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Hearing Both Sides of Taylor Swift

Since the 2016 election, she has been criticized for refusing to engage with national politics, or speaking out against the hate groups that celebrate her. Can a pop star afford to stay apolitical in our current climate?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On November 8, 2016, Taylor Swift made her first and final contribution to the presidential election news cycle. Joining millions of other people documenting their voting excursions via social media, Swift posted a (since-deleted) Instagram photo of herself in line at her local polling place and wrote: “Today is the day. Go out and VOTE.”

Up to that point, Swift had not so much as hinted at her preference for a candidate or engaged with the presidential election publicly. And because the image offered no allegiance to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, bloggers immediately combed it for even the slightest hint of a political affiliation. “Who did Taylor Swift vote for? Here’s why her sweater suggests Hillary,” read one particularly bizarre USA Today headline. (The article and several others theorized that Swift’s shoulderless top was similar to something that both Lena Dunham and Hillary Clinton once wore.)

On November 9, as the world grappled with the news that Donald Trump would be the 45th president of the United States, Entertainment Weekly offered a recap of Instagram’s most popular Election Day content. Most-liked posts included images from Rihanna, Demi Lovato, Kourtney Kardashian, and Ariana Grande, all of whom explicitly endorsed Hillary Clinton. But it was Swift’s innocuous, candidate-less photo that earned the most likes — 2.1 million, to be exact.

Pop music is fun to listen to; it can also capture an abstract portrait of a moment in time. As the media landscape has evolved to obsess over musicians’ visual aesthetics and social media presences, modern-day pop stars have come to represent much more than just the music they create. Swift, a musician who is deeply expressive about topics much more personal than politics, has found herself releasing a new album in the middle of a fraught national moment, when conflicting viewpoints about politics, race, gender, and American identity find their way into almost every conversation. She has ignored these tensions in her music and in her public persona and offered no hints as to how the election, or its consequences, has made her feel. Pop audiences are left searching for clues in an off-the-shoulder top.

Avoiding politics might once have been an advantageous business strategy for pop stars, but for Swift it has become the lens through which her actions, communication, and work are now analyzed. Post-election, an innocuous, since-deleted tweet from Swift supporting the Women’s March was met with criticism by fans who felt she should translate her feminist persona into political action. “Taylor should be going to the women’s march,” wrote @swiftcantbreak, a Twitter user whose bio reads, “been up Taylor Swift’s arse since 2008.” “Ariana, Demi, Miley…so many others are going. I think Taylor should’ve gone. Sorry not sorry.” Multiple news stories reminding us of the star’s absence followed. Later in January, the singer made headlines again after she declined to offer an opinion on Trump’s travel ban, and instead promoted her “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” music video — featuring Muslim artist Zayn Malik — amid the chaos. This August, The Daily Beast called on her to denounce her burgeoning neo-Nazi fan base as white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville. When a man described by authorities as a terrorist drove a truck into a Lower Manhattan bike lane last week and killed eight people, she posted a photo of the World Trade Center with a broken heart emoji and the words “I love you New York.”

Swift desires so much to be excluded from this particular narrative that her lawyers have worked behind the scenes to squash unfavorable stories on her behalf. When Meghan Herning, an editor at the small, left-leaning outlet PopFront, wrote a critical essay examining white supremacists’ fixation on the pop star, and her silence on the matter, Swift and her lawyer sent an intimidating letter ordering that the post immediately be removed. The letter said it should serve as an “unequivocal denouncement by Ms. Swift of white supremacy and the alt-right.” But as the ACLU later pointed out, “that denunciation would only be known by Herning because the letter also attempts to use copyright law to forbid her from making it public.” Rather than release a simple statement to address the issue, Swift preferred to secretly sic her lawyer on a little-known website. As the November 10 release of Swift’s new album approaches, she has categorically avoided anything approaching politics — going so far as to threaten legal action to avoid doing something that could be interpreted as taking a side. (A representative for Swift did not respond to request for comment for this piece.)

