Lena Dunham, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton, told Rolling Stone. “When I was lesser-known, I was like, ‘Who could not share their opinion?’ Then I found out that when you talk about politics, people straight up tweet you the floor plan of your house and say they’re coming to your house. You have to fucking watch it because people are nuts.”
“Many people have been tweeting me, ‘She supports Trump! She probably voted for Trump!’ They’re making this huge assumption, when Taylor has never to my knowledge come out and said anything about her being pro-Trump,” the singer and Broadway actor Todrick Hall told Yahoo! in an interview where he recalled discussing racism and watching the documentary ‘13th’ with Swift and her family at Thanksgiving dinner.
“Maybe one day, Taylor will start being super-political, and using her voice to do the things that people think that she should be doing. But even then, she will probably be ridiculed for not being vocal enough, or not being on the right side,” Hall continued. “I don’t think that there is a way to win in this industry, so every person has to take their own journey at their own pace, at their own time, and do what they feel like is right.”
“I don’t think every entertainer has to tell you exactly how they voted,” Joseph Kahn, who directed six of Swift’s music videos, told Variety. “But I think you can imply by who they are and who they hang out with what they are.”
By this logic there can be little doubt where Swift’s loyalties lie: Nearly all of those in her close circle of friends regularly express disdain for Trump and support for liberal policies on social media. One of her closest friends, the supermodel Karlie Kloss – who is dating Jared Kushner’s liberal brother, Joshua Kushner – has endorsed Hillary Clinton and criticized Trump.
She has had to break with her apolitical approach only a few times, as when she faced an uncomfortable outpouring of support among the alt-right, some of whom see the pale blonde singer as an “Aryan goddess” and claim she is a secret Nazi. In October, her attorney sent a letter to the editor of the obscure culture blog PopFront demanding a retraction of a post accusing the singer of supporting white supremacy and threatening litigation. The letter said that Swift had “repeatedly and consistently denounced white supremacy” and provided evidence in the form of a different letter sent by Swift’s lawyer and a Washington Post article that declared flatly, “Taylor Swift is not a white supremacist.”
The letter also provides one of the few public clues into Swift’s apolitical reasoning. “Ms. Swift has no obligation to campaign for any particular political candidate or broadcast her political views, and the fact that her political views are not public enough for your taste does not give you the authority to presume what her political opinions may be,” her attorney wrote. “Indeed, through this story, you attempt to impose a duty upon Ms. Swift (and only Ms. Swift) to loudly state her views on whatever hot-button issue is circulating at any given time.”
Other than that, however, she’s mostly kept her views to herself—to the chagrin of her critics.
“It doesn’t seem that anyone in Taylor Swift’s camp believes that they have an ethical obligation to pick a side,” says Affuso. “By not ascribing to any value publicly she’s allowed herself to be whatever anyone wants her to be.”