That the anniversary of the election aligns with the debut of new Swift music is probably just a coincidence, but it highlights how much her narrative, and that of pop music, has shifted in the past year. The Trump administration’s approaches toward immigration, the environment, civil rights, international policy, law enforcement, and health care have created a pressurized media environment, where every day’s news serves the opportunity to speak up on social media; most televised award shows, with the exception of the CMAs, have become woke-fests; and entertainment that engages with the issues is critically lauded by default. The political and media climate has also galvanized artists to be more issues oriented in their music and messaging to fans.

Swift’s Reputation remains on lockdown somewhere on Jack Antonoff’s hard drive, but everything we’ve seen — its cover art, four singles, two music videos, and various corporate partnerships — indicates that the singer has made a solipsistic album about her own fame. The heavy-handed music video for her first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” ran through a mishmash of her old personas, drudged up her petty disputes with Kanye West and Katy Perry, and featured a tombstone that had “Here lies Taylor Swift’s reputation” written on it. The song premiered at no. 77 on the Billboard Hot 100, and eventually spent three weeks in the no. 1 spot before it was bumped by “Bodak Yellow” — a song by Cardi B, who calls Trump a “carrot face” and used a recent VMAs presenting gig to shout-out Colin Kaepernick. On the week of Reputation’s release, “Look What You Made Me Do” now sits at no. 34 on the Hot 100 — a significantly poor showing in comparison with her 1989 singles. Swift’s promotional singles “… Ready for It?” and “Gorgeous” have had an equally underwhelming reception; the convoluted sci-fi music video for “… Ready for It?” in particular was widely mocked. Even fans eager to like it wrote overly analytical Tumblr theses in an attempt to ascertain its meaning.

There are many reasons Swift’s new work appears not to be resonating as deeply with audiences — the music is too far removed from Swift’s original sound, 2017 has been a generally tepid year for commercial pop, Swift is suffering from inevitable overexposure — but one of the most persuasive is that it feels oddly divorced from its time. In a moment when distinct battle lines have been drawn in social and political conversations, Swift is still making a play to win over the entire world. This raises a question: Can a pop star afford to be apolitical in 2017?

Taylor Swift performing in Houston in February.
Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for DIRECTV

Let’s clear this up now: Taylor Swift could not have won Hillary Clinton the election.

The celebrity endorsement has become a post-election fixation, in large part because of the significant role famous names played in last year’s race. In the primaries, Bernie Sanders generated attention for his alliance with Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike, and stars like Lena Dunham and Katy Perry became emblematic — and sometimes problematic — think-piece fixtures of the Clinton campaign. (The multiple former Clinton campaign employees I reached out to for this story did not respond.) Meanwhile, despite little support from mainstream entertainers, Donald Trump’s band of advisers grew so infamous for their outlandish statements that they cultivated their own form of celebrity power. But even if stars help candidates generate headlines, rally crowds, or raise money, there’s little evidence that they can win over voters.

A surrogate’s influence has always been hard to measure, according to Jim Hobart, a partner at the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. “From a polling perspective when we ask those questions, people do not like to admit that someone is going to have an influence on the way they vote,” Hobart told me. “Typically no matter who you test, you get a lukewarm response.”

Even if a celebrity boasts a massive online audience, that doesn’t guarantee those users will interact with or even acknowledge substantive political content. Ezra Mechaber, a former Obama administration digital strategist who now manages advocacy and branding campaigns, said that major stars don’t necessarily have intimate connections with their fan bases. “YouTube influencers tend to make really good validators because they talk to their fans way more than someone like a Brad Pitt,” he said. “He may have a ton of star power, but there’s no community engagement. Someone like a Hank or John Green just talking to the fans has way more pull, to the extent that they’re able to pull someone along for a pretty fundamentally political ask.”

Swift may be known for surprising her band of teen supporters with spontaneous Tumblr and Twitter likes, but that doesn’t mean that she’s established a close relationship with their community. “Taylor Swift very much falls on the Brad Pitt end of the spectrum,” Mechaber said. “I think she does a lot of things that look fan engagement–y. But how much of it is her deep in the weeds on her fandom, or how much it is someone from her team finding posts for her to look at, I don’t know.”

Clinton’s final election stretch offers the best evidence that celebrity surrogates can’t convert voters. “If there were any measurable effect, the easiest way to do that is to look at [the 2016] election,” Hobart said. “Hillary Clinton had a huge rally in Philadelphia and a huge rally in Cleveland. Jay-Z was there, Beyoncé was there, Bruce Springsteen was there, Katy Perry was there. It was a full slate of celebrity endorsers. If you look at turnout in those areas, especially in Philadelphia, it was still lower than what she would’ve liked. From that standpoint you could say that the rally, and all the celebrities there, had no quantifiable impact on the race.” What then–USC political professor Dan Schnur told CBS in 2012 still holds today: “Surrogates don’t win or lose elections.”

Still, knowing what we do about Taylor Swift’s roots and fan base, there’s a competing media narrative that insists she could’ve helped Clinton win, or, more crucially, is at fault for not trying, and examining the public identity she’s built helps to explain why. As Swift’s early press materials tell it, the 27-year-old grew up on a Christmas tree farm in rural Pennsylvania. Her father, a descendant of three generations of bank presidents, is a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch, and her mother worked in finance. The two had amassed their own fortune long before their daughter had the wherewithal to buy them a $2.5 million mansion in Nashville.

Still, Swift has made a career out of playing the underdog. “I was the girl who didn’t get invited to parties,” she told Rolling Stone in 2009. “But if I did happen to go, you know, no one would throw a bottle at my head.” These experiences may have been inspiration for her early, outsider-themed hits like “You Belong With Me” and “Mean,” and she has since integrated anti-bullying messages into her brand — whether that’s in the form of a song, encouraging personal messages to fans, or the speech she routinely gave on her 1989 tour. “When you start to compare yourself to other people, please change the channel in your mind to something else,” Swift said in one YouTube clip from the tour. “Because I think that when it comes to how we see ourselves, other people are really mean, but we are really mean to ourselves. So it’s easy to get confused.”

As the focus of Swift’s world went from her adolescent social life to one filled with famous friends and tabloid-friendly romances, her public values began to evolve. In 2012, she deflected questions about whether she was a feminist. But two years and a friendship with Lena Dunham later, she embraced the term. “As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities,” she told The Guardian. “What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.” She soon became more comfortable applying feminism’s basic concepts to her persona. The slideshows that showed all the men she’d dated were “incredibly sexist,” she told Vogue, as was the media’s casting of her as a desperate, clingy girlfriend. “Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born,” she told Maxim in a 2015 interview. “So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality.” Soon after, Swift began her associations with the group of women that became known — thanks to well-promoted concert appearances and professionally documented weekend getaways — as her squad. In a Vanity Fair profile, she joked about her plans to meet up with Emma Watson later in the day: “It’s gonna be a feminist rally!”

When 2016 presented plenty of feminist rallies for Swift to attend, however, she was nowhere to be seen. The pop star wasn’t the only major musician to skip the election — fellow celebrity opt-outers include Bruno Mars, Selena Gomez, and Dolly Parton — but her identity as a privileged white woman became a focal point. From the wreckage of Trump’s victory came an exit-poll statistic that has been repeated again and again in the liberal media and among intersectional feminists: 53 percent of American white women voted for Trump. According to research firm Music Watch Inc., Swift’s most passionate fans are 59 percent female, and more than one-third of them are over 50. The majority of voters over 50 also voted for Trump. Swift launched her career as a country musician, a genre that has long correlated with more conservative ideologies. Separately, Swift hails from Pennsylvania, a crucial state that Trump won and that even Hobart admits would’ve been an “interesting” place to see her stump.

More than 120 million votes were cast in the presidential election, but its winner was determined by a mere 77,000 of them in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Separated among those three states, the crowds are even easier to visualize: In Michigan, Trump won by 10,704 votes, in Wisconsin by 27,748 votes, and in Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes. By comparison, Swift’s 2015 concert at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field reportedly drew about 55,000 people. It’s tempting to put on a Charlie Day conspiracy theory hat and start drawing lines between these quantifiable groups of Trump voters and a few potential Swift appearances, especially when those voters directly resonate with her foundational identity as a country artist. No matter how little experts say surrogates matter, Swift has been blamed for her inaction. And by doing nothing, she has eroded the support of liberal listeners who see her refusal to take a stand as evidence that she prioritizes making money over doing moral good. But even if her more conservative fans are pacified by her silence, that hasn’t made much of a difference on the charts.

Katy Perry and Hillary Clinton during a get-out-the-vote event in 2016.

While Swift has been lambasted for standing for nothing, her longtime rival Katy Perry swung her socially conscious pendulum in the opposite direction and clearly overshot. This summer, Perry billed her new album, Witness, as “purposeful pop.” Its first single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” was a satirical disco jam that suggested none of us were really as free as we thought. But her strategy unraveled quickly. Her bizarre press tour included a marathon livestream of her life in which she held chats about cultural appropriation with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson and ranked her exes’ sexual abilities with James Corden. She danced alongside drag queens and Migos in a cringeworthy, dab-filled Saturday Night Live appearance. In interviews, she claimed to “know nothing” — a phrase she included in her Twitter bio and wore on a shirt while practicing yoga — but fumbled to express if there was any significance to that statement. The entire blitz felt like an inauthentic conflation of personal growth and personal branding, which might help explain why Witness became the least commercially successful album of Perry’s career.

Protest music has never been a surefire way to break through the charts — not even in 1968, when you could argue the genre was at its heyday. But many artists have seen success weaving social messaging into their general auras. Not all the songs on Beyoncé’s 2016 album, Lemonade, dealt directly with the experience of black women in America, but the presentation of her music — from her surprise Super Bowl performance to the accompanying HBO special of her album — integrated explicit imagery to nod to those themes, and her album still sold millions. Her husband Jay-Z’s new album, 4:44, included a track titled “The Story of O.J.” that addresses the African American community’s struggle with economic inequality. It was accompanied by an animated music video that alluded to the Ku Klux Klan, slavery, and racial violence; he later performed music from the album on Saturday Night Live dressed in a teamless Colin Kaepernick jersey. Demi Lovato has focused on issues of immigration in her social media posts and interviews, and recently recorded a message of support to Dreamers for a Spotify playlist titled “No Moment for Silence.” She’s one of the few female pop artists whose new music has performed well on the charts this year.

Though Lady Gaga declined to get political during her Super Bowl performance, she has publicly criticized the Trump administration for everything from its attempted transgender military ban to inaction on gun control. After Trump signed the executive order that became known as the Muslim ban, Rihanna called him an “immoral pig” and Sia encouraged people to give to the ACLU by offering to match donations up to $100,000. Even if an artist like Rihanna hasn’t waded into issues-based music or imagery, her political affirmations on social media and consistent charity work have nonetheless signaled to fans that she’s paying attention. This well-defined identity is inseparable from her multihyphenate empire, which includes the no. 1 single “Wild Thoughts,” a fashion line with Puma, and the highly successful Fenty Beauty. Ditto with someone like Jennifer Lopez, who has been active in drumming up funds for Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster relief and used a presenting gig at the Grammys to allude to the current political climate without ever naming Donald Trump. “At this particular moment in history, our voices are needed more than ever,” she said.

There’s plenty to indicate that casual listeners, at the very least, appreciate a certain moral consistency. Mechaber points to one recent study by Drexel University associate marketing professor Daniel Korschun, which sought to understand why certain companies were expected to offer an opinion on divisive issues, while other companies like Morgan Stanley or Chevron seemed to escape the same fate. He set up a simple field experiment among a small group of Mechanical Turk participants (temporary workers you can hire from Amazon’s freelance marketplace). In it, he exposed them to information about the values of a pharmacy chain just before they went shopping at one of its stores. They were also asked to read a news article that reported the company had either taken a stand for or against proposed gun control legislation, or abstained altogether. His experiment found that, despite participants’ political views, purchasing behavior was most negatively affected if a values-oriented brand chose to say nothing. “Additional experiments reveal that consumers behave this way because they find it hypocritical for a company that claims to be ‘guided by core values’ to then withhold its position on a political issue,” wrote Korschun. “The implication appears to be that the company is hiding something and therefore trying to deceive its customer base. Conversely, reinforcing expectations may forge trust and enhance relationships with customers.” Former publicist and gossip columnist Rob Shuter translated this sentiment to the entertainment industry in an interview with The Ringer last year: “Things now are so toxic that I think to say nothing is compliance. Staying in the middle can probably be more dangerous to your career than actually taking a side.”

Korschun’s experiment is just one of many studies that suggest how important it is for brands to display some kind of moral conscience. “Millennials’ suspicion towards businesses’ motives coupled with a desire to actively make an impact on the world has given birth to a new, overwhelming demand for [corporate social responsibility],” reads a recent article from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “Rather than blindly patronizing corporations with unclear intentions and shady operations, millennials strongly favor businesses with transparency and a clear commitment to give back to society.” A 2015 report from Nielsen found that 73 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable brands; another from the marketing company Horizon Media found that 81 percent of them expect companies to make a public commitment to “good corporate citizenship.” We may think of Taylor Swift as a talented individual with two adorable cats, but with her advertising deals, merchandising sales, music revenue, and concert sales, she is also basically a corporation.

Clinton and Beyoncé at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Cleveland.
Photo by Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

Some basic streaming data provided by Pandora appears to at least partially back the theory that people prefer musicians who stand for something. At The Ringer’s request, the streaming radio service tracked the percentage increase of which users added “artist stations” and “track stations” to their playlists for two groups of artists. The first group included some of 2016’s most high-profile issues-based musicians — a list we curated based on an artist’s relative name recognition and tendency to engage with political and social issues: Bruce Springsteen, Chance the Rapper, Katy Perry, Ted Nugent, Azealia Banks, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and John Legend. The second group included popular musicians who’d mostly stayed mum on the topic: Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Carrie Underwood, and Bruno Mars. In the first group, some subscriptions went up, and some went down, which suggests that political engagement is not the only factor at work here; the fact that Beyoncé’s artist and track station subscriptions overwhelmingly decreased, for instance, may have had more to do with the fact that her most recent album, Lemonade, and its accompanying film were tied up in exclusive deals on HBO and Tidal, and not immediately available to stream on Pandora. But in the second group, every single name saw a drop from October 2015 to October 2017.

Data pulled for The Ringer by Nielsen — which consolidates physical and digital song and album sales with streaming numbers — shows a slightly different pattern. In the political category, the artists that saw an overall increase in sales and streams over the past two years were largely the ones who backed the Democratic nominee: Chance the Rapper, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and John Legend. (Though Ted Nugent and Azealia Banks saw only slight decreases of under 20 percent.) In the second group, every artist’s numbers decreased with the exception of Bruno Mars’s. Swift’s numbers decreased from 2015 to 2016 by 16 percent, and by 24 percent the following year.

The Ringer also asked Spotify to examine similar data on the streaming performances of artists from both lists between 2015 and 2017. Though the platform didn’t share the raw numbers it pulled, it found no correlation between artists being outspoken and their number of listens. In examining all the statistics we collected, it’s helpful to note that there are plenty of factors that influence these numbers outside of the political realm. An artist who released new music during this two-year period, for example, is more likely to see a bump. The lackluster debuts of Swift’s new music might also be explained by the fact that it doesn’t follow recent music trends that favor less-produced vocals — and in turn, maybe less-produced artists. “People go in and out of how much reality they want out of entertainment,” said Nick Sylvester, a producer, songwriter and cofounder of the Brooklyn-based music company Godmode. “The rules of authenticity change. And Taylor Swift happens to be from an era where there was just a little bit more polish. There’s a kind of pop sheen to her, and that’s just not really what people are responding to musically.”

That the megastar is out of step with 2017’s musical trends may also indicate that she may no longer be connecting with the public like she once was. In the past, Swift was known for delighting fans with off-the-cuff interactions on social media, going so far as to play along with a popular meme on Tumblr by donning a specially made “no its Becky” shirt. But as she has withdrawn from the internet during the past year, those interactions appear to be less motivated by an interest in internet culture and more strategically timed to exhaustive promotional rollouts. In early October, she made headlines when she began responding to her fans’ Instagram stories with stray emoji and compliments, a move that was conveniently timed ahead of the premiere of a new Swift Life app that promises direct engagement with the singer. “Music is never just about the sound,” said Sylvester. “It’s about the person who’s singing the song, it’s about the moment the song comes out, it’s about where it comes out. It might not just be politics, it might be the fact that she’s no longer engaged in the way that people are engaged.”

A lack of connection to the general public, however, might not necessarily do much to slow Swift’s finely tuned money-making machine. The album has already reached 400,000 pre-orders, and has become Target’s largest pre-sale album of all time. According to Catherine Moore, a professor of music technology and digital media at the University of Toronto, streaming royalties and record sales are by no means the most lucrative revenue sources for major celebrities like Swift. The singer has already secured advertising deals with the likes of Target, AT&T, UPS, ABC, and ESPN college football coverage, and released the aforementioned app aimed at her superfans. The money Swift will earn from her merchandising and live performances will likely overshadow any significant slump in consumption of her new music, says Moore. The 1989 tour grossed $184.5 million alone.

“It’s the same with big sports stars or any kind of celebrities,” Moore said. “Whether it’s actors or television. These entertainers are very big organized businesses that aren’t easily toppled.” And even if Swift’s new music isn’t as commercially or critically acclaimed as her past releases, Moore says that brands are rarely discouraged by even that. “Brand deals are not usually tied to an album cycle, though they can be tied to a tour. Thus, as long as the brand benefits through a music-based campaign, a weak album cycle for an artist wouldn’t matter,” she said. How companies choose their brand ambassadors, however, may have more of an impact down the line. A 2015 Digiday article explored how ad agencies also consult third-party firms like Networked Insights to gauge the public’s sentiment about potential celebrity sponsors, and look beyond massive follower counts, before recommending them to brands. In a time when more companies are expected to claim a moral stance in a political climate divided by extremes, that sentiment is something that could make or break a star’s chance at future opportunities.

Swift is an excellent businesswoman, and has likely made the calculation of how to address her personal politics by using much more detailed demographics of her fan base than I have. She did, after all, have 2.1 million Instagram likes on Election Day. Her corporate sponsorships are legion; her album is on track to outsell most every record in 2017. At the same time, her singles are underperforming, her critical supporters have fled, and conversations about her avoidance, complicity, and general disconnectedness have persisted a year into the Trump presidency. Her image, once sunny and inviting and seemingly unimpeachable, has suffered.

Swift’s determined uninterest may not have lost her any fans, but the current state of her empire suggests that it has not earned her any, either — and that a loss of influence in any domain, musical or political, can quickly infect the other aspects of a brand. After all, you can exclude yourself from only so many narratives until you fade into irrelevance.

This piece was updated after publication to reflect a change in the Billboard Hot 100 position of “Look What You Made Me Do.”


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